THE WRITING LIFE
The Erudite William H. Gass: A Writer of High Degree
If one were to oversimplify into an either/or equation, there are two kinds of novels. On one end of the spectrum you will find plot-driven stories with lots of action that are easily translated into Hollywood films. At the other end of the spectrum you’ll discover those with limited action that are useful for unveiling the interior life of its characters.
Michael Crichton and Tom Clancey excel at the former. The current spate of Jack Reacher books follows the same script.
By way of contrast check out Thomas Mann (Death in Venice) or Andre Gide, two luminaries from the first half of the 20th century, Nobel Prize winners each. It’s the writing that excites, not the action. Subtlety, not Bam! Pow! Kaboom!
I sometimes worry about the writing advice being dished out to beginning writers on platforms like Medium where clickbait titles get encouraged and formulaic pablum is spoon-fed in the form of rules. Buyer beware!
As an antidote to the tendency to be swept away by the latest trends, I recommend time travel. By this I mean become a reader of the classics, of writers who preceded us, who shaped the foundations of our literary traditions. Rilke, Flaubert, the Russians — Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy — and the great South American influencers — Borges, Marquez, Fuentes, Neruda.
Read philosophy. Read history. Read the great books, and learn what great writing looks like, and the thought behind it.
Who were the most influential people in the American Colonies? If you investigate, you’ll find it was the readers. Two of the largest (if not the largest) personal libraries were owned by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, our second and third presidents. George Washington kept the Bible and the writings of Cicero on his nightstand.
If you aspire to be a writer of influence, you must be a reader.
I share all this by way of introduction to William Gass. I first encountered Mr. Gass via an occasional essay in Harper’s Magazine during the years it was edited by Lewis Lapham. Here’s the beginning portion of his Wikipedia bio.
William Howard Gass is an American novelist, short-story writer, essayist, critic, and former philosophy professor. He has written three novels, three collections of short stories, a collection of novellas, and seven volumes of essays, three of which have won National Book Critics Circle Award prizes and one of which, A Temple of Texts, won the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism.
It was while reading from A Temple of Texts this past week that the seed was sown to introduce him to writers here on Medium.
I’ve often suggested that to be a writer of influence one must be a reader of the great writers and familiar with their work. In A Temple of Texts, Mr Gass shares the writers who have influenced him, who have deepened him, challenged him, inspired him.
The introduction to Temple is titled “To A Young Friend Charged with Possession of the Classics.” It’s a letter of affirmation to a student of the Classics that begins, “In doing what you’ve don, you’ve done the right thing.”
It brought to mind the C.S. Lewis radio talk “On Learning In Wartime” in which Lewis was striving to say that just because there is a war taking place on the Continent does not mean schools should be emptied or shuttered. We’ll need educated leaders tomorrow, and you have a responsible to. prepare for that eventuality.
Chapter two is titled Influence, and here I think of Andre Gide’s collection of essays and letters that was published under the title Pretexts. An early chapter in Gide’s booked also dealt with influence. In that case, it was a series of four talks Gide had given on the subject, noting that we cannot avoid influences. We can both choose our influences and be chosen by them.
Gass writes that most influence is “whispered in an ear, not delivered like a push.” He proceeds to show how we can hear the in the cadence of a paragraph the influences of other writers — Faulkner’s influence on Styron, Rudyard Kipling in Robert Service, for example.
But the reason I took this book out of the library was that I might make time to read the third chapter of this volume titled Fifty Literary Pillars, a whittled down list of the works that had been most influential to his own work. If you as a writer want to be stretched as regards what is possible with the written word — and especially if you don’t know what you want to read next — then check out this list, each with a one paragraph summary of its significance.
It begins with Plato’s Timaeus, Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponessian War, Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Add to these Virginia Woolf’s Diaries, Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End, Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Ben Johnson’s The Alchemist, James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans’ Wake and many others.
It is while discussing Antony and Cleopatra that he reminds readers that this is a list of books that influenced him, which is why this selection and not that from certain great authors is on the list. While in the presence of Shakespeare he couldn’t help but observe, “Boy, you can sure write.”
On Gass’s list are several books which I myself found significant and influential, among these Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, which floored me when I first read it because I was familiar with Rilke only as a poet. Gass also includes Rilke’s Duino Elegies, and his Sonnets to Orpheus as well as Rilke’s Letters.
The rest of the book’s chapters consist of deeper explorations on various themes. My aim here is simply to point you toward higher ground if your desire it to be a serious writer.
What follows are a handful of quotes from the writings of William Gass. My only aim here is to whet your appetite, if you are serious about being a writer of influence. These are but morsels. Look to your libraries to find the feast.
“The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words.”
“It’s not the word made flesh we want in writing, in poetry and fiction, but the flesh made word”
“For me, the short story is not a character sketch, a mouse trap, an epiphany, a slice of suburban life. It is the flowering of a symbol center. It is a poem grafted onto sturdier stock.”
“What one wants to do with stories is screw them up.”
“Works of art are meant to be lived with and loved, and if we try to understand them, we should try to understand them as we try to understand anyone — in order to know them better, not in order to know something else.”
I do hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to William H. Gass if you were not already acquainted.