Finding a form : essays

by William H. Gass

Hardcover, 1996




New York : Knopf, 1996.


"No one is better than William H. Gass at communicating the sublime and rapturous excitement of reading." Washington Post

User reviews

LibraryThing member Laurenbdavis
This is a deeply intelligent, often witty, book on literary craft and form. Gass adores language and plays with it throughout; I might even go so far as to say he was a little too smirkingly pleased with himself occasionally, but at the same time he consistently earned my respect and admiration.

Okay, let me simply say this: I admit I'm not sure I understood all his points and at times I simply wasn't up to Gass's intellectual standard. I felt I needed to reread a few of the works he mentioned, and discover a few others for the first time, but surely that's a good thing and a lessen in intellectual humility. I must also say I don't agree with everything Gass says -- how could I when, against his best advice, I have found pleasure in the present-tense he so deplores! Gass's writing is at times brain-cramp inducing. Consider this from the essay, "Nature, Culture and Cosmos":

"Let us imagine a world without language; and since I am going to insist that what we sometimes call the soul is simply the immediate source of any speech -- the larynx of the logos -- a world without words will be a soulless one as well."

The soul as the immediate source of any speech? Do I agree with that assumption? "Larynx of the logos" -- clever, but again, do I agree? Well, it warrants pondering.

Gass's writing is often clever and creative. Consider this from his essay on Ezra Pound:

"Christened 'Pound, Ezra Loomis.' If used as a verb, 'pound' means to beat. If used as a noun, 'pound signifies a unit of weight, a measure of money, pressure of air, or physical force. From time to time, apropos poetry, Pound wondered which should be sovereign, the verb or the noun, and concluded, if his practice may be entered as evidence, that the verb was most noticed when knocked off the sentence like a phallus from a kouros -- 'Spiretop alevel the well curb' -- and when effects were hammered back into their causes with naillike hyphens -- 'Seal sport in the spray-whited circles of cliff-wash' -- hence into a compaction like a headache . . . splitting."


One of my favorite passages comes from the title essay. "I, like many others in every art, rejected a realism that wasn't real and tried to work in a less traditional, less compromised way. I organized my fictions around symbolic centers instead of plotting them out on graph paper; I assigned the exfoliation of these centers to a voice and limited my use of narration, while treating the style and characteristic structure of the sentences that filled the novel, row on row, as microcosmic models for the organization of the whole. I do not pretend to be in the possession of any secrets; I have no cause I espouse; I do not presume to reform my readers, or attempt to flatter their egos either. My loyalty is to my text, for that is what I am composing, and if I change the world, it will be because I've added this or that little reality to it; and if I alter any reader's consciousness, it will be because I have constructed a consciousness of which others may wish to become aware, or even, for a short time, share. The reader's freedom is a holy thing." Much to chew on there, and that's merely one half a page out of 350.

So, do I recommend the book? Yes. Definitely. But be gentle with yourself while digesting -- it's a rich and heavy meal, perhaps best consumed in small portions.
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LibraryThing member stillatim
At his very best, Gass writes glorious, dialectical sentences, paragraphs and pages, as in his hatchet job on critics and authors who support the Pulitzer, and prizes in general:

"The panel will be formed with the same unfailing dimsight its members will feel obliged to display... each will be implicitly asked to represent their region, race or sex... the only qualification a judge ought to have is unimpeachable good taste, which immediately renders irrelevant such puerile pluralistic concerns as skin color, sex, and origin," which is the kind of glorious universalist demand that gets made too rarely, because, as Gass goes on to say, "the phrase 'literary quality' is a conservative code word these days that means 'I wouldn't toss a dime into an ethnic's hat.'"

In the same essay he mocks the staidness and awful taste shown by prize-givers, who tend to give prizes to the most popular rather than the best, but also admits that "'experimental' can be more frankly replaced by 'self-indulgent and inept' so often as to cause one to despair of the word."

