Gass with Stanley Elkin. Courtesy of Catherine Gass.

William H. Gass: Interviewed by Thomas LeClair — with John Gardner, 1979

Published in The New Republic, 1979, as “William Gass and John Gardner: A Debate on Fiction”


This discussion between William Gass and John Gardner took place on October 24, 1978, during a Fiction Festival sponsored by the University of Cincinnati and the National Endowment for the Arts. The discussion was moderated by Thomas LeClair, who teaches at Cincinnati. John Gardner is the author of On Moral Fiction and many novels. William Gass, novelist and teacher of philosophy, is the author most recently of The World Within the Word, a volume of literary criticism.

Thomas LeClair: Is there a use of language in fiction which is inherently moral?

John Gardner: When I wrote On Moral Fiction, I was talking about a particular kind of fiction which I think is consciously moral, fiction which tries to understand important matters by means of the best tool human beings have. Many of the most academically popular writers of our time are completely uninterested in understanding these matters. They are more interested in understanding juxtapositions than in understanding how we should live. They are concerned with making beautiful or interesting or ornate or curious objects. As for language—when I talk to you, I speak English and try to choose words, from all the possible words in the world, which seem most likely to say what I mean. If I am writing and find that one of the words that I choose is wrong, I put in a better word for my precise meaning. While English is just noises that we make with our mouths, teeth, throat, lungs and so on, fiction is an enormously complicated language. It has much more discreet, much more delicate ways of communicating. When I create a character, I want to make a lifelike human being, a virtual human being. Maybe by using the right kind of weather, I can give you a hint of what this person is. By comparing him to a bear or a rhinoceros or a spider, I can give you another hint. In other words, everything I choose in writing a piece of fiction is aimed at communication. I think that beauty in fiction is finally elegant communication, where the very form of the work helps to say what I’m trying to say. If I’m writing about an ordered universe, I write an ordered novel. If I’m talking about a tension between order and disorder, I write a novel in which the form expresses that tension. But always I’m using the tool of language to dig a hole. Other people sometimes use the tool of language to chew on.

William H. Gass: John’s saying that a number of contemporary writers are really not interested in solving problems is a little misleading. I think the difference lies in whether they believe one can understand important human issues by writing novels; they might be so concerned with these problems that they would rather not trust the solution of them to novelists. My own feelings are, of course, that moral issues surround us everywhere, that they are deeply important, and that they survival of the human race is necessary so that parasites like myself can diddle away in corners. The question that lies between John and me here is whether or not writing fiction, rather than, for instance, doing philosophy, is a good method for such an exploration. Philosophy has its own disciplines, its own methods of coming to clarity about these issues, so the way one talks about them won’t twist the conclusions. Because fiction is a method which, by its very nature and demands, deforms, I am suspicious of it. John goes on to say that in writing he faces the problem of revision and getting his best words by constantly asking, “Is this really what I believe?” I think that’s fine. I don’t care how the right words get on the page as long as they’re the right words. But my condition is much bleaker. I don’t know, most of the time, what I believe. Indeed, as a fiction writer I find it convenient not to believe things. Not to disbelieve things either, just to move into a realm where everything is held in suspension. You hope that the amount of meaning that you can pack into the book will always be more than you are capable of consciously understanding. Otherwise, the book is likely to be as thin as you are. You have to trick your medium into doing far better than you, as a conscious and clearheaded person, might manage. So one of the problems that I face is exactly the opposite of John’s. John’s concern is to communicate; I have very little to communicate. I’m not sure I understand what little I do have. I think it would be thin and uninteresting and hardly useful. If I did want to communicate, I would move over to philosophy and submit to the rigors that are concerned with the production of clarity, of logical order, truth and so on. In fiction, I am interested in transforming language, in disarming the almost insistent communicability of language. When you are not asserting, you are not confusing, and I would be happy to avoid that.

LeClair: Does this kind of purity of creation have a moral value in the world as well as an aesthetic one?

Gass: Sure, John wants a message, some kind of communication to the world. 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.

Gardner: There’s no question that an object made simply to be beautiful is an affirmation of a kind, and any affirmation of that which is good for human beings is moral. But Bill and I, in our writing, are concerned with different kinds of affirmation. When I write, I try to find out by honest thought, moment by moment, psychological response by psychological response, what it is that I can affirm as true and good. I think, for example, it’s better to be an American democratic person than a headhunter. I think I think that. When I work it in a novel, I might change my mind a little. But in the process of discovering what I really believe, what I can say yes to—“Yes, I affirm that, that’s good, that’s helpful to people, that makes it possible for individuals to live in society”—in the process I create an effect.

