Why Write?

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WHY WRITE?

At a recent event I hosted, I asked the assembled writers this question. Besides the “practical ordering of my reality” type of answer, there were also some surprises: one woman had been a classical singer, but failed, and needed to embark on something else having to do with language. One man said, I write to talk about what I read—equally unassuming. I began to think that it would be much more stimulating to know why certain writers wrote than to engage with anything they had written, especially fiction or poetry—two ultimate forms needing years of practice. It’s debatable who said, “Everyone has a book in them…” but the second clause of that sentence, as uttered by Christopher Hitchens, is as concretely dismissive of the first: “…but in most cases, that’s where it should stay.” Who would have thought there were so many writers, that oodles would have the calling—many thanks to the internet? Now there is no barrier to that fusty adage, but it might be better to say, Everyone has some opinions in them. Continue reading

Happy 92nd Birthday, William H. Gass!

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On the occasion of William H. Gass’s birthday, I’ve cherry-picked sentences from all of his books: a publishing career spanning five decades. This was no easy task, since his fictions and essays and interviews are troves of meticulously rendered, seemingly sculpted, sentences, each one a delight to the eye, music to the ear. I’ve chosen ninety-two in honor of his birthday, but I could easily have chosen a hundred more. Thanks, Magister Gass!

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John Matthew Fox’s “Literary Pillars”

1. Blood Meridianby Cormac McCarthy. I once suggested this as a fixture on high school reading lists and a principal told me parents would riot. I still think it belongs in every possible canon.2. The Border Trilogyby Cormac McCarthy. More ways to describe lightening than you thought possible.3. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

4. Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. The great novel of ideas.

5. House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski. Of course the inventive typography is wonderful, but the pathos within the erudition makes this book sing.

6. Blindness by Jose Saramago. Taught me the power of a “what if” premise.

7. Snow by Orhan Pamuk.

8. The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg by Deborah Eisenberg. Compression, compression, compression. She is the best at it.

9. The Collected Stores of Flannery O’Connor by Flannery O’Connor. She knows the human heart, all that is wicked and all that is good.

10. After the Quake by Haruki Murakami. Contains two of best short stories ever written. The rest are pretty good too.

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Fifty Gestures of Love, in honor of William Gass.

25 now, 25 to follow, with many thanks

1) In The Odyssey, there’s Penelope’s more intimate test of this stranger who claims to be her husband — after he’s gotten through the messy, public business of slaughtering all her suitors down in the castle hall.

2) Of course Penelope has enacted some significant gestures of love herself, during the course of her man’s wanderings, most especially the way she’s undone, every night, the shroud she’s been weaving every day, the funeral shroud for the former king, while meantime promising the suitors: just as soon as the shroud’s done…

3) But now this fellow claims to be the once and future king, and he’s proven pretty impressive, plus their son Telemachus accepts the story, the boy’s helped to cut all the pretenders to ribbons, and now the stranger stands in the bedroom, and so it’s time she too sprang a test on him. Continue reading

Big Other’s Birthday Tribute to William H. Gass, 2012

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Photo by Frank Di Piazza

It’s probably too easy a move to begin my very brief remarks about Gass’s use of architecture as a metaphor by trotting out the old horse of a quote about language being the house of Being, before flogging it to death once and for all; but it seems appropriate, nevertheless, to do so, especially when I think about Gass’s positing that the sentence is a container of consciousness. Actually, the quote from Heidegger is useful only when held in contrast with Gass’s ideas about language. Whereas Heidegger placed speech, that is, the continuum of speech, which includes talking, listening, and silence, at the center of his theory of language, Gass does not see writing as a mere supplement to speech. The continuum of writing includes four modes: persuasive, expository, expressive, and literary; and two hybrid modes: argumentative (a fusion of persuasive and expository) and critical (a fusion of expository and expressive) modes. Of these modes, it is the literary that receives the primary focus in Gass’s critical writing. And so, one might perhaps properly say that, for Gass, writing, or, rather, the sentence is the house of becoming. And what is it exactly that becomes in a sentence? For Gass, the sentence is a container of consciousness, a “verbal consciousness, of course, one built of symbols, not sensations; yet one of perceptions all the same: perceptions followed by thoughts like tracking hounds, and infused throughout by the energies of memory and desire, the moods emotions foster, and the reach, through imagery and other juxtapositions, of imagination…” (“The Aesthetic Structure of the Sentence”). Like any house, this container can take any number of forms:

