12 Winters Blog

Writing Too Good to Publish

Posted in April 2019, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on April 21, 2019

The following paper — “Writing Too Good to Publish: A Disheartening Dispatch from the Heartland” — was presented at the North American Review Writing Conference, April 19-21, 2019, in Cedar Falls, Iowa, as part of the panel “Published Worlds.” Other papers presented were “Something About a Frying Pan and a Fire: Why I Gave up a Tenured Position and Launched a Publishing Imprint” by Kathy Flann, and “To Publish or Not to Publish” by Sayeed Ahmad.


I want to begin by updating the title of this talk. To the main title “Writing Too Good to Publish,” I’m adding “A Disheartening Dispatch from the Heartland.” I see my presentation as a semi-formal prologue to a paper I’m presenting in July at the MLA International Symposium in Lisbon. That paper is on the loss of the literary voice and its ramifications for society. Today my main objective is to generate some thought and discussion, and I’m building my talk around observations by my literary idol William H. Gass, who quipped in a 1971 interview, regarding his eventual novel The Tunnel, that if he achieved his goal “perhaps it will be such a good book no one will want to publish it,” adding, “I live on that hope.” Gass was suggesting, nearly fifty years ago, that in the publishing world there was emerging a negative correlation between the quality of a book and its likelihood for publication.

Gass imposingSo at the root of my talk is the question: Has Gass’s darkly humorous prediction come true? That is, in 2019 can one produce such a well-written book that no publisher will touch it—or at least no major publisher? Since I’ve gone to the trouble of proposing this topic for the writing conference and putting together some thoughts regarding it, you can no doubt surmise that my answer to the question is yes.

First, I acknowledge that my working thesis is bathed in subjectivity. What, for example, constitutes a “good book”? What did Gass mean by the term in 1971, and is his meaning relevant today? For that matter, what is a “major” publisher?

This last question is perhaps the simplest to answer, so I’ll begin there. When I refer to major publishers, I’m thinking of what Publisher’s Weekly calls the “Big Five” (Milliot), commercial publishers who have the wherewithal to publish an author in a massive press run, and promote the work in a way that will get it reviewed by the top reviewers, put it in the running for prestigious prizes, prominently placed in bookstores, and purchased by libraries far and wide. Publisher’s Weekly identifies the Big Five as Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group, and Macmillan (at least as of 2017). Just outside the Big Five is Scholastic. A quick perusal of book spines in Barnes & Noble (the only nationwide bookseller remaining) would suggest there are a lot more commercial publishers than a mere handful, but it’s misleading because these big publishers have been buying up smaller presses for decades, so what appear to be dozens of New York-based publishers are in fact entities which fall under the auspices of a few parent companies.

Cormac McCarthyFor these parent companies, profit is the number-one driving force; in fact, nearly the only force. The situation is efficiently summarized in Daniel Robert King’s Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Evolution (2016). McCarthy’s first publisher was Random House, but “[b]y 1962 Random House was on the path to becoming a big business” (21). King goes on, “In the context of the American publishing industry as a whole, it was the purchase of Random House by RCA in 1965 that marked the real beginning” of book publishers being purchased by corporations whose main financial interest wasn’t publishing books (22). During McCarthy’s time at Random House, presidents came and went, and with each successor there may have been more attention paid to profit and less to literary quality. Perhaps the low point was reached in 1980 with the installment of Alberto Vitale, a former banker who André Schiffrin describes as a “business man with a thuggish disposition and a thoroughly anti-intellectual attitude—the pose of a rough-and-ready street fighter who gets things done and isn’t afraid to do what it takes to make as much money as possible” (qtd. in King 22-23). Chief among Vitale’s changes to the Random House modus operandi, writes Schiffrin, was “that each book should make a profit on its own and that one title should no longer be allowed to subsidize another” (23). This pressure for each book to make a profit has led to a high turnover rate among editors at corporate publishing houses, and agents have replaced editors as “the fixed points in authors’ lives,” according to Schiffrin (23).

By extension, then, agents have had to become more preoccupied with profit potential than the weighty quality of the work. Being a literary agent is not charity work, after all, so what good does it do to take on a project unless one is reasonably certain it can catch the eye of a market-minded editor?

