William H. Gass: Interviewed by Arthur M. Saltzman, 1991

Published as “Language and Conscience” in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 1991

Arthur M. Saltzman: I want to begin by asking you about Salman Rushdie. I am specifically interested in how his plight may correlate to some of the things you say in essays like “The Artist and Society,” in which you contend that the artist’s true impact upon society is that he helps to engineer a revolution of consciousness. How does the “reception” of The Satanic Verses coincide with, or possibly undermine, that contention?

William H. Gass: Well, I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, but I have written a few things about the controversy. Not about taking sides with or against the Ayatollah, of course, but about the response of people in our own society to the action—in particular, the very lukewarm (pusillanimous, really) response of the churches, the absence of any sustained outrage by commercial writers or other media, the confinement of the situation to a few, and the kind of excuses and apologies in its wake. I think these things do impinge upon what I was talking about in that essay, as I remember it, because the self-imposed restrictions of the bookstores indicate a sympathy not for the Ayatollah’s extremism but for the anger and affront felt by the Islamic communities here and abroad. The issue is raised all over again that we can’t in this society go to the extreme of killing him off, but really we would like to shut him up. Rushdie’s situation is an extreme version of the artist’s position in general. The Ayatollah represents a fixed, fanatical point of view which runs through all cultures and which is inimical to artistic characterization. I was addressing how this instance is a reiteration of this constant problem and what shape it would take were it to have occurred in America. Rushdie’s ridicule of religious value . . . even though the Christians don’t like Islam, religion’s religion, and the question has to do with orthodoxies of all sorts—particularly the old tradition of being uncontaminated. They are in the position of condemning something they have not and cannot read. Our own cardinal here said of course it is a terrible thing to have put a hit out on Rushdie, but neither should Catholics read that terrible book. The Chinese have demonstrated the same sad ethics that jeopardize all of the people we met over there who were so enthusiastic over the new world that is opening up. It’s really sad.

Saltzman: You seem to set up art and orthodoxy as polar opposites, as incommensurable energies. Here is a statement from your essay “Culture, Self, and Society”: “A culture morally and functionally fails which does not let its crazies, its artists and its saints, its scientists and politicians, claim, on occasion, a higher law than its own congresses can pass, traditions permit, or conscience conceive.” Should we also add, “. . . its religions endow”?

Gass: Yes, sure. And you see, there is something about the way art proceeds that is quite nonideological and has nothing to do with conclusions. Even an ideologically driven artist who is working well has got to see all around the subject. Oh, he can create a character who speaks brilliantly from a half-baked point of view, but he cannot create a drama of conflict between points of view unless he can imaginatively put himself in two positions. As soon as he can make those imaginative jumps, even though he may not turn around as a private person, the book can work. If Rushdie’s book—it is not his best book, I think—were read in those terms, clearly he would be vindicated in that he sees around the subject. The excitement comes from the disparate forces at work there: the jokes, the commentaries, his commitment to his own background, his disappointment in it and his deep love for it. Any work of art is going to be dangerous to a point of view. If you are an artist, you have to see not only why you can’t walk on air, but also why people who think you can, think so. Art objects are inhospitable to secure truths. People who are fearful of protecting their own truth can’t have them around.

Saltzman: There is a statement in Doctorow’s Book of Daniel to the effect that failure to make connections is complicity, and its writer-hero complains that he has been deprived of the capacity to be dangerous. Perhaps “sanitized” works of art, works that are palatable and that conform to our usual diets, rob artistic experience not only of its power but of its authenticity.

Gass: That is in effect what the Ayatollah did with this book. By making it a political football, he made it virtually impossible to read the bloody thing anymore. It is in a context now that makes it impossible to respond to it cleanly. Critics function that way often. They make art easy, safe, and wholesome. But the artist is working with dangerous materials because he is making something that’s got reality in it, and reality is something that the human race flees from. Every culture is busy building some sort of false environment. I am increasingly impressed by how nature permits human beings to make fools of themselves in vast numbers. Cultures of great richness, in fact, can develop that are based in absolute idiocy. Principles, ideals, attitudes that are totally illusory . . .

Saltzman: Do you think that there is anything inherently more enabling about so-called antirealistic fiction in that it disrupts these normalizing efforts?

