Minimalists

Entering the Madison Public Library yesterday, I was met by a front-room kiosk highlighting, as its staff defined them, ‘Minimalists.’ Rightly or not, William Gass’s The Tunnel (first edition from Knopf) was included, its red armband attracting the eye.

Then last night I was paging through the Fall 1991 Review of Contemporary Fiction, an issue exploring the work of Gass and Manuel Puig (whose Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages is not only supremely titled but very good). From that issue, here’s Arthur M. Saltzman interviewing Gass:

AMS: In an essay of yours in [the] New York Times Book Review, 'A Failing Grade for the Present Tense,’ you compare reading minimalist fiction to walking through a cemetery before they’ve put any graves in. I really liked that phrase, but on reflection didn’t feel I had sufficient command of it. Is it that we’re dealing with very shallow work here?

WHG: When everything is in the present tense, nothing ever has a chance to die. It’s a way of not approaching a whole set of issues.

AMS: So it’s not in your opinion a matter of refined technique but of avoiding what you can’t do well?

WHG: Yes, but I’m certainly not against minimalism. I love minimalists. Among my favorites are Stein and Beckett – they’re great. They’re minimalists in the sense that Rothko is a minimalist. The stuff I’m complaining about is cheap. It’s not doing anything. Now it may be that in among these people are writers who are splendid. They are all very competent, but I don’t think there’s any pressure there at all. I’m upset when I read young writers who aren’t upsetting me.

This RCF also reprints a letter Gass wrote on 11/16/58 to Charles Shattuck, coeditor of the journal Accent. Shattuck had requested specific revisions to something Gass, at that time very much a fledging author, had submitted. Gass’s response, which is quite extraordinary, ends this way:

What you are asking me to do is not just to change a work of fiction. You are asking me to make it over from a work of art into a story. My work may be ugly but it’s not cheap. I take it hard and I’m damned if I’ll do it.

Bill