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.

From Tender Buttons to the “Heart of the Country”: Gertrude Stein’s Structural Influence on William H. Gass

Posted in February 2019, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 23, 2019

The following paper, “From Tender Buttons to the ‘Heart of the Country’: Gertrude Stein’s Structural Influence on William H. Gass,” was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, the University of Louisville, Feb. 23, 2019, as part of the panel Material Readers and the Dynamics of Reception, chaired by Mark Mattes, University of Louisville. Other papers in the panel were “A Publication ‘edited by its readers’: Representation and Materiality in the Working-Class Newspaper Correspondence” by Emily Spunaugle, Wayne State University; and “Thirty Thoughts on Little House on the Prairie and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” [revised title] by Amy Gilley, Arkansas State University, Queretaro.


 

The author “wrote densely and brilliantly and beautifully and perversely and with intense contrivance and deep care and . . . skill” (108). Those too few who are intimately familiar with William H. Gass may have written this description regarding his contribution to belles-lettres. In fact, however, this is how Gass described one of his greatest influences, Gertrude Stein, in his landmark essay “Gertrude Stein and the Geography of the Sentence” (1973). Gass always emphatically credited Stein’s influence on his work. He discovered her in graduate school, he said, and made the study of her writing a life-long occupation. (He studied at Cornell in the late 1940s, taking the Ph.D. in philosophy in 1954; and he passed away in 2017.) Yet in all his many discussions of Stein he never expressly linked her experimental poem Tender Buttons (1914) to his experimental short story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” (1967). The purpose of this paper is to suggest that Stein’s early poem had a direct impact on both the substance and the structure of Gass’s story—a story that became the title piece in the collection which solidified his reputation on the national literary stage, and which became the prototype for his magnum opus, the novel The Tunnel, famously 26 years in the writing.

I’ve been presenting papers at the Louisville Conference for, I think, fourteen years, and for the last decade or so my papers have focused exclusively on William H. Gass. Since discovering the Master in 2008 I have become a self-described Gass scholar and disciple—the only one I believe. I must credit the conference specifically for this paper topic. I’m ashamed to admit that until this past year I hadn’t read Tender Buttons. It had been on my must-read list for decades, but last February while browsing the new books in their usual spot on the third floor of the Humanities Building, outside of conference registration, I happened upon a critical edition of Tender Buttons, edited by Leonard Diepeveen, and as soon as I flipped it open I experienced something like déjà vu. Simply, the look of Stein’s text on the page was uncannily similar to the physical appearance of Gass’s “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” an odd plot-less tale carved up into sections, some brief, some longer, each with its own subtitle. Being well aware of Stein’s influence on Gass in general, I immediately became suspicious that Tender Buttons served as a model for “In the Heart,” and I’ve spent the past year investigating that belief (in fits and starts of course).

When I submitted this paper proposal to the conference committee last summer, I hypothesized that Stein’s influence on the piece was mainly structural—thus my title—but the further I’ve looked into it, I believe the connections are even greater.

A quick refresher on Tender Buttons, which was first published in New York by the avant-garde press Claire Marie in 1914. It is divided into three parts—Objects, Food, and Rooms—with each part being further divided into subtitled pieces, some as brief as a few words, others consisting of several paragraphs. At a glance, Tender Buttons appears to be prose, but Stein called it poetry (more on this to follow). It has the reputation for being all but incomprehensible—although many have taken a stab at unlocking its meanings, including Gass in the essay previously mentioned. Diepeeven states it plainly in the introduction to his critical edition: “For many readers, one could not read Tender Buttons, or understand what it was . . .” (10). I believe his for many readers is generous: most, nearly all would probably be more accurate. The trouble begins immediately with the opening section “A Carafe, That Is A Blind Glass.”:

A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading. (33)

