Waggish

William Gass on Writing

William Gass on his profession:

The contemporary American writer is in no way a part of the social and political scene. He is therefore not muzzled, for no one fears his bite; nor is he called upon to compose. Whatever work he does must proceed from a reckless inner need. The world does not beckon, nor does it greatly reward. This is not a boast or a complaint. It is a fact. Serious writing must nowadays be written for the sake of the art. The condition I describe is not extraordinary. Certain scientists, philosophers, historians, and many mathematicians do the same, advancing their causes as they can. One must be satisfied with that.

Yes, but cause? I didn’t know that there was one. Neurologists can spend years analyzing dopamine receptors in the faint hopes of a distant total understanding of the mind-body problem and associated fringe benefits, but even philosophy has more of a directional mechanism through peer acclamation, regardless of how arbitrary it can be. (Also note the purposeful exclusion of art and music, which are presumably more “rewarding”.)

Literature throws off far more chaff–in the sense of directionless, ephemeral entertainments–than almost any other liberal arts discipline because it is less regimented; it is emphatically empirical, even at its most abstract. Attempts to proceed from theory are often disastrous (see Iris Murdoch and Elias Canetti, but also Chernyshevsky’s What is To Be Done?, etc.). If you wade through the fiction section at a bookstore, it’s amazing how little older work is present as a percentage of the total books, and how transitory the appeal and designs of most of what’s being written are. I have to go to the university library to find a copy of Gotthelf’s influential and significant “The Black Spider.” There is no plan for the future of literature, nor can there be one under the definition of literature as it is understood. “Movements” are ephemeral and dwarfed by exceptions and detractors. Surrealism in my mind is much more of a piece in art than in literature; situationism (and its bastard child actionism) made itself felt more strongly in any discipline but literature. At its most absurd, Wyndham Lewis’s paintings stand in his one-man Vorticism movement a lot more comfortably than his novels.

Gass’s implicit message, as opposed to the explicit one of private despair and resilience, is that writers, at least recently, place themselves in their artistic stream less as trendsetters and waypoints than as individuals. This has its bad aspects: rampant individualism leads to lack of direction and accusations of being a crank. And it’s frustrating to crawl through the onslaught to find pearls of novelty and meaning. But for me, it’s still a greater discipline in conception, though rarely in practice.

As a tangent/afterthought, it’s helpful (as always) to look at the world of science-fiction, which has been more chummy and insular than the world of “regular” fiction. It also possesses less of a critical/academic infrastructure for delivering accolades to the most worthy work, despite the best efforts of people like John Clute. One writer/critic in the field once said that discerning science-fiction critics had to be willing to read an awful lot of terrible and mediocre genre books–and thus, unless you’re a peculiar sort of masochist who enjoys boredom, enjoy them–just to be able to find the good/great ones. I don’t see any reason why this can’t apply to all fiction.

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