Up until the corporate takeover of the publishing world, which began in the 1960s, editors at places like Random House would find talented writers and nurture their careers until sales could catch up. As King notes, “Random House took on and retained McCarthy as one of their authors despite unpromising sales over the first twenty years of his career” (23). In fact, it was due to the persistence of McCarthy’s editor Albert Erskine that McCarthy’s earliest titles even stayed in print. Had it not been for Erskine’s clout and consistent badgering, Random House might have let McCarthy’s titles go out of print (32-33). Ultimately, McCarthy’s novels were moved to Knopf, which by then, in the early 1990s, had been fully acquired by Random House as an imprint for its “loss leaders”—“low-selling books which add prestige to a company’s name . . . despite their underwhelming sales” (103-104).

Knopf was William Gass’s publisher as well, beginning with the hardcover reprint of Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife in 1971. The outrageously experimental novella was originally published as a special supplement by the literary journal TriQuarterly in 1968. Nineteen seventy-one was of course the year Gass made his comment about writing such a good book no one would publish it. Knopf did publish it, in 1995, and it won a few accolades, including the American Book Award in 1996, but it must have been commercially challenging, especially given Gass’s ambitions for the book’s design. For example, the hardcover edition includes several full-color illustrations. HarperCollins produced a paperback edition in 1996, and just three years later Gass appealed to the small press Dalkey Archive to produce another paperback edition to keep The Tunnel in print. (In 1989, Dalkey began reprinting Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife in paperback.)

Gass worked on The Tunnel for 26 years, and various parts of it were published in more than a dozen literary journals (and in two instances, limited and signed editions by boutique presses). Meanwhile, the publishing industry went through its transformations, along with the reading public. Gass labored on The Tunnel for nearly three decades (along with numerous other projects) in spite of the fact he didn’t expect the novel to receive a hero’s welcome once it was published. He said in 1981, for example, “Readers don’t want difficult works—not just mine—anybody’s. The reward for the time, effort, agony of getting into some of these things is always problematic. It isn’t simply that I have a small audience. Most of the writers I admire don’t really have much of an audience” (Castro 71). Nearly a decade before, Gass compared writing serious fiction to writing poetry, as far as reception was concerned:

I think fiction is going the way of poetry. It’s getting increasingly technical, increasingly more aimed at a small audience, and so forth. And this is what happened to poetry—over a long period of time. And now fiction, which I suppose was once the leading popular art form, certainly isn’t any more. And serious fiction does not even hope for it. (Mullinax 14)

Indeed, by the time The Tunnel finally emerged in book form, Gass claimed that he “expected to be ignored. . . . There were some [critics] who were quite enthusiastic, but by and large it was the usual: just shrugs and nobody paid much attention” (Abowitz 145).

So as the publishing industry transformed from the 1960s onward, with a greater and greater emphasis on profit over literary merit, what sorts of writers were being picked up by the Big Five? According to Gass, in 1976, “[a] lot of modern writers . . . are writing for the fast mind that speeds over the text like those noisy bastards in motor boats. . . . They stand to literature as fast food to food” (LeClair 25). The Internet Age was still an embryo when Gass made this observation. Since then, how much faster have our minds become, how much more inclined toward simplistic texts that can be skimmed at a lightning pace—if read at all?

Obviously, the historical and cultural forces which have led us here are too complicated to explore in such a brief talk, but it may be worth noting that the corporate takeover of the publishing industry and reading’s decline in popularity have been concurrent with the rise and fall of literary postmodernism. Anis Shivani has suggested that by the end of the twentieth century too many fiction writers were engaged in a “pale” imitation of postmodern pioneers like Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover (Shivani et al. 226). He said, “We’re suffering in different ways from the huge wave of appropriation, mixing, and flattening that carried all of us along with it” (227). Shivani further argues that the postmodern effort to “reconcile high and low” culture proved to be a failed experiment. Young writers’ “reverence for junk is too great; they haven’t known anything else but video culture, and they can’t think past it, let alone ironize time and space, restructure it in new narrative” as early postmodernists, like Kurt Vonnegut, were able to do (227). I have only begun to consider possible correlations between the current state of affairs in writing and publishing, and the rise and fall of postmodernism—but I wanted to at least underscore the fact they are historical bedfellows.