Similarly, Gass structured “In the Heart of the Heart of Country” as a series of small segments or vignettes, each with its own subtitle (some of which repeat). Among the subtitles are “A Place,” “Weather,” “My House,” “Vital Data,” and “My House, My Cat, My Company.” They vary in length from a single sentence to multiple paragraphs. The story’s first-person narrator is an aging poet who goes about describing his town, his neighbors, and himself; however, there is no easily discernible plot. As far as I know, I’m the only person to see the structure of Tender Buttons in “In the Heart,” and that may be because on the surface, and from the start, Gass invites readers to make comparisons to Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (1928). The story begins, “So I have sailed the seas and come . . . to B . . .” with “B” standing for both a small Indiana town, Brookston, and Yeats’s Byzantium. Moreover, Yeats’s poem is about old age and the struggle to keep one’s artistic flame burning while one’s body slowly deteriorates toward death. Gass’s narrator is an aging poet who is “in retirement from love.” He says, “I’ve lost my years. . . . I’m the sort now in the fool’s position of having love left over which I’d like to lose; what good is it to me now, candy ungiven after Halloween?” (173). So, thematically, there are definite correlations between Yeats’s poem and Gass’s story, in addition to the overt clue Gass provides in the opening sentence.

What is more, critics have noted that there are the same number of sections in the story as there are lines in “Sailing to Byzantium,” a fact that Gass did not dispute. In an interview Gass said, “It was pointed out by some anal observer [Larry McCaffery] that the sections of the story and the lines of the poem are the same [thirty-six]. And that’s true . . . That’s a little kind of imposed formality that I did to help shape the work” (qtd. in Hix 48). However, Gass’s acknowledgment is troublesome for a few reasons. McCaffery’s counting is based on the version of the story which appeared in the 1968 collection of the same title, a version which has been subsequently reprinted on numerous occasions, including in The William H. Gass Reader this past year. Yet in its original published form, in New American Review in 1967, the story had significantly fewer sections, only thirty. It’s possible that the difference in the number of sections (and other differences) are the result of editorial intervention; that is, perhaps the changes were necessary for its inclusion in the journal, to pare it back, for example, due to space limitations. The definitive answer to that question may lie in the massive Gass archive at Washington University in St. Louis, an archive which contains tens of thousands of pages (or more) of manuscript drafts, letters, and other material. I have visited the archive a handful of times and have spent perhaps a dozen hours seriously reading through the material there, but suffice it to say I’ve barely scratched proverbial surface.

Nevertheless, the archive’s contents provide the other reason I’m dubious about Gass’s acknowledgment that the number of lines of Yeats’s poem provided a guiding structure for “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” Among Gass’s papers are myriad drafts of the story which suggest his initial writing of the piece was fairly conventional, meaning that he composed long chunks of text, and then later he cut up and rearranged these smaller chunks until the story achieved its final form (well, one of its final forms). What is more, Gass played with numerous versions of the structure that resulted in its having fewer than thirty-six sections, the number necessary to match Yeats’s number of lines.  Gass made numbered lists and plugged in the various fragmented vignettes; then toyed with moving around the pieces. Some of these numbered lists suggest he had in mind twenty-four subtitled pieces (see figures 1, 2 and 3). Another list, more detailed and messier, reveals that Gass considered the pieces falling into four broad categories, A through D, (reminiscent of Stein’s three categories) of eight vignettes each for a grand total of thirty-two, four short of Yeats’s thirty-six lines (figure 4).

section numbers - no titles

Fig. 1. Photograph of a handwritten page by William H. Gass as part of the drafting of “In the Heart of Heart of the Country.” Washington University Archives. Photo by the Author.

sectioins numbers - more titles

Fig. 2. Photograph of a handwritten page by William H. Gass as part of the drafting of “In the Heart of Heart of the Country.” Washington University Archives. Photo by the Author.

section numbers - more notes

Fig. 3. Photograph of a handwritten page by William H. Gass as part of the drafting of “In the Heart of Heart of the Country.” Washington University Archives. Photo by the Author.

increasing section numbers - many notes

Fig. 4. Photograph of a handwritten page by William H. Gass as part of the drafting of “In the Heart of Heart of the Country.” Washington University Archives. Photo by the Author.

draft of opening - where are you

Fig. 5. Photograph of a manually typewritten page by William H. Gass as part of the drafting of “In the Heart of Heart of the Country.” Washington University Archives. Photo by the Author.