Gass: I think that’s part of it. Part of my objection to narrative and history in general, to the novel being given to a historian, is that history does not abide by traditional narrative explanations. It isn’t that narrative explanation doesn’t have its place—it is a great instrument—but uncritically examined, its assumptions about the world are, well, unlikely. Within a specific human realm, when we are busy giving meaning to human events selecting, choosing, arranging a story at a dinner party—we may be so taken with the result that we forget that another arrangement could have yielded something quite different. I am not suggesting what some have seen as an inevitable consequence of this particular mode that everything is relative; it’s much more that there are modes of explanation equally satisfactory within their own prescribed realms of discourse. The image I think of when discussing this phenomenon with my students is that when you are throwing a football back and forth, the laws that govern the trajectory of the ball and those that govern the behavior of the air inside the football are different laws. Not inhospitable, but different. Actually, I’m just now reading up on some marvelous new stuff on the geometry and mathematics of irregularities. Coming to grips with fundamentally irregular surfaces that fall outside Euclidean boundaries doesn’t mean that because when you try to deal with these things in Euclidean fashion you falsify them, that Euclid is useless; certain circumstances are still conducive to Euclid, of course. Again, we can say that Newton works within certain frames. I don’t share the popular, and I think basically sophistical, point of view that “it’s all just relative.” I’m very suspicious and skeptical of that. I believe in numerous points of view, but I’m not a relativist in the traditional sense.

Saltzman: Are you suggesting that philosophy, or even fiction, has this fundamental bedrock which is trustworthy and absolute?

Gass: No, it’s not absolute. Its aims have some degree of reliability. That’s the business, that’s the game, of philosophy, anyway. It may not be possible to get it. We may, by arguing philosophically, arrive at a conclusion, but the philosophical enterprise is itself impossible.

Saltzman: If the aim of philosophy is reliability, rather than Truth, is the aim of fiction coherence?

Gass: Coherence is a part of it, but not coherence at the expense of being real. Fiction is the construction of a reality. Now that will involve a certain amount of coherence and a certain amount of incoherence. By “real,” I mean the aesthetic appearance of reality. What you are doing is building something, so it is going to have those properties, those qualities. Saying something, you are making something.

Saltzman: And those properties include mystery. . .

Gass: Yes, and even things that don’t “seem” real. That is why I am interested in the formalizing of very disordered properties in the arts. Fiction, too, is full of disorder.

Saltzman: If that’s the case, then what does it mean, to return to our opening discussion, to be an “engaged” writer? If you are always introducing some of reality’s disorder, if you are imitating the properties of reality and invoking its nature, how successfully can a writer demonstrate an alternative program? Or is writing simply a matter of improving our lenses, so to speak?

Gass: Attitudes of writers toward that will differ. Some writers are people who basically have a settled point of view that they share with the community. This is so for millions of writers, and of course, their work participates in creating the community they appeal to. Jane Austen operated comfortably within her settled point of view. Other writers are always testing, moving to the edge. I don’t really think that one is better than the other. I would hate to go around saying Dryden is a bad poet. There are people who simply take what’s there and do wonders with it. But I do think, when you have a Dryden and, say, a Sterne (and this makes me old fashioned), that they are going to have things in common characteristic of any successful work of art. Success has room for different kinds and different modes, thank goodness.

Saltzman: That is, success as a measuring device . .

Gass: Oh, yeah. There are many Leibnizian worlds, but any world that exists in any sense that we might call real will have to have similar properties. I don’t say that there has to be an entire aesthetic theory, but yes, certain properties that they all tend to possess.

Saltzman: You say that the good writer, or the effective writer, is the one who sees all around his subject. Some of your less attractive characters—Kohler and Furber especially come to mind—are single-minded, “tunnel visioned,” you might say. Is that what prevents them from being adequate thinkers?

Gass: Oh, sure. Basically, they have a too-ready response. And of course, if you are going to make interesting characters, there’s got to be conflict there. Automatic ways of handling intellectual issues prevent them from becoming issues at all. Those characters don’t really get puzzled. I try to make puzzlements for these characters to assault their frame. Kohler, who can journey intellectually in all different directions, is nevertheless emotionally drawn back into this scheme of his.

