I was saddened to hear this week of the death of William H. Gass, who was my teacher and served on my MFA thesis committee.
He was the most learned person I have ever known. He was frighteningly learned, intimidatingly learned. He had a scholar’s familiarity with and understanding of the entirety of Western philosophy and literature. He knew everything. Aesthetics was his philosophical specialization but he ranged without limits. He studied analytic philosophy under Wittgenstein and Max Black. He wrote his fiction “to get even”; he wrote “out of hatred.” He claimed in his Paris Review interview that in college he was filled with such self-loathing that he completely changed his handwriting, teaching himself to shape the letters anew, from the ground up.
He coined the term “metafiction.” He wrote a brilliant short book, On Being Blue, about the meaning of blueness, which included an analysis of the erotic in literature. He worked for nearly 30 years on The Tunnel, his masterpiece. His most famous story, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” was the first fiction I ever read that used a modular structure. My colleague Alex Albright and I were talking a few days before he died about Gass’s pioneering use of footnotes and typography in his experimental novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife.
His essay collections—Fiction and the Figures of Life; The World within the Word—taught me how to read Gertrude Stein, Malcolm Lowry, Borges, Beckett, Proust, and Nabokov, especially Nabokov.
During my thesis defense he complained—in a kind tone—that my work lacked depth. I responded that I had been focusing on the surface, the sentences. He said, “Some of us believe that if you work your surface enough, you get depth.”
That was his method. Polish, abrade, build up, scrape down, listen, hold it up to the light, put it away, come back later, polish, abrade, build up . . . .
As an impressionable young writer I read and reread and underlined and mostly memorized this paragraph, from the introduction to his story collection:
“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.”
You can take issue with much of what he says there. But that one line, “Serious writing must nowadays be written for the sake of the art”—that is something that became my mantra, my aesthetic compass, something that I’ve fallen short of but still aspired to all my writing life.
Thank you, Professor Gass.
Photograph of Bill Gass by Herb Weitman / Washington University Archives.