William H. Gass: Interviewed by Eric Day, 2004

Published as “Structures that Sing: An Interview with William H. Gass” in Hayden’s Ferry Review, 2004

Stephen Schenkenberg
May 4, 2014 · 25 min read

“I’ve always thought that Aristotle was right about the nature of the good life—that it was a process of self-realization, and that it was tied to the pursuit of excellence, whether as a craftsman, artist, scientist, or statesman.”

Day: The Tunnel, your last novel, is about a reprehensible man of history who is in love with tunnels. So much so, he is digging one in the basement of his house in order to get away from all sorts of constructs in his life, and perhaps into new ones. Throughout, the book contains typographical experimentation. There are colorful pennants, bold script, a page reproduced from a paper sack that once held a bag of oranges shared by lovers, and more. Long before the book came out, you planned on not making any compromises to it, yet, because of financial reasons, all you’d hoped to accomplish would not be done by the publisher. In a perfect world, how would its design differ from its original widely-published form? And what would you say to unknown writers who wish to be uncompromising, but find the publishing world accommodating mainly to those who prune this tendency from their aesthetic, or to those whose agented fiction or cover letters shine with commercial appeal?

“Difficult? Hard to read? Is the light bad?”

Day: I’m interested to know what you think of Jonathan Franzen’s recent New Yorker article, “Mr. Difficult: William Gaddis and the Problem of Hard-to-Read Books.” Franzen calls the authors of difficult fiction angry showoffs whose aversion to compromise make their books unreadable. In addition to Gaddis’ The Recognitions and J R, he groups in Remembrance of Things Past, Naked Lunch, and, a bit bafflingly, Moby-Dick and Don Quixote. He goes on to say that the characters in difficult fiction are little more than cardboard cutouts intended to stand in for the “satirical judgments and intellectual obsessions” of their authors, and that their stylistic trickery serves only to “discourage intimacy” with the reader. He suggests that Gaddis, in this sense, betrayed him. That he’s performed a kind of violation of pact by not producing the contractual, entertainment-based model of fiction that Franzen seems to be in favor of here. What do you see as the writer’s duty to the reader, and why should we take the time to read The Recognitions? Why should we take the time to read hard books at all?

The Ear’s Mouth Must Move — Essential Interviews of William H. Gass

Edited by Stephen Schenkenberg, 2014 | Cover photographs by…

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