By telling a moving story, I’ve led the reader to an affirmation of the value I have come to find that I can affirm. The difference between what I am doing and what a philosopher is doing is that my activity leads to a feeling state, whereas the philosopher has only cold clarity. I’m after an affirmation of how to live, but it’s a difficult affirmation. Again and again people read my books and misunderstand the endings; they think the end of Grendel is a curse. It’s such a marginal affirmation that maybe it might as well be a curse. There isn’t an awful lot one can affirm, but I try to get the affirmation that I can really believe and that will move people. I’m trying for an affirmation that has something to do with how to live; Bill and other writers like him are trying for an affirmation of just living. A guy walks along a street and sees this magnificent sculpture made out of signs and his day is better for it. But what I want the guy to do is continue past the signs and go do his job.

“I suspect, John, that you want not things that will be loved but things that will be promiscuous. If you had a daughter to send into the world, would you want everybody to love her?”

Gass: One of the problems that I find with John’s view is that it might lead you to say harsh things about great writers, a terrible thought. Suppose you have a writer who clearly inspects what he believes and ends his great long work by saying, “You must go on. I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” That’s about as affirmative as Beckett gets, and there are other writers who, in following a process of being honest about what they can affirm, find only “going on” left and are not even sure of that without writing another book to make sure they’re still going on. Gaddis hasn’t made a habit of hooray. Since I think, quite independently of any theory, that Beckett is one of the greatest writers of this period, I’m wondering, John, if your view allows you to regard him in that way?

Gardner: I don’t think that’s a problem because one is terribly moved by Beckett and one does go on, and one even feels he has a reason for going on, although the reason may be, in the technical sense, absurd. There are other writers who would persuade you not to go on, that everything is nonsense, that you should kill yourself. They, of course, go on to write another book while you have killed yourself. If we look back through the history of literature, those writers have not been the ones who have been loved and who have survived. Again and again we’re moved by Achilles, we’re moved by the best of Shakespeare, Chaucer and others we keep going back to. Writers who give us visions to which we say, with all our unconscious minds as well as our conscious minds, ‘That’s just not so,” we don’t read.

I’m not saying that other people shouldn’t make wonderful sculptures; I am saying they shouldn’t be mistaken for the big tent, the most important kind of work. The theory that I’m proposing says, fundamentally, that you create in the reader’s mind a vivid and continuous dream. The reader sits down with his book just after breakfast, and immediately someone says, “Hermione, aren’t you coming to lunch?” One instant has passed although 200 pages have passed because the reader has been in a vivid and continuous dream, living a virtual life, making moral judgements in a virtual state.

… The real problem with this argument is that Bill Gass is a sneaky moralist. His book ends in a magnificent affirmation. I’m arguing against his theory, but his books don’t follow it.

LeClair: Bill, what about this vivid and continuous dream?

Gass: It’s rather imaginary. In music, let’s say, the motion of the work comes from the performance. That’s true also in the theater. So if there’s an interruption, or your mind goes blank or someone rattles a bag, you miss something and that’s too bad, it’s lost. In reading fiction, however, the motion that moves the text comes from the reader. Now the writer can indicate or try to indicate how that motion should go and at what rate. But I don’t think that anyone writes a book now supposing that the reader will sit down and read 200 pages through in a dream. He’s going to, in fact, stop, brush a fly off his nose, go back to the first page, read it over, skip, look around for the juicy parts. The book is more like a building which you’re trying to get someone to go through the way you want them to. The experience of a novel can occasionally be what John describes. I remember it happening when I was 12 or so reading The Motor Boat Boys on the Columbia River.

Gardner: You’re right if you’re talking about the concert hall, but with a record you can go back. And when you go back, you remember what came before, you know where you are, and you know where you’re going. If a novel is plotted, if you have the actualization of the potential that exists, in a character in a certain situation, then the argument of the novel—the movement of the plot, the development of the characters in their response to problems—leads you through the novel. What argument is to philosophy, plot is to fiction. Most philosophers set up a syllogism and move steadily through it. You have a feeling of profluence, of forward flowingness. When a novel has a plot, it doesn’t matter if the reader goes to chapter eight, then ducks back to chapter five, and then goes forward again. Finally, the ultimate apparition, the ultimate dream of the novel, is a continuous one. When you decide as a writer that the novel is just a house you’re trying to get somebody to go through in various ways, you have broken faith with the reader because you are now a manipulator, as opposed to an empathizer. If the novelist follows his plot, which is the characters and the action, if he honestly and continuously proceeds from here to here because he wants to understand some particular question, the reader is going to go with him because he wants to know the same answers. On the other hand, if the writer makes the reader do things, then I think he puts the reader in a subservient position which I don’t like.