I feel I have a unique vantage point regarding the literary landscape. I’m a writer of the sort of stuff spurned by the Big Five. My short fiction and novel excerpts have appeared in nearly 70 journals (including Glimmer Train and Southern Humanities Review) and have earned a few distinctions, but agents and larger publishers remain enthusiastically disinterested. I’ve been teaching high school English in the heartland for 36 years, and I’ve witnessed, in brutal proximity, teenagers’ shrinking interest in reading—reading anything, leave be challenging literature. Indeed, more and more they find the idea of being a reader amusingly quaint and wholly incomprehensible. As a small-press publisher, I’ve discovered that the world is filled with amazing writers and poets who have awe-inspiring manuscripts, but there are practically no readers to be had anywhere. Literally every title I’ve released since founding Twelve Winters Press in 2012 has taken a loss (in spite of almost no labor costs). As a librarian in my hometown library, I experience the phenomenon of avid readers checking out anything written by James Patterson (or his minions), Danielle Steel, Nora Roberts (or her alter ego J. D. Robb), Janet Evanovich, Stephen King, Dan Brown, etc.—but having no interest in sampling fare which may be a wrung or two juicier on the literary food-chain.

Finally, as a lecturer in an online MFA program, I’ve had to reassess what my long-term goals should be. When I first started teaching for Lindenwood University in 2016, I assumed my graduate students would want to be James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, or at the very least Ernest Hemingway—but I quickly discovered that for most their aspirations were quite different. They want to be J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, Stephenie Meyer, Stephen King, Dan Brown, Janet Evanovich, and, yes, James Patterson. I do what I can to open their eyes to other possibilities, but who am I to say their aims are too low? Who am I to doom them to near-certain obscurity by browbeating them in the general direction of Finnegans Wake? Instead, if they so choose, I hope to make them the best version of James Patterson they can be: perhaps to write like James Patterson on his very best day (or the very best day of whichever writer in his stable is writing his book).

Where, then, does that leave us—we dwindling few who love to read and write challenging texts? Gass had to come to terms with this question himself—although he was able to ride the inertial momentum of mid-century publishing to at least maintain his place on Knopf’s list. In my dreariest moods I look to the preface he wrote for the paperback edition of In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, and I’ll leave you with the Master’s words:

The contemporary American writer is in no way a part of the social and political scene. He is therefore not muzzled, for no one fears his bite; nor is he called upon to compose. Whatever work he does must proceed from a reckless inner need. The world does not beckon, nor does it greatly reward. This is not a boast or a complaint. It is a fact. Serious writing must nowadays be written for the sake of the art. The condition I describe is not extraordinary. Certain scientists, philosophers, historians, and many mathematicians do the same, advancing their causes as they can. One must be satisfied with that. (xviii-xix)


Works Cited

Abowitz, Richard. “Still Digging: A William Gass Interview.” Ammon, pp. 142-148.

Ammon, Theodore G., editor. Conversations with William H. Gass. UP of Mississippi, 2003.

Castro, Jan Garden. “An Interview with William Gass.” Ammon, pp. 71-80.

Gass, William H. Preface. In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, by Gass. 1968. Godine, 1981, pp. xiii-xlvi.

King, Daniel Robert. Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Evolution: Editors, Agents, and the Crafting of a Prolific American Author. The U of Tennessee P, 2016.

LeClair, Thomas. “William Gass: The Art of Fiction LXV.” Ammon, pp. 17-38.

Milliot, Jim. “Ranking America’s Largest Publishers.” Publisher’s Weekly, 24 Feb. 2017, https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/72889-ranking-america-s-largest-publishers.html. Accessed 14 April 2019.

Mullinax, Gary. “An Interview with William Gass.” Ammon, pp. 13-16.

Shivani, Anis, et al. “Symposium: Is Postmodernism in decline? Why or why not? How do you assess its legacy?” Boulevard, vol. 26, nos. 1-2, 2010, pp. 226-246.

