William Gass’s contribution to The Story About the Story Vol. I, “In Terms of the Toenail: Fiction and the Figures of Life,” first appeared in New American Review and is the title piece of his 1970 book of criticism, Fiction and the Figures of Life. Seven volumes of essays would follow to accompany six of fiction, including, most recently, Middle C. In the weeks leading up to the release of The Story About the Story Vol. II, Gass was kind enough to answer a few questions about the state of creative criticism.
J.C. Hallman: Do creative writers have an obligation to act as critics, to offer up alternatives to traditional critical methodologies and assumptions?
William Gass: Creative writers have the same obligations all citizens have. One of those is the need to keep the world within which they work clean reliable honest etc. If a writer wishes to advance his or her art—wonderful—but I don’t see it as necessary. Moreover, this is done best by writing in a contemporary way, not arguing about it. If you enjoy intellectual brawls, I am sure you will get a crowd. There are a lot people out there who have opinions both political and poetic—I am one of them—who shouldn’t think of themselves as “critics.” Or “philosophers” either.
These fields are hard to mow. Three or four philosophers in an era and you have an age of enlightenment. Also—how many Coleridges do we have? Most of the better critics are novelists or poets themselves. But most poets approach other people’s poems with the boredom of reviewers.
JCH: As you see it, what happened to criticism? That is, how did we move from Arnold and Pater and Wilde to the kind of academic criticism produced in English departments?
WG: Academies tend to suffer from fads. In my lifetime it has been over run by Idealists, Pragmatists, Existentialists, Positivists, and Deconstructors. In English Departments The New Criticism at first ruled the roost and to its merit it was largely run by poets. Derrida and company are enemies of artists. They want to be the bosses. Before you know it, these critics are arguing between one another. The artistic work long forgotten.
What happened to critics that made them such enemies? Writers took up residence in the academy. Soon the “scholars” are being supported by the writers. And the writers the critics were asked to examine were—great heavens—alive. The writers, for their part, were being corrupted in action and ambition by their connections with the commercial world. Both sides had a good deal to complain of. And I rarely perceived—in my travels—common respect and harmony.
JCH: What was it that first gave you license to approach criticism more creatively?
WG: I didn’t need a license. I have always been indifferent to authority.
JCH: To your mind, what best characterizes writerly or creative criticism?
WG: I would get rid of “writerly.” It sounds too superficial. I would get rid of “creative.” It has been misused. Texts that are well written are those that examine their subject and their style simultaneously. The scientist may write with some conviction about the truth, but the critic always wonders, right up to the last minute: is it true, is it good, is it beautiful? how can I enlarge our appreciation of this or that work? how can I demonstrate its uniqueness? The critic comes as friend to the campfire.
JCH: Are books and literature in a state of crisis these days? If so, does that have anything to do with how we write about literature?
WG: I hope so. We are caught between ideals and slowly crushed. We like to think we live in a democracy, but the reality is that art is all about excellence. We are as good as the next guy but we worship cultural gods like the worst believer. All art isn’t created equal. No more than the basketball team.
JCH: In “In Terms of the Toenail: Fiction and the Figures of Life” (included in The Story About the Story I), you write the following of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano:
“Each of us, too, must encounter and enter the book alone, bring our lifetime to it, since truly it is a dark wood, this Mexico, a southern hell we’re being guided through, and although simply begun, it is difficult to remain, to continue so terrible a journey.”
This makes the point that reading is an arduous, even harrowing, task, but can you expand on what you mean by “bring our lifetime to it”? Isn’t bringing our lives to literature more or less what young readers are instructed not to do?
WG: I gave up on Lowry’s book several times. I thought I found fault with the work (and there is fault to be found), but it was probably because of my family problems with alcohol came too close to me. My remark is a warning against compartmentalizing. We all know readers who surprise us by responding to parts of one of our books we thought might have been trivial or weak, while ignoring parts we thought were strong and important. Children haven’t had lifetimes yet.
JCH: Is there any particular text you would recommend for The Story About the Story III?
WG: Gilbert Fabes. The Autobiography of a Book. The Elzevier Press. London. 1923. For the fun of it.
In addition to editing The Story About the Story, J.C. Hallman is the author of several books, including The Chess Artist,In Utopia, Wm & H’ry, and B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal.