Happy Birthday, William Gass

The great writer turns 87 today. As a brief digital toast, here’s a philosophy-nailing quote made by Gass himself. From “Structures that Sing,“ an interview conducted via e-mail by Eric Day in 2004 and published that year in Hayden’s Ferry Review:

ED: Your past fiction has been called difficult and inaccessible, recursive and dense. Still others call it beautiful, enchantingly lyrical, rich with rhythmic language and striking imagery. How do you account for such disparity regarding the reception of your work? And what do you see as the primary purpose of the writer in society?

WHG: There are those purposes society assigns—its expectations—and the purposes private to the person who is writing. There are also different kinds of writing—a review, for instance, will be expected to meet the requirements of an editor who will have his or her own aims, while the writer will have others. Our society is wholly indifferent to what serious writers do. So they are not blamed for failing to charm or amuse or shock or outrage. Amuse and/or inform would be society’s customary hopes, I suppose, for any book it might pick up. Poets might also be expected to inspire, but in our society only individuals read poetry, society can hardly be said to. Since society expects nothing of me, I expect nothing from it. The censorship of indifference is to be preferred to the other kinds.

My loyalty is to what might be grandly called “the art.” As a scientist might be devoted to his work. The scientist hopes to add to the knowledge in his field. I would like to expand the possibilities of prose.

There is really no reception of my work in the general sense; there are individual readers. Some of those readers are critics, but it would be quite foolish to imagine critics managing the opinions of more than a handful of others. Who don’t matter anyway because their opinions are being managed. Serious work asks to be read with care. Some novels have surfaces that glide by like smooth water—Colette’s, for instance, but so does Flaubert’s. The careless reader can drift along as on a summer’s day. But they will miss the work. Novels that have obdurate surfaces won’t allow the lazy to say: I’ve read Madame Bovary or Daisy Miller or Cherie. They won’t have “read” The Golden Bowl or A Man Without Qualities or Malone Dies.

I am gratified if some find my work beautiful. I try to make it so. But failure is the rule where excellence is the goal. I don’t try to be dense or difficult or easy either. I try to realize the demands of the piece as it emerges. When I want to know what to do, I ask the text. If things are going well, it will tell me.

We court the happy few, as Stendhal said. Trust the art not the audience.