His more objective observations on contemporary prose should be required reading for anyone with access to any writing implements of any kind ("those who live in the present [i.e., tense], as we imagine cattle do, expect little from the future and remember nothing of the past," "they are stories shorn, not only of adjectives and adverbs, but of words themselves, almost as if their authors didn't know any... sentences avoid subordination, qualification, subtlety. Subordination requires judgment, evaluation; it creates complexity, demands definition.")

He rightly and majestically closes 'Nature, Culture and Cosmos' by pointing out that cultural diversity does not = relativism; cultural diversity shows us that cultures aren't natural, that we can't rely on 'nature' to show us what is right, good, beautiful etc, and that "if we want walls on which to hang our values, we shall have to build them ourselves," and acknowledge that the walls we've built are not God-given.

Later, his 'Vicissitudes of the Avant-garde' is, to begin with, a fine history of how the army's advance scouts ended up rejecting what the army stood for in the first place... which means that the avant-garde can only work if there are genuine values (i.e., those of the army) to reject... but today there are only 'cash values,' no real values, and so the avant-garde is in quite a bind. Gass's way out is to defend 'form' by refusing to show/publish or dance, by saying, with Bartleby, I'd rather not.

And this is the moment when Gass's essays stop delighting me with their borderline ridiculous assonance and alliterations, and drive me to bury my head under a pillow and cry, not no, but why?

Because for all of his acuity, Gass is led, either by the ambiance of his university seat, or by the rhythms of his prose, to regurgitate some of the silliest ideas of the late twentieth century. There are no ideals to rebel against, so we have to reject everything-- what? Or, build new ideals.

* "Life itself is exile"? From what?
* The poetic "limb of our language has been cut off and callously destroyed," by whom, and when was this? Was it Caxton? Wordsworth? Whitman? (I blame Whitman).
* "The normal shape of a narrative... and its customary content... are both designed to disclose a comforting pattern in events, discover a true direction to experience, and give an honest meaning to life. It is essential that each pattern, purpose and significance be inherent in the natural course of things." What the Thomas are you talking about? Yes, some narratives do that, just as some non-narrative art forms do that--what is alliteration, other than a humorous game for Tank Engine obsessed toddlers? And if it can be something else, why can't narrative?
* life is "convoluted, multiple, inverted, simultaneous, continuous, pointless, cracked." Really? Whose life is like that? If one's life is, isn't the usual recourse to wonder why? And even if life is like that, why does Gass suggest that good novels *reproduce* the pointless/cracked/inverted convolutions, when otherwise he rails against mere mimesis? Couldn't the text--I repeat--aim for something better than the sludge daily life gives us?
* in 'The Baby or the Botticelli,' Gass abuses those with 'politicized minds,' though not saying who they are, and rejects 'moralists,' again, without saying who they are, and demands an 'alienating formalism', which is justified by standard modernity theory separation of values (i.e., the good has nothing to do with the beautiful has nothing to do with justice). Since all the values are hermetically sealed, art should be judged on purely formal criteria. There's much to be said for this. How I roll my eyes and grit my teeth at students or readers who say they don't like a book because the characters are mean. On the other hand, literature is not, and cannot be, pure music. Words refer, even if only to each other, and that means that books are always just a little bit contaminated by horrible things like meaning and connection to things other than themselves. Why does Gass find this so abhorrent? It's the glory of literature: it can be formal, while also being much more.

Gass won't care about any of this, he'll care about the form of his prose. It's wildly uneven, like eighteenth century epic poetry in which you're meant to disregard the padding and plodding numbers and attend only to the single, perfect couplet. For some readers, including myself, that will be enough. But far too often Gass's words stumble over each other and pile up at the bottom of the page in a desperate striving for effect. He wants us to attend to the form of prose, but form means more than the sentence, more even than the paragraph. The form of prose involves the form of thought, and bad ideas will distort a writing's style. Kind of like in this review.
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