Avant-gardes are fragile affairs. The moment they become established, they cease to be – success as well as failure finishes them off. Their unity depends upon a common “no,” not on some “yes” that is jointly loved. And insofar as the movement moves at all, it requires the shoulders of many others at its wheels, support which most of the artists suspect is actually their exploitation. Poems must be written, paintings must be painted, but mere coffeehouse talk is not irrelevant to the success of the cause, nor are letters, broadsides, feuilletons, essays, reviews, catalogue copy, the quarrels of the cafés and the slanders of the salons; nor are tumults in the stalls, outrages of public decency, arrests, or other excursions and alarms.
Every effort to prolong an avant-garde beyond a certain point becomes of doubtful value, because an avant-garde can have but a mayfly’s life: the artists have only their negations to chorus; both their attitudes and their art will alter as they age; society’s methods of co-optation and disarmament will, in general, be effective; their anger will be softened by success and their aims divided, their attention distracted; the institutions set up by most Establishments, even if assaulted, will take longer dying than most avant-gardes can expect to live; while the strength of the support groups, so necessary to the energy of any movement, are even more fragile and momentary, depending, as they do, on the loyalty of a publisher, the generosity of a patron, the length of a love life, the cuisine of a café.
From William H. Gass’s essay “The Vicissitudes of the Avant-Garde.”
A dedicated storyteller, though – a true lie-minded man – will serve his history best, and guarantee its popularity, not by imitating nature, since nature’s no source of verisimilitude, but by following as closely as he can our simplest, most direct and unaffected forms of daily talk, for we report real things, things which intrigue and worry us, and such resembling gossip in a book allows us to believe in figures and events we cannot see, shall never touch, with an assurance of safety which sets our passions free. He will avoid recording consciousness since consciousness is private – we do not normally “take it down” – and because no one really believes in any other feelings than his own. However, the moment our writer concentrates on sound, the moment he formalizes his sentences, the moment he puts in a figure of speech or turns a phrase, shifts a tense or alters tone, the moment he carries description, or any account, beyond need, he begins to turn his reader’s interest away from the world which lies among his words like a beautiful woman among her slaves, and directs him toward the slaves themselves. This illustrates a basic principle: if I describe my peach too perfectly, it’s the poem which will make my mouth water…while the real peach spoils.
From William H. Gass’s essay “The Medium of Fiction.”
Very frequently the writer’s aim is to take apart the world where you have very little control, and replace it with language over which you can have some control. Destroy and then repair. I once wrote a passage in which I had the narrator say, “I want to rise so high that when I shit I won’t miss anybody.” But there are many motives for writing. Writing a book is such a complicated, long-term, difficult process that all of the possible motives that can funnel in will, and a great many of those motives will be base. If you can transform your particular baseness into something beautiful, that’s about the best you can make of your own obnoxious nature.
From a 1978 conversation between John Gardner and William H. Gass.
A character for me is any linguistic location of a book toward which a great part of the rest of the text stands as a modifier. Just as the subject of a sentence say, is modified by the predicate, so frequently some character, Emma Bovary for instance, is regarded as a central character in the book because a lot of the language basically and ultimately goes back to modify, be about, Emma Bovary. Now the ideal book would have only one character; it would be like an absolute, idealist system. What we do have are subordinate locales of linguistic energy—other characters—which the words in a book flow toward and come out of. A white whale is a character; mountains in Under the Volcano are characters. Ideas can become characters. Some of the most famous characters in the history of fiction are in that great novel called philosophy. There’s free will and determinism. There’s substance and accident. They have been characters in the history of philosophy from the beginning, and I find them fascinating. Substance is more interesting than most of my friends.
Now why would one adopt such awkward language—why not just talk about character in the traditional sense? The advantage is that you avoid the tendency as a reader to psychologize and fill the work with things that aren’t there. The work is filled with only one thing—words and how they work and how they connect. That, of course, includes the meanings, the sounds, and all the rest. When people ask, “How are you building character?” they sometimes think you’re going around peering at people to decide how you’re going to render something. That isn’t a literary activity. It may be interesting, but the literary activity is constructing a linguistic source on the page
From a fantastic 1978 conversation between John Gardner and William H. Gass.
I want to plant some object in the world. Now it happens to be made of signs, which may lead people to think, because it’s made of signs, that it’s pointing somewhere. But actually I’ve gone down the road and collected all sorts of highway signs, made a piece of sculpture out of these things that says Chicago, 35,000 miles. What I hope, of course, is that people will come along, gather in front of the sculpture and take a look at it—consequently, forgetting Chicago. I want to add something to the world. Now, what kind of object? Old romantic that I am, I would like to add objects to the world worthy of love. I think that the things one loves, most particularly in other people, are quite beyond anything they communicate or merely “mean.” Planting those objects is a moral activity, I suppose. You certainly don’t want to add objects to the world that everybody will detest: “Another slug made by Bill Gass.” That’s likely to be their attitude, but you don’t hope for it. The next question is, why is it that one wants this thing loved? My particular aim is that it be loved because it is so beautiful in itself, something that exists simply to be experienced. So the beauty has to come first.
From a fantastic 1978 conversation between John Gardner and William H. Gass.
They will not do us any good—the good books—no—if by good we mean good looks, good times, good shoes; yet they still offer us salvation, for salvation does not wait for the next life, which is anyhow a vain and incautious delusion, but is to be had, if at all, only here—in this one. It is we who must do them honor by searching for our truth there, by taking their heart as our heart, by refusing to let our mind flag so that we close their covers forever, and spend our future forgetting them, denying the mind’s best moments. They extend the hand; we must grip it. Spinach never made Popeye strong sitting in the can. And the finest cookbook ever compiled put not one pot upon the stove or dish upon the table. Here, in the library that has rendered you suspect, you have made their acquaintance—some of the good books. So now that you’ve been nabbed for it, you must become their lover, their friend, their loyal ally. But that is what the rest of your life is for. Go now, break jail, and get about it.
From William H. Gass’s essay “To a Young Friend Charged with Possession of the Classics.” Collected in A Temple of Texts.