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The Medium of Fiction

A while back I literally pulled William Gass’s Fiction and the Figures of Life out of a dump. There were these bookshelves where anyone could leave or take books, and I guess periodically the shelves get cleared out with the rest of the trash in the junkyard. Anyway, like most books I get for $1 or less, I stuck it somewhere in my apartment and promptly forgot it existed. I finally got around to looking through it and Gass’s writing is quite interesting.

In this collection is a short work entitled "The Medium of Fiction." It’s brief–only 7 pages–but Gass fills these pages with several pondersome statements that, if thoroughly examined, would fatten this essay up.

The main thing Gass is concerned with in "The Medium of Fiction" is what these words that fiction is "made" of are. He draws a comparison to a painter, who can see the paints she works with smeared against her clothes and skin, and a composer, whose sounds are created from precise instruments and are far more detatched from connotations than words.

"Five" is no wider, older, or fatter than "four"; "apple" isn’t sweeter than "quince," rounder than "pear," smoother than "peach." To say, then, that literature is language is to say that literature is made of meanings, concepts, ideas, forms (please yourself with the term), and that these are so static and eternal as to shame the stars.

Literature consists of words (sounds) but exists in intangible concepts arbitrarily related to those sounds. In effect, Gass is telling us that literature is both mundane–a collection of sounds that are lifeless (as though "your wife were made of rubber")–yet also magical–concepts invested with feeling unique to each of us which invade and possess in ways a painting or sculpture cannot.

It is a stubborn, country-headed thing to say: that there are no events but words in fiction. Words mean things. . . .

Sculptures take up space and gather dust. Concepts do not. They take us up. . . . A piece of music can drive you out and take your place. The purpose of a literary work is the capture of consciousness, and the consequent creation, in you, of an imagined sensibility.

Words that just communicate are are the mundane pieces of rubber, the black ink on the white page that is made to be seen through. There is a devaluation that comes with too much clarity. For example:

Corporate mission statements . . . are the operational, ethical, and financial guiding lights of companies. They are not simply mottoes or slogans; they articulate the goals, dreams, behavior, culture, and strategies of companies.

Concepts are light and impossible to pin down. They lack clarity because good authors who employ them know that the very words they are made of are ambiguous and prone to varied interpretation. The above quotation seeks to possess, to force the mind to understand; the kind of writing Gass celebrates works with the consciousness to create a shared experience. It beguiles an imagination into collaboration.

Knowing this, Gass is pleased to offer us such poetics as:

I am a man, myself, intemperately mild, and though it seems to me as much deserved as it’s desired, I have no wish to steeple quires of paper passion up so many sad unelevating rears.

a sentence whose seductive hints teases the reader into discovering its meaning. It’s a sentence that takes some patience, but is rich with interpretation, and, more importantly, conveys Gass’s own experience of literature more than a precise paragraph would.

Gass wants to find meaning in literature, but only as long as finding meaning does not stifle. As he says, literature should collaborate with and provoke the consciousness so as to honor words and not reduce itself to mere sounds or colors. Interpretation should aspire to the same level of respect.

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  1. Why is Non-Fiction More Popular than Fiction The Guardian checks in with an interesting article on how the rising tide of non-fiction books threatens to swamp fiction. Although fiction still sells in...
  2. On Autobiographical Fiction There’s a post over at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind wherein the author discusses first novels. The premise is that most first novels are thinly...

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