Modernism’s Last Gasp and the Architecture of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel

Posted in February 2017, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 23, 2017

This paper, “Modernism’s Last Gasp and the Architecture of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel,” was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 on 23 Feb. 2017 as part of the panel titled “Imagining Space: Experiments in Narrative Form.” The paper veered from its original intent and perhaps a suitable secondary title may be “A Text Suddenly of Our Time.” The panel was chaired by Liana Babayan, Augusta University. Other papers presented were “Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant and Architectural Liminality” by Adam McKee, Queensborough Community College, CUNY; “Haunted Houses from House of Leaves to House of Fiction” by Amanda Davis, University of Chicago; and “Contrasting Spaces in Jean Genet’s Miracle de la Rose” by Maria Slocum, Missouri University of Science and Technology. Other papers on William H. Gass’s work can be found at this site by searching “gass.”

“For me a book tends to exist in a metaphorical relationship to a building. For me architecture represents best the basic metaphorical image of the way a text exists, say, metaphorically or philosophically” (Janssens 66). Thus spake William H. Gass in a 1979 interview, about midway through the composition process of his magnum opus The Tunnel, which was published in 1995 after a nearly thirty-year gestation. Sections began appearing in print as early as 1969 and continued off and on for almost two decades, garnering numerous accolades (for example, inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of 1980), and in two instances being released as stand-alone, limited-edition books by art presses. In 1996 Gass’s massive book (over 650 pages of dense prose, riddled with myriad experimental techniques, a host of fonts, amateurish doodles, and other graphic representations) won the American Book Award. Meanwhile, it spawned copious reviews which ranged from fawning to furious. Even some of the novel’s harshest critics, however, acknowledged that it would take decades of scholarly work to fully come to terms with Gass’s achievement—no matter whether one believes he achieved a masterpiece or a monstrosity. Sadly, that work remains largely undone.


This is at least the third paper I’ve presented at this conference chiefly focused on Gass’s The Tunnel. When his next novel appeared in 2013, Middle C, that much more manageable book led me away from The Tunnel for a paper or two; and I also did some work on Gass’s earlier publications: one of his earliest pieces of published fiction, the novella The Pedersen Kid, and then a paper focused mainly on Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife and On Being Blue. Pondering possibilities for this year’s conference, I decided it was time to return to the excavation site and say something further about The Tunnel. I’ve been coming here for more than a decade, and I can only recall one other Gass paper being presented in that time (a Willie Masters’ paper). (When I first started attending the conference I was a William Gaddis guy; I hadn’t yet fallen under the Master’s spell.) My hope has been that by keeping the spark of scholarly interest alive others will join the conversation—and that hope has rested mainly on the book’s artistic merits. However, between the time that I proposed this particular paper topic and now, something historically monumental happened which makes The Tunnel vitally relevant: the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States (and the rise of the alt-right in general). That is to say, the overarching theme of The Tunnel—which Gass has described as “the fascism of the heart”—makes the book amazingly and unfortunately up-to-date. Perhaps an appropriate secondary title for my paper would be “A Text Suddenly of Our Time.”


Our times have led to a rekindled interest in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and other dystopian books. For the same reasons it is worthwhile to descend into William Gass’s tunnel, a place whose squalidness has turned away many readers—but these, my friends, are squalid times. So, in the interest of truth in advertising, I am going to discuss (to some degree) the structure of The Tunnel and its relationship to architecture; but I’m also going to talk about the fascism of the heart and what the book has to say about the Trump phenomenon.

The basic plot of the novel is fairly straightforward (although plot doesn’t mean quite the same thing in Gass’s world as it does in most fiction writer’s): The first-person narrator, William Kohler, is a middle-aged history professor at a Midwestern university who has finally completed his magnum opus, prophetically thirty years in the writing, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany. He has sat down in his basement office to write the book’s preface (the final nail in this towering edifice, so to speak) when he finds himself blocked and therefore begins writing, instead, a very personal memoir about his unhappy childhood, lackluster career, loveless marriage, lost loves, disappointing children, and irritating colleagues. He slips the pages of this tell-all autobiography in between the manuscript pages of Guilt and Innocence so that his wife won’t see them (having no interest whatsoever in his life’s work), and, meanwhile, he begins to dig a tunnel out of his basement—or at least so we’re told. Gass himself has written in the liner notes of the audiobook edition of The Tunnel (45 hours of listening pleasure) that his narrator is “wholly unreliable”: “That does not mean he never tells the truth. He may always tell the truth. He may never. But he can’t be trusted. So he may not be digging a tunnel out of his basement” (emphasis added). Either way, writes Gass, “[t]he pointlessness of this activity has to be stressed.”