Saltzman: So many of your characters find what you have called “the sweet country of the word,” an entrapment that is anything but appealing. All those claustrophobic images: the burrow in the snowdrift in “The Pedersen Kid,” Fender’s frozen enclosure in “Icicles,” the fox down the well and Furber’s weed-choked, dream-choked garden in Omensetter’s Luck, the wordy recesses of Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife and The Tunnel. The barriers of words they create are hardly inviting to others, nor do they seem particularly availing to the characters who are caught inside them.

Gass: Both of those things are true.

Saltzman: I’m not suggesting that this is an artistic dead end for you . . .

Gass: You know, I’d like to go to Hawaii, even Paradise, but I’d hate to have to live there and nowhere else. Again, it depends on what kind of usage you give to language. What are you doing with it? There is a fundamental conflict between the activity of the art and the activity of your existence. Many writers retreat to the realm of the word because that is where they find their power, and they celebrate that power, that realm, that area where their skills are operating. They feel good at something! As Stan Elkin says, “It’s wonderful, since I’m not good at anything else at all! My body doesn’t work, nothing works…” Like a great baseball player, even when he celebrates his heroics, he is trapped inside that game, and he knows there are other things going on.

Saltzman: And now with the increased specialization of the designated hitter, the field of expertise narrows still further.

Gass: That’s right.

Saltzman: Let me ask you more about your craft. Not so much when you start to write in the morning or that sort of thing. What I am curious about is the way you sound sentences out. In previous interviews you’ve spoken about how sentences must first provide aural gratification. I read an interview with the novelist Paul West in which he explains that “palpable rhythms” impel his writing. He claims that even before he knows what he is going to write he hears “curves and loops and repetitions” in advance of forthcoming sentences. Because your own prose style is so densely lyrical, I wonder if you have a similar rhythmic intuition.

Gass: Yes, actually I talked with Paul about that. We are very sympathetic, I think, in lots of ways. But it is also an observation most eloquently made in the literature by Valery. He talks about the rhythms and the patterns preceding the poem. That may be a little too extreme for me, but what happens is that a passage generates its form, and form is an elaborate auditory and visual pattern. At first, I was putting a lot of weight just on the auditory; I put intellectual weight upon the visual, but I didn’t feel it. Now, in the last ten years, I’ve taken a much more visual strut.

Iowa, 1989. Photo by and courtesy of Catherine Gass.

Saltzman: You are referring to more than just typographic play that we see in Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife and The Tunnel.

Gass: Yes. That is a start, or stumble, in the right direction. I do a lot of photography now, and I go around lecturing about it and about architecture, as well as giving lectures running with photography. I’m beginning to see how enormous the problem is of relating formal properties. In fact, form may ultimately only be comprehensible visually. That’s another issue that concerns me a great deal. In logic, for example, when we try to discuss how a simple inference is pleaded so that we can say a valid argument exists, how do we understand that? The intuitions are all spatial. (There may be a profound difference between East and West in this respect, I’m not sure.) Even music, which obviously we think of as auditory, may really best be understood in terms of spatial balances. So again, when one begins to develop the form of a passage, it’s increasingly architectural. I am working on this booklet on the relation between architectural structure and literary structure. Its chief problem—what’s holding me up—is that I want to diagram sentences. Aesthetically. That means doing floor plans, facades. My wife—she’s an architect—is doing the drawings for me.

Saltzman: Parsing buildings?

Gass: Yeah. Well, it’s the other way around. For instance, I can show in what way a sentence by Henry James is a spiral staircase. It has the same thought. And my mind works that way.

Gass, with Jack Hawkes and Donald Barthelme. Courtesy of Catherine Gass.

Saltzman: In “The Soul Inside the Sentence,” you talk about sentences that will persist past all utility. You talk about the beauty of such sentences. There’s a review by Donald Barthelme of one of John Hawkes’ books in which he praises Hawkes for sentences that are “splendidly not simple.” There are some ungenerous critics around who say that both you and Hawkes succeed at achieving sentences so fine that few would venture to enter them. I wonder how you would respond, not to critical smugness but to the earnest reader who wonders why there must be this lack of plainness, this rigid and manufactured lack of plainness in your sentences. Is it because you are out to create great architectural flourishes for their own splendid sake, or are you perhaps out to redefine utility more broadly?

