Hugh Kenner Hits a Home Run

Wouldn’t it take an outsider to aptly critique the American scene, the American people, the American culture? Hugh Kenner, a Canadian, did this at the end of a section devoted to Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams in his book A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers. A book dedicated to Guy Davenport. A book on Donald Barthelme’s syllabus.

Continue reading

Big Other’s 50 Pillars, compiled

Me being me, I see vast amounts of data, and I want to analyze it! So here is something of a meta-list, compiled from all all the posts from 30 July. (Essentially, I made one big list, then saw who came up the most.)

Which authors, then, were most mentioned? Upon which literary pillars does Big Other rest?

Continue reading

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

A Medley of Gass Interviews and His Influence

Over at the Reading William Gass website, curated by Stephen Schenkenberg, a video has been unearthed of Gass talking in Paris about five years ago. He reads from The Tunnel for a short time–then excitedly talks about the sentence. It’s a marvel.

There is a great new Bookworm interview with Gass about Life Sentences.

At Word Patriots, Mark Seinfelt interviewed Gass twice: once about his new book and once about Stanley Elkin. There are also three shows dedicated to Paul West.

Finally, my essay at The Kenyon Review–On Influence: Starting and Stopping Cracks–takes some lines of Gass as a starting point for a meditation on writing and art. The first paragraph:

Why not stand up straight for art? Rainer Maria Rilke’s older lover, Lou Andreas-Salomé, cared greatly about his relation to words and made him improve his handwriting, urging the poet to take control of everything in his life before communing more with the muse. Soon Rilke purchased a stand up desk to improve his circulation while he wrote poems—by changing his methods, he changed what the methods produced. This might speak to a few things about influence and who we are willing to listen to (Andreas-Salomé, also a former lover of Nietzsche, was a distinguished psychoanalyst and writer), but undoubtedly, art is at least as much physical as emotional.

Joy to the Reader When Reading Gass’s The Tunnel

How can I contain myself? (But perhaps the question is: how could Gass both contain and not contain himself to have done what he did?) Having had The Tunnel to go back to every morning was like having the one you love next to you, to be transfixed and freshened, to be, as that worthy words man said, surprised by joy and impatient as the wind. (First post on approaching The Tunnel)

In the end (and there can’t be an end to such a work that reverberates on itself and the whole of literature, philosophy, and history), Gass’s explication of Kohler’s consciousness is all tongue, all logos, but a logos of the highest order. Is there pity and terror? Is there sentimentality? Many monsters have their sweet side and though some have called Kohler a monster, I would just call him a guy who tells the truth of his story, no matter the lies of old age one tells to lessen the pains of the past. At the center of his thoughts is the idea of the fascism of the heart, with Kohler himself as the case study.  He gives us his life in many slices of pie (sugar and sweets, such as ice cream and cake abound in the book). He also heaps us with shit, with the staged, and with something surfacely sentimental, but wholly human:

Continue reading

For Your Consideration IV – Gass/Stein/Music

“Why hadn’t I known long before reading Stein–was I such a dunce?–that the art was in the music–it was Joyce’s music, it was James’s music, it was Faulkner’s music; without the music, words fell to earth in prosy pieces; without the music, there was only comprehension, and comprehension may have been analysis, may have been interpretation, may have been philosophy, but it wasn’t art; art was the mind carried to conclusions ahead of any understanding by the music–the order, release, and sounding of the meaning. Not just because of a little alliteration, the pitter-patter of metrical feet, a repetition like a chant, or rhyme concealed the way Poe’s letter was–in plain view–but because of complex conceptual relations made audible.” (128)

– William H. Gass, from “Three Lives” in A Temple of Texts

One   Two  Three

Beginning to Dig into Gass’s The Tunnel (1 of 2)

Gass on history: “What counts for me…is what happens to human consciousness…what was lost when you piled up bodies, what is gained when you decide not to.” – Bookworm interview with Michael Silverblatt

 I felt ready for The Tunnel. I could have warmed up more with his first novel Omensetter’s Luck and read Gass’s fiction in order of composition but an inside voice said, No, and as I kept paging through The Tunnel, I knew I was holding the object I’d have to read next. But surely, just looking at The Tunnel and not reading a word is an experience of the book, of the art. One marvels at how many typefaces there are, how many bolded sections, the pictures, the comics, the limericks, the stanzas of poetry—a book beginning with two opposing pennants on the page after the title pages (The Pennants of Passive Attitudes and Emotions). Niggardliness is opposed by Churlishness. Spite by Sloth. What is going on here? We aren’t even on page one and passiveness has been pasted and highlighted, poured over the reader’s mind.

Continue reading

For Your Consideration III – Birthday Wishes to Henry James

Henry (left) and brother William

In the essay “In the Cage” (from Fiction and the Figures of Life), William Gass speaks about the fourth volume of Leon Edel’s five-volume biography of Henry James. Gass is not too impressed by how Edel reads James but I am once again smitten by Gass and his understanding of James (I would hope for him to expand on these thoughts and put together a Reading James volume to go alongside with his Reading Rilke). But let us revel in this summation of James’s art:

…his moral anger is directed at all those who infringe human freedom, who make pawns of people, who feast on the poor, the naive, or the powerless, who use love to use…and in those sentences which mark the movement of his mind, his steady shift of position and deepening of view, we ourselves can complain of being caught–caged–victimized. His sentences have such complex insides, they amaze, and we wonder if they have either end or purpose; if we shall ever emerge. The object we sought to have explained seems obscured by the explanation; it is no longer a scene we see, it is a sentence we experience. (174)

Continue reading

For Your Consideration


Reading William H. Gass has set my mind to fire.