At this point in his career Gass wrote on a manual typewriter, so the rough drafts of “In the Heart” are on full-size sheets of paper; however, while revising he might rewrite the same paragraph, or part of a paragraph, multiple times on the same sheet (see figure 5, which became part of a long vignette subtitled “Education” in the latter half of the story, in both the 1967 and ’68 versions, section 21/32 and 16/30, respectively). Each of these pieces is suggestive of the index cards Gertrude Stein used to write, by hand, and arrange Tender Buttons (see Appendix B of Diepeveen’s critical edition). So it isn’t that their writing processes were similar while originally drafting their poem and story, but through the process of revision Gass seems to have pared down his longer chunks of text to crystalline bite-size bits of a similar heft to Stein’s index cards, at least in some cases. Gass invested a significant amount of time in considering and rearranging these bits of text, as evidenced by the numberings and revised numberings in the margins of the drafts (figure 6). Without further examination of his papers, I can’t say how pervasive this kind of paring down was in the process of writing “In the Heart,” but I can say it wasn’t wholly unique to this short story. His technique of isolating single paragraphs or parts of paragraphs and revising them again and again, often on the same sheet of typing paper, can be seen in the archive for other works. I can attest to the novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife (1968) and parts of The Tunnel (1995). For that matter, a kindred technique became part of the published draft of Middle C (2013), whereby the protagonist, Joseph Skizzen, works on rewriting the same brief paragraph throughout the novel, rearranging sentences, substituting words, until he has it perfect. In fact, the reaching of the paragraph’s final form is a kind of climax in the novel.

ms page with numbered sectiions revised

Fig. 6. Photograph of a manually typewritten page by William H. Gass as part of the drafting of “In the Heart of Heart of the Country.” Washington University Archives. Photo by the Author.

I want to return to Stein’s profound influence on Gass, which he made no bones about. In his “Fifty Literary Pillars,” in which Gass identified the books (and authors) who were most influential on his development as a writer, he listed Stein’s Three Lives and said, “I knew I had found the woman my work would marry” (54). Anyone who knows Gass at all probably knows that his greatest influence was the German poet Rilke. It’s true that Rilke is everywhere in Gass’s work, and he wrote a book about the difficulty of translating Rilke (Reading Rilke, 1999), which he tried his hand at himself. Gass said that Rilke helped to solidify ideas he’d had for years which he’d gotten from other great writers, like Stein: “. . . I had certainly come across and become enamored of Gertrude Stein a lot earlier and Flaubert somewhat, also—they all came together; Rilke just brought them together. . . . He sort of coalesced it all for me.” In particular “Rilke discovers that the poet’s aim is to add something to reality rather than comment on it or express something, to be something” (Ammon 161). Ultimately, said Gass, “you have an [art] object sitting there which is the result of this big cycle from objects observed by the poet or painter and it’s not that the painting is about anything; it is a transformation and a new object in the world” (162).

This concept is key to understanding Gass’s work. His stories, novellas and novels are not interested in advancing a plot via narration—as one would normally think of as the defining feature of fiction—but rather his stories, novellas and novels are interested in being works of art. The characters and their actions (the term plot doesn’t really apply) are a means to an end, and that end is to create a unique piece of literary art. This core artistic aim in Gass can be traced to Gertrude Stein’s philosophy of aesthetics, and Tender Buttons may be her most pure expression of that aesthetic. By the same token, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” may be Gass’s starkest example of the sort of fiction he would become infamous for, fiction which downplayed the typical foci on character development and plot, and instead emphasized stylistic components and thematic repetition.

Stein spoke of her narrative philosophy on numerous occasions, but her second lecture at the University of Chicago in 1935 zeroed in on this aspect of her writing process most directly. “Lecture 2” deals with the distinction between prose and poetry as they had been evolving in the modernist movement after the First World War, a movement of which Stein had been the vanguard for more than twenty years by the time she delivered her Chicago lectures. She said, as only she could,

When one used to think of narrative one meant telling of what is happening in successive moments of its happening the quality of telling depending upon the conviction of the one telling that there was a distinct succession in happening, that one thing happened after something else and since that happening in succession was a profound conviction in every one then really there was no difference whether any one began in the beginning or the middle or the ending because since narrative was a progressive telling of things that were progressively happening it really did not make any difference where you were at what moment you were in your happening since the important part of telling anything was the conviction that anything that everything was progressively happening. But now we have changed all that we really have. (17)

