“I suspect that in order for me to produce my best work I have to be angry,” novelist, short story writer, and essayist William H. Gass told the Paris Review in a 1976 interview. “At least I find that easy. I am angry all the time.”
That Gass, who died on Wednesday at the age of 93, was able to harness his anger in fiction is undeniable, as is the confrontational aspect of the work that resulted. “I want to rise so high,” one Gass narrator expounds, “that when I shit I won’t miss anybody.” Or, as the author himself famously put it: “I write because I hate. A lot. Hard.”
The fiction that resulted was often scabrous and irascible, peopled with characters who are dislikable and conflicted. Gass’s masterpiece, the 1995 novel The Tunnel, is a sprawling, 652-page postmodern pastiche about William Frederick Kohler, a professor of history who sits down to write the introduction to his study of Nazi Germany and ends up writing his own life story, while simultaneously digging a tunnel out from his basement office. One of the characters in the book is Kohler’s father, a bigoted, sexist, verbally abusive anti-Semite. Kohler’s mother is an alcoholic. And Kohler himself – a sexually rapacious, hateful character who espouses horrific ideas about the nature of good and evil under the Nazis – was described in one critical assessment as “abhorrent.” For Gass, this was all part of the design. “I also take considerable pleasure in giving obnoxious ideas the best expression I can,” he told the Paris Review.
Gass disagreed with his American contemporary, John Gardner, about the nature of fiction. The latter felt that it was incumbent upon fiction to act as a tool for moral improvement; Gass dismissed this idea, suggesting that the primary function of fiction was aesthetic, and that he was actually performing the function of a realist by creating characters who were complex mixtures of good and bad. “In the Victorian novel, everything is clear; in the real world, motives are mixed,” Gass told the New York Times. “People are unreliable. There are contradictions. People forget. There are omissions. You certainly don’t know everything. There aren’t good people and bad people. There are shades of this and that.”
But the confrontational elements in Gass’s fiction are not restricted to the content or the characters. They extend also to the technical form of the work, which is challenging and demanding. This, in turn, is a consequence of the author’s rigorous adherence to – not to say obsession over – the mechanics of language. For Gass, the words on the page were the alpha and the omega; the effects in his fiction derive from the way his carefully chosen words and sentences operate in tandem.
For Gass, storytelling was never about surface matters of plot or character or setting, except insofar as these could be represented in language. An early story, “The Pedersen Kid,” originated “to entertain a toothache,” but when Gass came to write it down, he found it necessary to “erase the plot to make a fiction of it.” The comments come from the preface to the story collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, in which Gass also identifies what became, for him, “an iron law of composition”:
[T]he exasperatingly slow search among the words I had already written for the words which were to come, and the necessity for continuous revision, so that each work would seem simply the first paragraph rewritten, swollen with sometimes years of scrutiny around that initial verbal wound, one of the sort you hope, as François Mauriac has so beautifully written, “the members of a particular race of mortals can never cease to bleed.”
The process Gass describes feels remarkably close to the practice of poets, and helps explain why he only published three novels (along with The Tunnel, there is Omensetter’s Luck from 1966 and Middle C from 2013) along with stories, novellas, and a somewhat more voluminous number of essays. (It took three decades to compose The Tunnel, and even the preface to In the Heart of the Heart of the Country was apparently revised twice.)
In his adherence to the primacy of aesthetics, Gass was remarkably consistent across genres. His essays and criticism outlined the same principles that appear in action in his fiction. As Daniel Green remarks in Beyond the Blurb, Gass “is among those few critics who have persisted in defending the aesthetic integrity of literature in an era when literary criticism has increasingly come to regard the aesthetic as an embarrassing frill or an outright impediment to the enlistment of literature in various ideological agendas or in a program of social or moral improvement.”
It is little wonder that Gass is not more well-known among the general reading public, although his influence on a generation of American writers has been profound. Writing in the New York Times, Dee Wedemeyer calls Gass “one of the most respected authors never to write a bestseller.” Perhaps one reason for this is that Gass always seemed to be decades ahead of his time; it may simply be that the reading public needs time to catch up with him. Reviewing The Tunnel in 1995, Robert Kelly called it an “infuriating and offensive masterpiece,” and said “it will be years before we know what to make of it.”
Not that Gass seemed to mind never having achieved mass approbation. “Writing is a way of making the writer acceptable to the world – every cheap, dumb, nasty thought, every despicable desire, every noble sentiment, every expensive taste,” he told the Paris Review. “There isn’t very much satisfaction in getting the world to accept and praise you for things that the world is prepared to praise. The world is prepared to praise only shit.”