In the essay “The Sentence Seeks Its Form”  from A Temple of Texts, Gass speaks of breath as giving life to language:

Breath (pneuma) has always been seen as a sign of life, and was once identified with the soul. Don’t fall for phrases like “gut feeling” or “coming from the heart.” Language is born in the lungs and is shaped by the lips, palate, teeth, and tongue out of spent breath–that is, from carbon dioxide. That is why plants like being spoken to. Language is speech before it is anything. It is born of babble and shaped by imitating other sounds. It therefore must be listened to while it is being written.

So the next time someone asks you…”Who is your audience?” or “Whom do you write for?” you can answer, “The ear.” I don’t just read Henry James; I hear him.

Breath that has sustained a life has been shaped into words useful to communicate a life…These words hope to find companions called a sentence, and the sentence, too, is seeking a paragraph it may enhance. The writer must be a musician–accordingly. Look at what you’ve written, but later…at your leisure. First–listen. Listen to Joyce, to Woolf, to Faulkner, to Melville. And to the poets, above all. (273)

Over Forty Writers Over Forty to Watch

Writing the title of this post actually felt very silly; it seems such an arbitrary way of gathering a list of writers to look out for. What could be sillier than singling out writers in this way, according to their age? Surely, there are more worthy criteria. Well, there is an answer to what could be sillier than singling out over forty writers over forty to watch, namely, singling twenty writers under forty to watch, especially largely mainstream writers writing, for the most part, conventional and redundant fiction. And the New Yorker has done just that. But this isn’t surprising. Theirs is an idea once again institutionalizing, reinforcing our decayed culture’s obsession with youth, not to mention its eyes wide shut wallowing in mediocrity. So, not only have they missed, for the most part, who are the best fiction writers under forty to watch, but, with their unapologetic valorization of youth, they missed entirely. The following writers (and I include poets, essayists, and theorists among them) are writers who have consistently written great work. I anticipate great things from each of them in the years and years to come. With full awareness of how a corrective sometimes ironically and paradoxically legitimizes what it seeks to correct, here, in the order in which I thought of them, are over forty writers over forty whose work I will be busy watching.

Continue reading

Tiny Shocks Revisited (A Continuing Criticism of James Wood’s How Fiction Works)

Earlier today John pointed toward Nigel Beale’s cleverly-titled criticism of my post “Tiny Shocks: Uncovering the Reductive Plot of James Wood’s How Fiction Works.” I’m looking forward to Nigel’s longer criticism; in the meantime I thought I’d reply regarding the mistakes Wood makes in his readings of Viktor Shklovsky and William H. Gass, since Nigel asked specifically about them:

Does Wood ‘misunderstand’ Gass? Is his reading of Shklovsky ‘demonstrably wrong’? Are these ‘intellectual errors’ or are they mischievous ploys to argue (successfully I’d say) points which you just don’t agree with? Who’s being Ad hominem here?

(Nigel, I hope you don’t mind my calling you by your first name; since we’re Facebook friends now, and I hope you’ll call me Adam. It keeps things friendlier!)

And let me say that it’s certainly fair for Nigel to take issue with my calling Wood’s account “smug and small” etc. Those are critical words, granted. I stand by them, however, as fitting descriptions of Wood’s argument and the manner in which he makes it: Wood’s reading of fiction in How Fiction Works is reductive, and I believe that a critic of his stature is capable of far better. (He studied with Frank Kermode!)

OK, on to the formalists.

Continue reading

Art’s Morality (A Reading of William H. Gass’s “The Artist and Society”)

Mike Allred's such a prankster.

Formalists are often accused of ignoring art’s morality, as well as its other social aspects. (Of course, artists are often faced with the same accusation—hence the logic by which legislators divert money toward math and the sciences. Whatever strange thing it is that the artist contributes to the culture, it is at best of secondary importance.)

In my last post, I tried to make clear that social value in fact formed the very center of the work done by Viktor Shklovsky and the other Russian Formalists:

Continue reading

Tiny Shocks: Uncovering the Reductive Plot of James Wood’s How Fiction Works

A pleasant looking book.

[Update: As if this post weren’t long enough, there’s now a Part 2.]

On January 22, I read Shya Scanlon’s post “The Dull King”; on January 25 I read his second post “Cover Your Tracks.” Both were about reading James Wood’s How Fiction Works. Before that I’d heard of James Wood but hadn’t read anything by him; I knew some people liked him and some didn’t like him. I myself had no opinion about the guy. Nor did I have any real plan to read How Fiction Works. But still I posted a couple of comments on Shya’s posts, and Shya wrote back, and I wrote back, and before I knew it I’d written a very long comment that I turned into my own post, “Uncover Your Tracks.”

Then I thought what the hell and trudged through the snow to Columbia College. That was a fun trip; the library elevators weren’t working, and a security guard had to escort me up to the fifth floor. It felt like the normal world had gotten broken, and something exciting was taking place. I took that as a sign that I was on the right track. I went home right away and read the book from cover to cover….

Continue reading