Let me elaborate with the plot of a story someone told me once. A woman has had a perfect marriage. After her husband dies, she finds a walnut box of perfectly labeled feathers in the garage. She finds out that all his life he has had a secret hobby, and at that moment she begins to wonder, How come he didn’t tell her? The next time she hears a conversation about her husband, she’s going to listen in a different way. The next time her kids talk about him, she’s going to listen in a different way. The next time she meets his 30-year-old secretary, she’ll look at her a different way. We’re on to a real problem, which is human doubt, human faith, and as long as we’re on that, we don’t want the author pushing us around. We want someone honestly, gently taking us through an exploration of this situation. There is an act of faith, whereas when the author manipulates the reader he is solipsistic in the worst sense: he’s not in a love relationship with the reader.

Gass: I didn’t mean the manipulation of the reader when I compared reading to going through a building. The kind of response to novels that John is talking about certainly was appropriate 200 years ago, when there were lots of novels written in that form. There are just not many of them being written that way anymore. When Fielding comes to the end of Tom Jones, for example, I suspect that he expects us to remember about as much of the first chapter as we would of that early part of our life, if we were thinking back. Not every detail, not every adjective attached to a noun in a certain way. In someone like Joyce, quite the contrary is true. He wants an experience that can happen only when the reader moves constantly about the book. The notion of the space in which this kind of book is constructed is quite different from the notion of the time through which the Fielding work moves. While I don’t mind Fielding’s having written the way he wrote, John begrudges some people writing in this newer or different way, in which the kind of attention the reader is expected to pay to the page transforms the way the work exists.

Gardner: I think we both agree that we’re trying to create something that the reader will love. Is it possibly the case that the fiction you’re advocating, Bill, is simply not lovable, that it simply doesn’t hook readers? You can quickly say, “But the most sophisticated reader…” I’m not sure that’s true. In the academy we teach Pynchon instead of Trollope. About Trollope there’s nothing to say because it’s all clear. On the other hand, every line of Pynchon you can explain because nothing is clear. So the academy ends up accidentally selecting books the students may need help with. They may be a couple of the greatest books in all history and 20 of the worst, but there’s something to say about them. You get an artificial taste in the academy. The sophisticated reader may not remember how to read; he may not understand why it’s nice that Jack in the Beanstalk steals those things from the giant.

Gass: I suspect, John, that you want not things that will be loved but things that will be promiscuous. If you had a daughter to send into the world, would you want everybody to love her? I might be at my winery turning out bottles of thunderbird which everybody loves. It wouldn’t give me much satisfaction. It’s not just that books are loved, but why they’re loved. If you’ve given them the properties that make them worthwhile, then it doesn’t matter if no one does love them. Frequently very few people do or a work will go unobserved for years.

LeClair: Do the two of you write from different motives? We’ve heard love mentioned several times. I know that Bill Gass has used the word anger. Do the motives for your writing produce the differences in the kind of fiction that you write?

Gass: I have a view I’m sure John wouldn’t agree with. 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.

“Substance is more interesting than most of my friends.”

Gardner: I agree with almost everything Bill says except the nonsense about human nature. I think human beings are a little lower than angels and a hell of a lot more important. One does take the world apart and put it back together, but I would express it differently. You write the book to understand and get control of in yourself things that you haven’t been able to control and understand in your world. When you have the kind of problem that will come to you in repeated dreams, you work it out on the page. Maybe it’s an illusory understanding, but I think it helps you live. I think with each book you write you become a better person. It’s certainly true that a great many famous writers, Marcel Proust for instance, were awful human beings, were much better in their writing. The reason is, I think, that when one is writing a book one gets to think over a nasty crack, and to gentle it and put it in a way that’s not quite so cutting. Bill might say it’s more elegantly expressed. “I want to rise so high that when I shit I won’t miss anybody” is so well said the meanness is partly muted. It becomes a joke, a kind of self-mocking, so it’s not saying the same things that the writer might say if drunk and angry. I believe that we revise our lives in our work and with every revision we find a mistake we don’t have to make again. I also think people become gradually slightly better people as they write books. That may not be true, but that’s been my conviction.