Returning to my opening quote, Gass has said that “architecture represents best the basic metaphorical image of the way a text exists.” He has had a long-standing interest in architecture. It is difficult to say which came first, the chicken or the egg, as Gass married Mary Henderson in 1968. Mary Henderson Gass has had a distinguished career as an architect in St. Louis since moving there with her husband in 1979 when he accepted a professorship at Washington University. (He retired from the university in 2000.) Gass has found the experimental designs of architect Peter Eisenman especially akin to his own literary aesthetic. “He does crazy things in one sense,” said Gass, “but he is really a serious artist, first rank, I think. He is not just doing things to shock people, or surprise them or be different” (Janssens 68). Gass’s statement about Eisenman and his work sounds a lot like what defenders of Gass and especially The Tunnel have been saying for years.

In explaining how The Tunnel functions architecturally, Gass has contrasted his work to James Joyce’s, especially Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Gass said,

Now, the idea of a book as fundamentally or conceptually a structure in which you are being taken on a tour by the author—I think a lot of modern works are constructed this way, Joyce, for instance, makes Ulysses in such a way that it is not possible for you to conceive the book and hold it in your head at the same time, you have to go back and forth in it. He takes you through the first time; you may jump around in it later as you wish—and Finnegans Wake is certainly constructed that way. (Janssens 66)

Gass continued,

Joyce demands total recall, an ideal total recall. […] I am like I would be when I went through a building: I am putting the pieces together to compose the building which exists ontologically all at the same time, and which I can only know experientially one at the time, and therefore I can only conceive or conceptualize the way it actually exists; I can have an idea of how this house exists. (67)

In other words, when one reads Ulysses or Finnegans Wake, both of which are structurally linear (a second by second account of a single day in Dublin, Ireland, or the unconscious mind’s progression through a single night of sleep [perhaps]), one is at a different point on the overall timeline with each passing word, and one has to be mindful of that progression to make sense of the experience. In other words, how have we gotten from point A to point B . . . to point Z? Metaphorical connections must be made by recalling earlier parts of the text.

The brutally nonlinear construction of The Tunnel operates differently. To illustrate that difference, Gass referenced Eisenman:

Now in Peter Eisenman’s work, what he wants to do often is to make one experientially aware of other parts of the house at the same time [emphasis added]. So in one of his houses, called House Six, there is, for instance, in the second-floor bedroom a strip of glass that goes across the floor, from which you can perceive the living-room below, and vice versa. Similarly, there are holes in various parts, openings which allow you […] to look through the house. So I am always aware in that house of other parts. (67)

In the execution of this theory, Gass constructed The Tunnel in twelve parts (which he describes as phillipics, or bitter denunciations), and each consists of twelve “fundamental themes and a lot of minor ones would be sounded in different arrangements so that a central aspect or meaning of the text would emerge at the beginning; then sink down and be relatively innocuous or weak at a certain point”—all of which would be “superimposed on a completely different structure: the tunnel itself” (“William Gass”). Gass, incidentally, is simultaneously using a mimetic musical structure—Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system—but we don’t have time to go there too. Thus, while Gass’s narrator Kohler pinballs between his childhood, his career in the army, his grad school days in Germany, his various love affairs, his current life, etc., the author returns again and again to these major and minor motifs. In an artfully designed building each room, each hallway, each alcove, each stairway, and even outdoor spaces reflect certain colors, shapes, themes, and moods that tie them together as being parts of a consistently constructed whole. There are variations of course. A dominant color in the entryway may return as complementary accent color in the master bath, for example. A sailboat model in the library may be echoed by a nautically themed kitchen. So forth and so on. Thus it is with The Tunnel.