Gass: Well, I think utility, as far as I’m concerned, is out. If someone wants to condemn my sentences for that, I’m pleased. But there is something more. There is a way in which Hawkes’ sentences and mine, and Paul’s—lots of people’s—force a different focus. You could say that this tabletop is very simple, but that’s from a certain point of view. From a certain distance, a ball of twine can be regarded as a dot and be replaced by a point. Take another look, and the string reveals itself, unwinds, knots. . . . Writing a sentence, one gets simplicity at a certain level of event. At a certain level, prose simply makes statements. There are times when all you need to know is that it is raining, but a hell of a lot more is going on. And there are other times when you’ve got to get into every raindrop. And sometimes the sentence has to do that. Hawkes does this too. Hawkes writes beautifully simple sentences, and other sentences strain their connections, and you ask what the hell has happened. Sentences are what have happened.

Saltzman: Beckett.

Gass: Beckett too.

Saltzman: I’ve tried, in teaching Beckett, to talk about the poignancy of one of his sentences as it drops down in stages till it collapses in the mud. If you’re attuned to the geometry of the sentence, I think you can respect that, but surely most readers are less interested in the fate of a phrase than in the fate of the character that the phrase attends.

Gass: Oh, sure.

Saltzman: If someone asked where to begin reading William Gass, where would you send him first? To the fiction or to the essays? Would you suggest that he read chronologically through your work to best appreciate it? I guess underlying this question is the question of whether or not you have a sense of a deliberate progression in your style, in your thinking.

Gass: I think that unlike some writers—and it’s partly because I began publishing so late, although I had a period, like everybody, of learning and evolving and so on—by the time I published my first books, while plenty is wrong with them, they had a finish to them, which I don’t depart from so much as change or adapt. I’m an elemental writer in that sense. My work changes in terms of what additional or different interests are included in it. You can see writers getting more themselves, discovering themselves, at certain times. I think you can see that in someone like Barth: the first few Barth books are not Barth yet. Lots of people prefer those books, but they are not Barth the Artist yet.

Saltzman: In the later novels, where he is cannibalizing the earlier ones, revisiting the old terrain . . .

Gass: He got a development. He goes through waves too, going from long books to short ones.

Saltzman: But as far as establishing a program like this ahead of time . . . I get the feeling that Barth is very precise about the shape of his career from the outset. Talking about recursive tendencies in sentences, think about them over the course of several books and decades!

Gass: Now Katherine Anne Porter is one of those writers who never changed. If you were to say, should you go to the “early” Katherine Anne Porter, it’s the same as the late one. She’s always Katherine Anne Porter. In one sense I feel that I too am always that way, and it doesn’t matter whether you read the fiction or whatever. So my answer to what to read of mine first would be based on what kind of person I was talking to or what their interests were. I don’t think of my work as going, say, from early James to late James—I wish it were! It’s wandering around in the same plane. I’m experimenting all the time, but I don’t think of it as up the mountain but across the road.

William H. Gass, Allan Ginsberg, and Arthur Miller outside the apartment house of Fyodor Dostoevsky in St. Petersburg, Russia, 1985. Courtesy of Catherine Gass.

Saltzman: In an essay of yours in New York Times Book Review, “A Failing Grade for the Present Tense,” you compare reading minimalist fiction to walking through a cemetery before they’ve put any graves in. I really liked that phrase, but on reflection didn’t feel I had sufficient command of it. Is it that we’re dealing with very shallow work here?

Gass: When everything is in the present tense, nothing ever has a chance to die. It’s a way of not approaching a whole set of issues.

Saltzman: So it’s not in your opinion a matter of refined technique but of avoiding what you can’t do well?

Gass: Yes, but I’m certainly not against minimalism. I love minimalists. Among my favorites are Stein and Beckett—they’re great. They’re minimalists in the sense that Rothko is a minimalist. The stuff I’m complaining about is cheap. It’s not doing anything. Now it may be that in among these people are writers who are splendid. They are all very competent, but I don’t think there’s any “pressure” there at all. I’m upset when I read young writers who aren’t upsetting me. I mean, they’re “young” . . .

