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the Complete Review
the complete review - interviews

Conversations with William H. Gass

edited by
Theodore G. Ammon

general information | our review | links | about the editor

To purchase Conversations with William H. Gass

Title: Conversations with William H. Gass
Editor: Theodore G. Ammon
Genre: Interviews
Written: (2003)
Length: 176 pages
Availability: Conversations with William H. Gass - US
Conversations with William H. Gass - UK
Conversations with William H. Gass - Canada
Conversations With William H. Gass - India
  • Edited and with an Introduction by Theodore G. Ammon
  • Includes 14 interviews from between 1971 and 2000, including this Interview from ADE
  • Includes a Gass-chronology

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Our Assessment:

B : fine, informative interviews

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The conversations included in this volume -- part of the University Press of Mississippi's "Literary Conversation Series" -- span from 1971, five years after Gass' first big success (Omensetter's Luck), to 2000. Several topics are dealt with repeatedly, but one dominates in an especially interesting way: Gass' magnum opus, The Tunnel. That novel was some thirty years in the making (it was finally published in 1995), and it is interesting to follow its progress as related by Gass over the course of the interviews, from the beginnings through the years of believing he's almost done with it to the critical reactions to the text once it's been published.
       Gass was a student and then professor of philosophy -- and this collection is edited by a professor of philosophy -- and so there is, not surprisingly, a focus on the subject, especially the central philosophical questions Gass has preoccupied himself with: metaphor (the subject of Gass' dissertation, and a significant part of how he sees literature) and ethics. The intersection of philosophy and literature is repeatedly addressed, and Gass (and his interviewers) show quite well how it has affected (and been made manifest) in his work.
       Gass' lack of patience with the study and teaching of literature sets him apart from most of the contemporary fiction-writing industry. He says he did not even take any courses in English while at Kenyon College, and notes: "many of the people in English departments I find simply not caring about literature, and just playing around with bad ideas." (He also isn't much of a believer in teaching writing.)
       He is not entirely convincing when he says (in the first interview): "I rarely read fiction and generally don't enjoy it", as he does show over the interviews that follow considerable familiarity with a good deal of fiction. It's unfortunate that that claim isn't examined more closely: the fiction writer who shies away from others' fiction isn't uncommon, but it would be helpful to learn more about the reasons (fear of contamination ? impatience ? jealousy ?). (Gass also here goes on to admit learning a great deal from "stylists in general", among whom he counts Henry James, Ford Maddox Ford, Joyce, and Colette, suggesting at least some fictional interest.)
       There's some comfort in his descriptions of his own writing: an arduous process of refining material, as he describes it. And he admits to no poetic talent -- and isn't that convinced of some of his other abilities (though he seems to know that he is good at polishing his fiction, making for a fine end-result).
       Perhaps the most revealing exchange is in a debate between Gass and John Gardner. Certainly their approaches to fiction are wonderfully summed up at one point:

     J.G. : But what I think is beautiful, he would think is not yet sufficiently ornate. The difference is that my 707 will fly and his is too encrusted with gold to get off the ground.
     W.G. : There is always that danger. But what I really want is to have it sit there solid as a rock and have everybody think it is flying.
       Gardner's workman-like approach may have it's appeal -- hey, it flies -- but Gass understands that the true art is in the success of the make-believe. And that, surely, is what literature must aspire to.

       Conversations with William H. Gass presents the author and his main preoccupations (from philosophy to Rilke) well. His most important work, including The Tunnel and the experimental Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, is discussed at considerable length, from a number of vantage points. Given how little auto/biographical information is available about Gass, this is certainly a useful companion volume.

       (Note: As in other volumes of the University Press of Mississippi's "Literary Conversation Series", copy-editing -- in particular of names -- remains a problem. There's not even a consistency of misspelling: there's Bernhard and Bernhardt, Llosa and Lhosa (whereby poor Mario suffers the additional indignity of being listed in the index (under "L") as: "Llosa, Vargos"). And then there's page 45, where poor Vladimir becomes Nabakov four times over (though they get it right everywhere else).)

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Conversations with William H. Gass: William H. Gass: Other books by William Gass under Review: Other books with introductions by William Gass under review: Other books under review that might be of Interest:

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About the Author:

       American author William H. Gass lived 1924 to 2017.

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© 2003-2021 the complete review

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