If I may, before modernism prose was defined by the narrative quality of cause and effect, of one event leading to another and then another and another in a story or novel, say. In modernism, however, prose has become like poetry in that there is “not a sense of anything being successively happening” (19). Prose is no longer “being a successive thing but being something existing. That is then the difference between narrative as it has been and narrative as it is now,” explained Stein (20). Or as Liesl M. Olson paraphrases the key idea in her foreword to Narration: “A ‘modern’ narrative need not have an event, according to Stein; nothing need ‘happen’” (ix-x). Thus, Stein called Tender Buttons poetry because even though it has the outward trappings of prose (sentences and paragraphs), ontologically it is poetry in that each piece stands alone as a carefully crafted, multilayered thing of linguistic art. There is no traditional narrative substructure of things happening to characters via cause and effect.

In his essay “Gertrude Stein and the Geography of the Sentence,” Gass said that Tender Buttons is written “in a kind of code . . . a coding which dangerously confounds the surface . . . [which often] effects a concealment.” This concealment, though, is key to understanding Stein’s genius, “because the object of art is to make more beautiful that which is, and since that which is is rarely beautiful, often awkward and ugly and ill-arranged, it must be sometimes sheeted like a corpse, or dissolved into its elements and put together afresh, aright, and originally” (105). This objective of art was embraced by Gass throughout his career as he frequently tried to make the ugly beautiful via the beauty of his language. In The Tunnel, the centerpiece of oeuvre, for example, Gass wrote beautifully about the Holocaust, and attempted to redeem his deplorable first-person narrator through the loveliness of his language.

Gass’s emphasis on language over plot, on style over characterization has made some readers consider his novellas and novels long prose poems, placing them in the same arena as Tender Buttons. Unlike Stein, however, Gass insisted he was not adept at writing poetry. He did say, though, that the best poets of his generation were writers of fiction, naming in particular John Hawkes, Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin and William Gaddis (Saltzman 91). It would’ve been the height of egotism to list himself, but his was a name that often appeared among them. He readily acknowledged his frequent use of devices more typically attached to poetry. Among his “quirks” he listed in his essay “Retrospection” are “whoring and metaphoring” and “jingling,” which includes his love of alliteration and limericks.

I’ll end where I began. One of the reasons it’s worth considering if Tender Buttons was a model of sorts for “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” is because Gass stated explicitly that the short story’s structure led him to his most ambitious work, The Tunnel. He said in an interview with Bradford Morrow, “[The Tunnel] also elaborates the structure of the story in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. [The novel’s] in sections roughly seventy pages long, instead of paragraphs. These are musically organized. There are sections within sections: It’s sectioned up like an insect or a worm.” I believe there is much more to learn about the story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” by reading it alongside Stein’s techniques in Tender Buttons; therefore, by extension, Stein’s enigmatic experimental poem may also whisper some clues in our ears, sibyl-like, to help us better comprehend the many levels of The Tunnel.

Works Cited

Ammon, Theodore G. “Interview with William Gass.” Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, UP of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 149-170.

Gass, William H. “Fifty Literary Pillars.” A Temple of Texts, Dalkey Archive, 2007, pp. 29-60.

—. “Gertrude Stein and the Geography of the Sentence.” The World within the Word. Basic Books, 1978, pp. 63-123.

—. “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories. Godine, 1981, pp. 172-206.

—. “Retrospection.” Life Sentences, Knopf, 2012, pp. 36-55.

Hix, H. L. Understanding William H. Gass, U of South Carolina P, 2002.

Morrow, Bradford. “An Interview: William H. Gass.” Conjunctions, no. 4, 1983, pp. 14-29. Available online http://www.conjunctions.com/print/article/william-h-gass-c4.

Olson, Liesl M. Foreword. Narration by Gertrude Stein, The U of Chicago P, 2010, pp. vii-xii.

Saltzman, Arthur M. “An Interview with William Gass.” Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, UP of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 81-95.

Stein, Gertrude. Narration. The U of Chicago P, 2010.

—. Tender Buttons. Edited by Leonard Diepeveen, Broadview, 2018.

