David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Why Write? by William Gass

Getting even is one great reason for writing. The precise statement of the motive is tricky, but the clearest expression of my of my unwholesome nature and my mean motives (apart from trying to write well) appears in a line I like in “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” The character says, “I want to rise so high that when I shit I won’t miss anybody.” But maybe I say it’s a motive because I like the line. Anyway, my work proceeds almost always from a sense of aggression. And usually I am in my best working mood when I am, on the page, very combative, very hostile. That’s true even when I write to praise, as is often the case. If I write about Colette, as I am now, my appreciation will be shaped by the sap-tongued idiots who don’t perceive her excellence. I also take considerable pleasure in giving obnoxious ideas the best expression I can. But getting even isn’t necessarily vicious. There are two ways of getting even: one is destructive and the other is restorative. It depends on how the scales are weighted. Justice, I think, is the word I want.

William Gass, Interview with Paris Review

Perhaps unfortunately, I feel least like this and most magnanimous when writing, similar to how Salinger supposedly loved his Glass family more than anyone in real life.


  1. I know of much good writing instigated by irritation, greed, or pride which distracted itself into more attractive terrain. It’s one of the equivocal pleasures of the process, and one of the biggest difficulties when talking about authorial intentions. (Of course, I also know of good writing instigated by good spirits and of terrible writing which began with the desire to make the world a better place but ended with a different outcome.) But if it helps Gass feel manlier about his wussy occupation, that’s fine.

  2. I remember reading his interview in the PR and thinking that that line he quotes from “Heart of the Heart…” was one his very worst. That 60s crew—Gass, Gaddis, Coover—are always a little spoiled for me because of the seething bitterness so manifest in their work. It’s as if they took Beckett’s pessimism, which resides at the most basic level of communication and is almost holy, and made the bathetic move of applying it to American pop culture. Something of immense value gets tossed aside in that conversion. All three are exceptional talents, but I feel they foreshortened their contributions by this self-conscious embrace of corrosion. They seem to believe strongly in pleasure, but there is always something disciplinary (and not in the exciting way, Spanking the Maid notwithstanding) in their pleasure.

  3. Justice, I think, is wanting. Those poor readers that look up to Gass…now know what it means when the shit hits the fan.

  4. I do like Gass, so in his defense, let me say that I think this quote is a bit of a one-sided exaggeration. Though Gass does cite Canetti as a model at one point. Canetti really did write purely out of hate, but his closest American analogue is Gaddis. John Gardner, himself something of a hater, privileged Gass over the rest of that 60s crowd because he was the only one who wasn’t heartless.

  5. I’m curious as to how Canetti and Gaddis are similar.

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