Saltzman: Some chalk the whole thing up to another aspect of the Age of Reagan. Easy attitudes, everyone unhappy in the same way.

Gass: It depresses me. When I look at the writers who are really doing new things among American writers, who are they? Coover! Coover’s a young writer, always trying something new. Now there are writers who have that gift, like Boyle. I don’t want to be an old fogy, but it seems to me that the young writers aren’t being outrageous in the right way. Even if they went with great energy and commitment “back,” and tried to be Solzhenitsyn, or all of a sudden started to trek after Singer, it would be a reaction, yes, but that would be better. Now it’s all so commercial.

Saltzman: Let me quote from you: “One does not read The Public Burning, Degrees, or A Bad Man the first time in order to read it, but to ready oneself to read it.” This seems quite the opposite of writing you refer to as “competent.” Is this the joy of the difficult you’re talking about?

Gass: When I’ve read about two sentences of Ray Carver, I know the whole sense of the story. Now part of that may be a fault of Carver’s, but part of it is a matter of the experience of the reader, who just knows a great deal about how these things work. I think Ray is probably the best of that whole bunch, but I think, unlike, say, the best of Barthelme, where there is something absolutely extraordinary, with Ray I tend to say . . . okay. . .

Saltzman: It may be that Carver and writers like him use the word “ordinary” as a kind of banner, as if to say not only that you can salvage importance from ordinary experience, but like the title of his short story “A Small, Good Thing,” things are small and good. It isn’t that there is a reduced quality of goodness. Or would you say that this is all a way of obscuring a lack of ambition among these writers?

Gass: I think it is. And actually, I think that’s perfectly fine. When I was in Japan, one of the things I had to stress for Japanese audiences—and it was unfortunate that I was lecturing mainly to academic audiences who were having their “youth problem,” and they were too sympathetic, in other words, to that vogue—is that what the minimalist group may be saying is that all that old ambition is the last gasp of the Romantics. I mean, the ambitions of Hawkes, of Barth, who themselves admire the big figures, the Joyces, the Faulkners, the Prousts . . . instead, literature doesn’t matter that much, you can’t establish those values.

Saltzman: So they disqualify the game and move on to something else.

Gass: Sure. And the commercial values are the only ones. These writers understand the junk.

Saltzman: Or, they are in touch with what is most deeply a part of America—not only American youth, but American leadership. The sales reflect our needs, and we buy what looks like us. I don’t know if there’s no room for the old ambitions in that equation. On the other hand, a writer like Carver, who speaks of going through dozens of drafts of a single story in order to pare down to the bone . . .

Gass: So does Beckett.

Saltzman: . . . is ambitious in his own way.

Gass: It’s not as much of a meal. Now I may be quite wrong, and I’d be happy to be wrong. And I worry because I don’t want to miss the new things. And I don’t feel I miss it when it’s happening in Europe, when new writers come along to whom one can respond. Once in a while you wonder if you’re ever going to have that experience again, which is so electric, when you discover a new writer. Well, it happens all the time, even when it turns out it’s an old writer, like Walter Abish. When I read the first page of How German Is It, I said, Wait a minute, this is doing something! Here’s a house that is lived in! It happens less frequently now with young American writers. I remember Mark Strand sent me a postcard: “Read Invisible Cities.” This was a long time ago, bless the man! It was the first Calvino I’d read, and I knew literature had changed. I’ve taught that book so many times since—it is so beautifully complex, everything just right. Where are our Americans writing that way? Just let me have that hair-standing-on-end experience.

Saltzman: In a letter to me earlier this year you noted that European audiences may have a greater affinity for your work than do American audiences, that several dissertations were being written about your work over there. It can’t just be coincidence that here you are seeming to prefer European energies and tastes. Would it be fair to characterize American readers by and large as being like Phil Gelvin in Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife: hasty and artless about their books, wanting to have it the same way every time?

Gass: It wasn’t always that way. And again, it may be my fault. I grew up in a period when we were teaching the world how to read. The New Critics were presiding. Now, it’s almost inconceivable, even to people who want to be deconstructionists, to enter a poetry class and not be fundamentally influenced by that approach. It is one of the critical moves, ideology aside, that has apparently made a permanent mark.