[S]entences must be understood to contain all sorts of unused syntactical space; places that could be filled with more words, but, in any specific instance, aren’t…Sentences are like latticework, like fences, to be left open or prudently closed, their boards wide or narrow, pointy or level, the spaces between them, ditto….A sentence can sometimes give its reader such a strong sense of its overall character that it provokes a flight of fancy, a metaphorical description: it’s like a journey of discovery; it’s like a coil of rope, a triumphal column; it’s like a hallway or a chapel; it’s like a spiral stair. To me, for instance, Sir Thomas Browne’s triplet—“Grave stones tell truth scarce forty years. Generations pass while some trees stand, and old families last not three oak.”—with its relentlessly stressed syllables (seven strong to one weak in the first row, seven to two in the second course, and six to one in the last) resembles a wall. I can even locate spots (the weak stresses) where its stones have crumbled. Families come to pieces the way the word does.

Yes, architecture is a theme running throughout William Gass’s oeuvre, not only in his critical work but in his fictions as well, particularly in The Tunnel, where tunnel-as-metaphor is used as the very structure from which the novel is built.

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Enter and Exit Strategies: My Literary Doors and Windows

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It isn’t simply single books that have impacted my thinking, my writing, my thinking about writing, my writing about thinking, but singular artists and their respective oeuvres, each one’s so-called successes as inspiring as their so-called failures are instructive. So, what follows is a list of writers whose writing as a whole (and in some cases, their biographies, especially in regard to their work ethic, and other ethics), I consider to be important, important to me it should go without saying or writing, but likely isn’t “permitted” to go without saying in this age of having to self-effacingly preface one’s opinions with some kind of disclaimer or other.

You’ll find that my list privileges obsessive prose stylists. If a piece of writing doesn’t have this quality, I will probably have already forgotten it soon after I’ve likely given up reading it after the first few sentences I’ve had to suffer reading, while probably still remembering the writer, warning other readers to avoid his or her writing. You’ll also find me refusing to pitch my tent in either the so-called minimalist or so-called maximalist camps, or the so-called literary or so-called genre camps, refusing, in other words to think in cancelling-the-so-called-other dichotomies.

Also, I think of these writers’ writings less as literary “pillars,” than as doors or windows, of perception, yes, but also of possibility, of intelligence, of attentiveness, of innovation, of experimentation, from and through which I can enter or exit at will.

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“For Big Other on William H. Gass’s Birthday,” by Samuel R. Delany

If one tried to construct the Temple of Literature from only the fifty “pillars” below, it would collapse spectacularly. Nevertheless, here is a contingent group of titles that, to paraphrase Christopher Higgs, if I hadn’t read and reread over the years, I wouldn’t be myself. How much that is worth, I’m not sure.

1)   Djuna Barnes—Nightwood

2)   Charles H. Kahn—The Art and Thought of Heraclitus (an edition of the fragments with commentary)

3)   William Shakespeare—Sonnets, Tragedies, most of the Comedies . . .

4)   Eileen Myles—Inferno, The Importance of Being Iceland.

5)   Charlotte Brontë—Jane Eyre, Villette

6)   Jane Austen—Emma, Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion

7)   Marquis de Sade, 120 Days of Sodom, Julliette

8)   Shoshana Felman, “Turning the Screw of Interpretation” (from Writing and Madness)

9)   Herman Melville—Moby-Dick, Billy Budd, The Confidence Man, and the shorter works

10) Sir Thomas Browne—Urn Burial, Religio Medici, correspondence

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