As illustration of this technique, I will focus on one of the novel’s major motifs and its juxtaposed doppelgänger: windows and mirrors. Gass seems to want us to pay special attention to windows as he titled the sixth phillipic “Why Windows Are Important to Me,” and it takes up the literal center of his book, pages 282 to 333 out of 652. Also, windows have been metaphorically important throughout Gass’s career. As H. L. Hix points out, “The window, which represents the ambiguity of our connection to the world, our looking out on a world from which the very looking out separates us, has appeared as a metaphor regularly in Gass’s previous fiction” (124).  Hix’s observation is a valid one, but I think Gass takes the metaphor further in The Tunnel by pairing it with almost equally numerous references to mirrors. More regarding that in a moment. What follows are only a few examples of window references in the text. The first comes just a few pages into the book when Kohler recalls a car ride with his lost love, Lou: “The window of the car would not roll up and Lou’s face looked warm from the cold wind as if freshly slapped or shamed or elsewhere loved” (7). This car ride, only briefly mentioned here, foreshadows an episode titled “A Sunday Drive,” which describes in detail a family outing from Kohler’s childhood that is referenced repeatedly in the novel and also prefigures the narrator’s own family outings when he becomes husband and father (always with Gass, repetition, variation, point, counterpoint).

In the central section of the novel, Gass compares a blackboard to a window, writing, “The board is at once the surface of a pit-black sea and a bleak opening onto all our inner spaces. It is the brink of what we are, and hence a horror. […] unlike a window which is always full of the flitter of images […]” (311). Discussing the blackboard’s “opening onto all our inner spaces” (in that professors, like Kohler, use the blackboard to broadcast their beliefs to their students), Gass also connects blackboards to mirrors—both being framed objects antithetical to windows in their own ways. The book’s final reference to windows is about as far from the end as the first reference is from the start, and it’s in an imagined scene with Kohler’s hated wife Martha wherein “[I] lead her to the window [hand in hand … and] put our gazes on together” (650). Kohler imagines trying to get Martha to see the world as profoundly as he does, “but she would interrupt me with a snort from her derision because she despises oratory, wants to slap cheeks when they puff.” We notice the mirror opposites of the first window reference being a recollection of Kohler’s lost true love, Lou, and the final reference being an imagined scene with Kohler’s despised wife. Further linking the two scenes are references to face slapping, one metaphorical, the other imagined but likely. These examples constitute just a tiny taste of the repetitions, echoes, foreshadowings, and prismatic reflections, complications and contradictions that appear in some form or another on every page of the novel.

heide-ziegler-and-william-gassWhat then of the mirrors? Again, there are a plethora of references, the first being on page 10 and it is immediately paired with a window (via negation), as Kohler describes his dingy basement work space: “I’ve no mirror, cockeyed or otherwise. One wrinkled window. Above: a worn lace curtain like a rusted screen.” I believe that the pairing of windows with mirrors (and Kohler’s professorial blackboard) is related to the overarching theme of the book as delineated by one of Gass’s most adept readers, Heide Ziegler, a long-time friend and collaborator of William Gass (next to Gass in the photo from a 1991 symposium on postmodernism in Stuttgart, Germany). In response to reviews of the The Tunnel that ran from lukewarm to hostile, Ziegler wrote, in essence, a defense of the book which appeared in Into The Tunnel: Readings of Gass’s Novel (1998). In the interest of my waning time, I shall cut to the chase of Ziegler’s reading, which unknowingly anticipated the novel’s connections to our own desperate times. The key to understanding the book is in the phrase that Gass identified as its “fundamental subject”: the fascism of the heart. Ziegler writes, “[G]iven the pervasiveness of his message […] it is dangerous to miss the point. His message is not that all of us are fascists, but that there is always the danger that the fascism that lurks in our hearts might erupt, that we will become fascists” (80). She suggests that the nostalgically tender (and rare) recollections from Kohler’s boyhood contribute to the idea that anyone is capable of being lured into the dark tunnel of fascism. That same boy—who relished dime-store candy and wanted nothing more in this world than a dog of his own to play with—became the young man who succumbed to the mob mentality of Kristallnacht in 1938 and threw a stone through a Jewish storekeeper’s window. I’ll supplement Ziegler’s fine reading by asserting that Gass’s frequent references to mirrors also emphasize Kohler’s (and everyone’s) potential for becoming the same sort of people he spent his academic life studying (gazing upon, if you will, as if through a window): the innocent German citizens who were transformed into the Nazis who were guilty of exterminating six million Jews. Ziegler writes further,

