Last week, one of my favorite authors, William H. Gass, died at ninety-three. He was an elder statesman of postwar American fiction. His novels include the lauded Omensetter’s Luck, The Tunnel, and Middle C, and he also wrote a number of insightful essays on the craft of writing.
His prose is difficult, brooding, and deeply lyrical, and his stories are told almost exclusively through the point of view of obsessive, angry protagonists railing against their circumstances. Today, his readership remains small, which is a shame. Though his work is challenging, it generously rewards the patient reader.
I first came across William Gass late in my first year as an MFA student at Seattle Pacific University. My writing had, at that time, hit a wall. I was dismayed by the way my prose materialized on the page. The stories soldiered forward, but their contents were vapid and devoid of the meaning I hoped to produce. My characters’ interactions were stilted and dutiful, and I was growing anxious about my flagging abilities as a writer.
By chance—or perhaps providence—I came across Gass’s masterpiece, Omensetter’s Luck. Billed by David Foster Wallace as one of the five most “direly underappreciated” books of recent history, I was immediately intrigued.
A few clicks later, I found an article, “On Some Sentences of William Gass,” written by LA Review of Books writer Robert Minto. Mr. Minto presented Gass as a breath of fresh air, an author who championed the art of the well-crafted sentence over our preoccupations with character and plot.
Mr. Minto quoted Mr. Gass as claiming: “There are no descriptions in fiction, there are only constructions” (Fiction and the Figures of Life).
Ah, but I have a story to tell, characters to create, a plot to contrive, you may, with incautious confidence, insist. No. That’s what moviemakers do. They make hokum. You do not tell a story; your fiction will do that when your fiction is finished. What you make is music, and because your sounds are carriers of concepts, you make conceptual music too (Temple of Texts).
I was floored. Gass’s view of the writer’s task seemed to be the inverse of our usual emphasis upon “memorable characters,” “strong descriptions,” and conscientious plotting. Stuck in my own slump of boring prose, I was immediately struck by Gass’s claim that to describe is to operate in a reactionary fashion and is to be subservient to the real.
By contrast, to construct is to conjure. The grandest ability of fiction, finally, is that of a conjuring act. Characters, settings, and plot are essential, but they can only be fully realized through careful, musical syntax.
I quickly tracked down Omensetter’s Luck and several of Gass’s essay collections and continued to be challenged by what I read. By focusing on character, setting, and meaning, Gass believes, we start in the wrong place. Gass urges writers to begin with the raw materials: words, punctuation, white space, for he knew well that when writers talk about character, plot and setting—to say nothing of theme and voice and imagery—they forget that, when we open a book, we do not find those characters, voices, or themes. We find prose, and the best prose will create the best reveries.William Gass focused upon the sentence because a “sentence is a literal line of thought…. It is also aimed. It has energy, drive, direction, and purpose” (Finding a Form). Gass found a type of transcendence in the sentence: while the dull sentence thuds and comes to a dead end, a truly well-crafted sentence cannot help but transport the reader from physical word toward dream and association.
These ideals are constantly played out in his work. For example, look at how Omensetter’s Luck introduces the titular character, Brackett Omensetter, and his family as they load up their wagon to move:
Of course the rain would stop, they said, and it did. Omensetter hitched the horse to the wagon. He hopped up with a great flourish and addressed the world with his arms. Everyone enjoyed that. Omensetter’s wife swung up too. She rested her arm on his leg and she squeezed his knee. Omensetter’s daughters whooped up the back. They snuggled under quilts. They made a house in the tower. Everyone said a prayer for the snowman dead a week. Then Omensetter chucked, the dog barked, and they set out for Gilean on the Ohio where the air was clear and good for boys. They left behind them, where they’d kissed and talked, water dripping lightly from the eaves of their last and happy home.
Notice how the happy verbs hopped, addressed, swung, squeezed, whooped, snuggled, resolve, quietly, into the water dripping lightly from the eaves of their last and happy home. Gass created lively characters and a rustic house which we, his readers, have never seen but readily conjure through his active words.
Within the music of his words, we feel a sudden rush of quiet sadness: leaving a place, however happy the move, is often bittersweet. We are only able to realize this through the careful accrual of his finely-crafted sentences.
William Gass maintained that writing becomes jaundiced and anemic when writers impatiently focus upon the summation of their prose and not upon its potentiality. He urged writers to not view the craft of the sentence as the dutiful task of the writer but, rather, as the magic itself. The answers we seek are almost always in the text, so keep working.
In his 1976 interview with The Paris Review, Gass bemoaned that, often, “you can’t pick up a page. All the words slide off.” Thanks to his advice, I believe my words, characters, settings, and meanings now cling a little tighter to my pages.
Seth L. Riley lives in the Seattle area with his wife and children and teaches English at Northwest University and at the Schack Art Center. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University and is working on several novels.