Saltzman: If you read criticism by English writers, writers from the United States are still often referred to in that groundbreaking way.

Gass: It was a positive thing. We were good readers and good writers. Of course, we drove it into the ground. There was no temperance about it. But the demand made upon the reader by Pound and Eliot and Stevens, as well as by Faulkner and James—and even earlier, with Hawthorne and Melville and Dickinson—is enormous. The average American reader is not as sophisticated now as European readers, in certain ways.

Saltzman: An American reads a book, and often as not it is treated as an economic reality rather than as a political risk. Book packaging will receive as much attention as what’s being packaged. I don’t want to demean contemporary literature at all, but it is constrained perhaps by the emphasis on what the next thing will be to make a splash.

Gass: That commercialization process increasingly bothers me. It has gotten so much worse, and it has made the art world a zoo. When I was writing this piece recently for New York Review on [Jasper] Johns, I just kept thinking, What does it do to a painter to know that every brush stroke is inescapably another hundred thousand dollars? How does one manage to deliver the right critical notice? I’m glad literature is spared that, or rather, that it is milder in our case.

Saltzman: I remember reading about art films—the cinema, you know, as opposed to mere movies—and the statement that whereas movies may be guilty of prostituting themselves, the cinema is in danger of becoming an old maid. You want not only an audience, but the right audience, but who knows into whose hands your books will fall? Are you generally read the way you would wish to be read?

Gass: I’m often amazed. Basically, I don’t have a large complaint that I’m misread. Of course, it’s a kind of select readership who even bother with me. I don’t feel misunderstood or misvalued. Some are triggered by philosophical or theoretical issues, particularly the moral question of literature, but the political implications too, and they don’t see my whole position.

Saltzman: Critical positions are established so quickly, it seems. The consistency in emphasis in reviews of your books is remarkable, especially in view of the fact that you are not a writer who has been so often “visited” as, say, John Barth. There is clearly an orthodoxy so far as to how to read you, whom to group you with, that sort of thing.

Gass: You know, when I go to Europe and talk to university students . . . they’re sharp. It’s embarrassing. When I was in France recently, the students at the Universite d’Orleans were right on the ball as far as my work was concerned. Of course, my work isn’t taught as much over here, either. So I don’t have the feeling, which many of my friends do, that they are fundamentally misunderstood, or that they want more and better readers. I feel antagonistic to my culture in many profound ways, but it hasn’t got much to do with the fate of my own work. I understand my marginality in my society, and while some of the things that make what I do marginal distress me, others do not. I just visited Colombia. In Latin America, the writer can be central. One is running for president of Peru! A great part of that is the writer’s admiration of power and influence. But I think being relieved of that is a blessing in a way. A lot of writers go sour when they are disappointed by the discovery that they are not central—and they are not. But my relationship with the public has never been a serious issue. I don’t write for a public. There are too many unimportant failures on the social side of writing. It’s the good book that all of us are after. I’ve been fortunate in that I think I have the respect of the writers whom I admire.

Photographed on the Washington University in St. Louis campus, date unknown, 1980s. Photographer unknown. Courtesy of Catherine Gass.

Saltzman: Some of your admirers are concerned about The Tunnel, not so much with when it will finally appear—it has been appearing in excerpts for more than 20 years—but with the legitimacy of uniting the subject of the Holocaust with lyrical flights of style, as though that were inappropriate or sacrilegious. How would you respond to that charge?

Gass: Well, in the first place, I am not trying to take on the Holocaust. It’s just the background. I’m really dealing with a more American subject, in a way, what I call the fascism of the heart. But I am interested in the same kind of problem Jack Hawkes came up against in Virginie: to see whether or not one could write beautifully about the grotesque, the sexually grotesque.

Saltzman: Without beautifying it?

Gass: Yeah, but also so that the passages will be great regardless of what they’re about. Celebrations, even. And in a way, any great writing is a celebration of its subject regardless, and that’s what bothers people. If you write carefully about daffodils, or if you write carefully about decapitating somebody. . . Hawkes is capable of doing both. He does it all the time. He writes carefully about brutality, beautifully, exactly the way he would write about daffodils. This bothers the hell out of some people.