Given the right historical circumstances—economic insecurity, a time of depression—and given the right seducer […] your Everyman will follow that leader simply in order to flee his own loneliness, as well as what he believes to be undeserved misfortune. […] Since […] political agitators possess no true authority, they need to create scapegoats—the Jews in Germany, minorities all over the world. What Gass attempts, and obviously achieves, judging by the emotional responses to his book, is to change the Holocaust from a horrifying, unforgivable, yet singular European spectacle into a general historical possibility. That is the reason that The Tunnel is not about Germany or about Hitler. It is—potentially—about all of us. (80-81)

Referring specifically to the sort of finely tuned brainwashing the military is able to achieve but meaning more broadly the way anyone can be manipulated, Gass writes, “Eventually they compel you to act against your conscience, contrary to your nature, in defiance of every precept of morality and religion, until all that remains of you is your past, your prehensile tale [spelled t-a-l-e], your history. Then they begin on that” (242-43).

I hardly need to point out the parallels between Gass’s description of the Holocaust and our own time, with the rise of Trump and the rhetoric of the alt-right, especially their scapegoating of Muslims, immigrants, liberals, the press, and even the judiciary as reasons for our alleged decreased safety and floundering economy. What is more, on a personal note I’ll say how surprising and discouraging it’s been over the past year to view friends, neighbors and family via the window of Facebook and other social media and discover the fascism of their hearts—their willingness to believe Trump’s lies and to support his undemocratic, unpatriotic and unconstitutional schemes. How best to resist, other than simply by putting a hashtag in front of the word, is a question that millions have been wrestling with. Obviously political action is a necessary part of resistance to this wave of fascism. William Gass dealt with this question, too, in a powerful essay, “The Artist and Society” (first published in The New Republic, July 17, 1968). In it Gass suggests that the artist shouldn’t become involved in a revolution in the typical sorts of ways, but rather he must become involved through his art. He writes, “The artist’s revolutionary activity is of a different kind. He is concerned with consciousness, and he makes his changes there. His inaction is only a blind, for his books and buildings go off under everything—not once but a thousand times. How often has Homer remade men’s minds?” (288). Artists must resist, then, through their art. It is via their art that they can have a greater impact than a mere bomb’s momentary blast.

My original concept of this paper was to discuss how Gass’s techniques align his book with the intentions of aesthetically minded architects—how their conceived ideas, drafted as blueprints and 3D models, are transformed into lived physical spaces, and, similarly, how Gass attempts to make William Kohler’s surreptitiously written memoir materialize in the hands of the reader via the book known as The Tunnel. I planned to make good use of an interesting article coauthored by Gass and his wife, Mary, about the artistic principles of architectural design and their analogues in other forms of art, like writing. And I planned to talk about Gass’s hopes for the publication of his novel, what the publisher and printer were able and willing to execute, and what they weren’t. I also meant to explain my paper’s title regarding “modernism’s last gasp,” comparing, say, Joyce’s efforts to mimic a conscious or unconscious mind versus Gass’s efforts to create a consciousness. But alas those discussions will have to wait for another paper and another day. I encourage you, meanwhile, to risk a visit to The Tunnel, a book suddenly very much for our time.

Works Referenced

Gass, William H. “The Artist and Society.” Fiction and the Figures of Life, Godine, 1979, pp. 276-88.

—-. The Tunnel. 1995. Dalkey Archive, 2007.

—-. William H. Gass Reads The Tunnel. [liner notes for the audio book written by the author] Clayton Studios, 2005.

Gass, William H., and Mary Gass. “The Architecture of the Sentence.” Conjunctions, 1999, pp. 93-108. [Available online]

Hix, H. L. “Twenty Questions on The Tunnel.” Understanding William H. Gass, University of South Carolina Press, 2002, pp. 76-139.

Janssens, G. A. M. “An Interview with William Gass.” Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, University Press of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 56-70.

“William Gass with Michael Silverblatt” (5 Nov. 1998). Vimeo, uploaded by Lannan Foundation, 2011, https://vimeo.com/12812717.

Ziegler, Heide. “William H. Gass: Is There Light at the End of The Tunnel?Into The Tunnel: Readings of Gass’s Novel, edited by Steven G. Kellman and Irving Malin, University of Delaware Press, 1998, pp. 71-83.