Gass: Do you think Alexander Pope got better as a person?

Gardner: I think that Bill values a great deal of literature that I don’t value. Alexander Pope expresses a mode that we all have—meanness—and he expresses it very well. But one ultimately says, “I don’t feel like reading Pope tonight. Kojak is on; I’ll get my meanness quick.” One always reads through the mean writers with a certain amount of fascination, the same way you watch the female praying mantis eat the male. But that doesn’t mean you go home every day and watch the praying mantises.

Gass: Some of us do.

LeClair: The concept of character in fiction is one you differ on. Would you talk about your notion of character?

Gass: It’s complex. I’ll try to simplify it very quickly. 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.

Gardner: I obviously don’t agree with Bill on all that. It seems to me a character is an apparition in the writer’s mind, a very clear apparition based on an imaginative reconstruction or melting of many people the writer has known. The ideal book has to have more than one character, because we know a character by what he does: what he does to other people, and what they do back to him. Bill wants to avoid the reader’s “filling in,” but when we read J. D. Salinger, for instance, we understand many things about his characters that aren’t in the book because we know what people mean when they make the gestures that Salinger’s made-up people make. So we’re all the time seeing more of the picture than is given. In the good novel, the reader gets an apparition, a dream, in which he sees people doing things to each other, hurting each other or exploring each other, or loving each other or whatever, and a tiny linguistic signal sets off a huge trap of material which gives us a very subtle sense of these imaginary people. It’s true that one can analyze them as words on a page, but I have never cried at the fate of free will or determinism in a good philosophy book.

Bill has argued that it’s wrong to be frightened by a character in a book or to cry at the death of a character. I say it’s not. I say a book is nothing but a written symbol of a dream. If someone jumps at me with an axe in a nightmare, I scream and I have every right to scream because I believe that person is real. In the same way, when the dream is transported to me by words and I see that character leap out at me with an axe, I have every right to believe that my head is going to be knocked in. I think it’s very useful to talk about character in traditional ways. Contemporary philosophy has reconstructed the world into its own words while distrusting the words that we’ve used over and over and over. Meaning exists in literature because of the way thousands of generations of people have used words. With just the slightest tap, you ring the whole gong of meaning. I’m more interested in the gong than the tap. I think Bill concentrates on the technique of the tap.

…First it matters to him that a novel is elegant and well-done and that it has other characteristics I think are perhaps secondary. But given two well-done books, one of which strikes him as absolutely truthful while the other is not what he would affirm in his life, Bill would take, he says, the one that he thinks is true.

Gass: Yes, but that’s just wanting thickness to experience. If, for instance, I play golf for my health and to persuade some client and because I’m hooked on the symbolism of getting a ball into a hole, that’s better than playing golf just to have a good score. But ultimately, whether you play golf well or not is determined by how well you score your performance—and that’s what ought to be used as the aesthetic measure. If a beautiful book is a source of virtue and a source of truth—fine. That’s jolly. The composer of such a work would be a fine philosopher or a noble saint, and an artist. But he’s not a good artist because he’s a fine philosopher or a noble saint.

…There is a fundamental divergence about what literature is. I don’t want to subordinate beauty to truth and goodness. John and others have values which they think more important. Beauty, after all, is not very vital for people. I think it is very important, in the cleanliness of the mind, to know why a particular thing is good. A lot of people judge, to use a crude example, the dinner good because of the amount of calories it has. Well, that is important if you don’t want to gain weight, but what has that got to do with the quality of the food? Moral judgements on art constantly confuse the quality of the food. I would also claim that my view is more catholic. It will allow in as good writers more than this other view will; John lets hardly anybody in the door.

Gardner: I love Bill’s writing, and I honestly think that Bill is the only writer in America that I would let in the door. For 24 years I have been screaming at him, sometimes literally screaming at him, saying “Bill, you are wasting the greatest genius every written to America by fiddling around when you could be doing big, important things.” What he can do with language is magnificent, but then he turns it against itself. Our definitions of beauty are different. I think language exists to make a beautiful and powerful apparition. He thinks you can make pretty colored walls with it. That’s unfair. 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.

Gass: 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: Bill Gass is quoted as saying that his ambition in life is to write a book so good that nobody will publish it. My ambition in life is to outlive Bill Gass and change all of his books.


Originally published in The New Republic (March 10, 1979) as “William Gass and John Gardner: A Debate on Fiction.” Republished with permission.