Saltzman: Well, you’ve spoken elsewhere about how the word “daffodil” is more beautiful and interesting than a daffodil.

Gass: Oh, sure.

Saltzman: But what happens is that the Holocaust is, for many, what has been written about it. What kind of leader was Ronald Reagan? Let’s wait a generation or two and see how the books constitute him. And so many contemporary historians, like Hayden White, talk about the literary structuring that underlies historical writing. So “good history” is good not only because it preserves . . .

Gass: . . . but good as it distorts.

Saltzman: Right. So if we’re talking about moral obligations, you can claim marginality for the writer in one sense, but you can’t be cavalier when you have a role in refining this massive moment in human history. Calling one’s book a verbal artifact or excusing its characters as bodies of words does remind us that they depart from history, but they also compel us in a similar manner. And you do count upon the fact that we know the history in advance for the effects you intend.

Gass: Oh, absolutely. The crucial problem for me—it’s a way of proving something—is to be able to redeem any subject matter or character by virtue of the language. (Shakespeare did it already, of course, so why do we bother?) Next to this is concern—not an artistic one, but a moral one: the banality of evil. Not that evil is ordinary, but the evil of ordinariness, ordinary vices and ordinary virtues alike. It’s a common American theme, I think, and I’ve even proposed to explore in an essay this matter of the vices of the virtues.

Saltzman: The seven deadly virtues?

Gass: The one I’ve touched on so far is neatness.

Saltzman: You may know the book The Cunning of History, which argues that the greatest atrocity of the Holocaust is that it was engineered not by beasts or Martians but by bureaucrats, petty clerks, and so on—people exceedingly like us. They are not aberrations, but recognizable aspects of ourselves, and that is what’s so terrifying.

Gass: Kohler is going to be someone, I believe, whom the reader will get to know deeply. He may see something of himself in that consciousness, and that may prove scary. Coming close to things is a scary business.

Saltzman: Let me now return to your essays, specifically, the distinction you make between essays and articles in “Emerson and the Essay.” You write a great many articles, book reviews, and commissioned pieces yourself, although you tend to disparage them somewhat in the Emerson piece. Do you find that they give you a kind of rigor, or do they disrupt the writing that you prefer?

Gass: Both. It’s an attitude that Valery shared because most of his work was occasioned, officiated. There are the arbitrary problems. These things are not as intriguing as they once were—they’re getting to be a drag. But when you get the chance to write on something you’re really seduced by . . . I’m actually behind right now on a piece about Danilo Kiš, and he’s a writer I really want to celebrate. He’s wonderful.

Saltzman: One of the essays in Habitation of the Word features a passage of his from Garden, Ashes.

Gass: I’ve been asked to review his Encyclopedia of the Dead. You know, I often assign books in class that I haven’t read or have read inadequately, to force myself to confront them carefully. The opportunity to go out into some area like that—I want to reread all of Kiš to prepare for this—is wonderful, but the time squeeze makes me uneasy. I really enjoyed doing the piece on Jasper Johns, and I love the challenge of exploring art and architecture and their potential literary correlations further. Maybe not a challenge, exactly—it’s a tease.

Saltzman: It doesn’t seem that you are in any way stylistically cramped by the form or by the enforced occasion.

Gass: No. At least, I hope not. You don’t want to fall into writing the same old thing. You want to feel that you have to hunt for your expression. It does a lot for your head. The very arbitrariness of the space, the time limits, the subject matter often proved most interesting to Valery, and I share that feeling to a large degree. I’m giving a lecture in Washington next week on the subject of the city and signs, and I’m having to work between slides. That interaction intrigues me.

Saltzman: In your essays on China and the Soviet Union, there seems to be a very conscious interplay between the photographs and the language of the essays.

Gass: And that interplay, that competition, is increasing very much. Photography is now a very important part of what I do in teaching, for example. The loop of writing and the loop of photography have coincided and played off one another increasingly recently. The photography that I’m interested in as an artist is almost totally nonobjective.

Saltzman: Your writing is so self-aware—there’s an opaqueness about it, a persistent calling of attention to its surface—and yet now we find your writing making room for photography, the plastic arts, not only as subject matter but also in the manner of the deliberate visual component of the fiction. The Tunnel is a self-consciously spatial work. But in the photo essays, could the text become a series of captions? Is the text in danger of becoming subordinated in that way?

Gass: Not in the novel. But I am doing a book of photographs, and that will undoubtedly be the case there. But my attitude toward the world with a camera is quite different from my attitude as a writer. I am not interested in the techniques of photography much at all. I don’t manipulate much. On the other hand, it’s the formal properties of the transposed result that do interest me, and that is perhaps why I get the same response to my photography as to my writing: Why that? What is it? Both are formal projects, and if you like nonobjective art you are more likely to be drawn to both, I imagine.

Saltzman: Have your travels had a pronounced effect on the kind of writing you do?

Gass: I haven’t incorporated a great deal of my experience traveling “into” fiction. Now that I am taking photographs, I am much more aware of taking architectural accounts and appropriating images. So, yes, in that it has impact on the way I formulate conceptions of form. But it is very indirect. On the other hand, I’m eager about my upcoming trip to Berlin, where I hope to get back into The Tunnel, you know, surrounded by the right kind of white noise. And in Japan. . . I saw a translation of On Being Blue in Japanese. They have a wonderful naiveté about translation that makes them willing to take on anything. It looks wonderful! The Japanese offer a simplicity that is very strenuous. Japanese painting prefers a simple background for reverberant contemplation. This simplicity is at the root of their metaphysical apprehension and their moral existence, not just their aesthetics. Meanwhile, the French version of Omensetter has been labored on for years. This idea of translation of the book, of the author from place to place, can be invigorating. It can restore the old newness.

Saltzman: As an awkward segue, a question about traveling through your own work: do you go back and read your early writings?

Gass: Only when I’m forced to for various odd reasons, as when I had to prepare a preface for the collection of stories. They’re redoing Willie Masters’ at Dalkey Archive and asked for a preface. . . . I didn’t even want to look at the thing. Occasionally I’ll go back to consult myself for what I said earlier. I’m going to do a long review of the new Faulkner biography, so I will have to review what I said about Faulkner in another piece in World Within the Word just so I won’t say the same thing again. Otherwise, no.

Saltzman: So it’s not a matter of having affection for those works so much as seeing them as completed projects.

Gass: They’re done. I’ll reread things and pore over them so long as they’re not finished.

Saltzman: Isn’t it possible that criticism could have the same effect? We’ve talked about how critics can make things easy and digestible and perhaps kill them with paraphrase. Randall Jarrell said in “The Age of Criticism,” “Critics exist simply to help us with works of art—isn’t that true?” I don’t think you would characterize yourself as a literary critic in that sense, although you do write essays that use literary works as points of departure or sounding boards.

Gass: I pick what I’d like to do, although there are other exigencies in reviewing. I really hate judging or rating things. Choosing to review something is a judgment, of course. My essay is a meditation on a text, and the purpose of that meditation is not to use the text to glorify yourself, its to try to get a hold of why you respond to this text with such appreciation. That may take you in God-knows-what directions, but I hope always in the way of celebrating the text. I’ve done very little travel writing, really, but I sometimes think of books as countries I’ve visited. You’re giving the reader an account of your visit to them. There were a few pieces I’ve done where I felt I was working in that mode almost exclusively—the Lowry piece. I really prefer that. I don’t want to call it Pateristic impressionism exactly, but it doesn’t pretend to give a last word. I like the occasion to write something decent about a wonderful author.

Saltzman: If you read enough Faulkner, do you write like Faulkner? Given his interest in sentences, I think you’d find him especially compatible.

Gass: He’s one of those writers—James is another—who gets a hold of my head too much. He swamps you. So when I’m working on anything else, I don’t dare read him. He takes charge of your mind. All the really good ones do.

Saltzman: You’ve written about the reader’s “kindly imprisonment” by the work of art, but what you’re describing doesn’t sound all that kindly.

Gass: Not if “you’re” trying to write. Then you’ll just turn out bad Faulkner. I’ll let Faulkner do that. He wrote the best bad Faulkner.

Saltzman: And, it probably goes without saying, an interview is another testing ground for sentences.

Gass: Another chance to say yourself, to get yourself down in a decent way.

Originally published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction (November 1991). Republished with permission.



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