 

In the Heart of the Heart of Despair

Posted in May 2017, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on May 27, 2017

“In the Heart of the Heart of Despair: Seclusion in the Fiction of William H. Gass” was presented at the American Literature Association annual Conference on American Literature in Boston, May 25-28, 2017. It was part of the panel “The American Recluse: Contesting Individualism in Narratives of Isolation and Withdrawal,” chaired by Susan Scheckel, Stony Book University. The panel was organized by Matthew Mosher (Stony Brook), and he presented his paper “‘Our Inviolate Realm’: Self-Reliance and Self-Destruction in E. L. Doctorow’s Homer & Langley.”


First of all, I’d like to thank Matt Mosher for inviting me to join this panel on recluses in American fiction. His invitation encouraged my wife Melissa and me to attend this terrific conference for the first time, and visit Boston for the first time. More important, however, Matt has opened my eyes to an aspect of William H. Gass’s work that is so obvious and so foundational I never quite saw it in spite of spending the last decade of my scholarly life focused primarily on Gass (aka, “the Master”). From his very first fiction publication, the novella “The Pedersen Kid” in 1961, to his most recent, 2016’s collection of novellas and stories, Eyes, Gass’s protagonists have almost always been solitary souls, withdrawn from their various social spheres: in a word, reclusive. In various papers and reviews of Gass’s work, I have nibbled around the edges of this realization, discussing the loneliness and/or isolation of individual characters—but I’ve never noticed the pattern, a proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room of Gass scholarship.

Gass imposingAs the title suggests, my main focus for this paper will be Gass’s early experimental story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” (published independently and as the title story of his seminal collection in 1968); it’s important to note, though, that I could have tossed a dart at my William H. Gass bookcase and whichever spine it came to rest in would have provided ample material with which to write this paper. According to the law of probability, I likely would have landed my dart in The Tunnel, and it would have been an especially fruitful stroke of fate. I say it would have been likely because Gass’s American Book Award-winning novel tips the scales at more than 650 pages, and I have three copies (plus the audiobook) among the volumes in my Gass bookcase. I describe the dart’s prick as fruitful because the first-person narrator William Kohler (a sort of William Gass doppelgänger) spends the entire 650 pages of the book sitting alone in his basement writing a highly personal and ego-centric memoir, which is The Tunnel itself.

I’ve chosen to focus primarily on Gass’s earlier work, however, because it’s more manageable given the context of this paper, and also it provides ample insights to what I believe is at the core of this phenomenon: this pattern of isolated characters in Gass’s fiction. (As I write this paper, I’m anxious to hear what Matt and my fellow panelists have to say on the subject of reclusive characters and see if it complements or contradicts my ideas about Gass’s characters.) I shall leave you, for the moment at least, in deductive suspense regarding my theory.

Earlier I referred to “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” as an experimental story. “Experimental” is certainly true; for “story” one must broaden one’s sense of the word. A story is normally something with a plot, that is, a discernible conflict and at least a nod toward resolution. Not so with the Master. “In the Heart” features 36 sections with subheadings. The sections vary in length from just a few sentences to several pages, and their styles range from coldly clinical to lusciously lyrical. There is no central conflict, at least not in a typical sense. The story was somewhat inspired by William Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (1927)—in fact, it begins by more or less quoting from the poem’s second stanza, “So I have sailed the seas and come . . . to B . . .” —and its structure is loosely based on the ottava rima form that Yeats used for his 32-line poem. It is their kindredness in theme, though, which is of greatest importance to our purpose here.

in the heart cover 2Yeats begins by lamenting the deterioration of his physical self due to old age (he was in his sixties when he wrote “Sailing to Byzantium”), but ends with the understanding that the physical is fleeting while the soul that aspires to a higher artistic ideal is immortal. In Gass’s story, the unnamed first-person narrator is an aging poet who has come to B, a small town in Indiana, and is reflecting on his life in this mundane Midwestern locale, season upon season, year upon year. “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” is not merely a prose interpretation of Yeats’s poem, which ends on a more optimistic note than it began. On the contrary, Gass’s story starts bleak and only grows darker. Repeatedly the narrator refers to his own isolation and loneliness, as well as to the isolation and loneliness of his Hoosier neighbors. Early in the story, he tells us that he is “in retirement from love,” and “I’m the sort now in the fool’s position of having love left over which I’d like to lose; what good is it now to me, candy ungiven after Halloween?” (173). The story concludes, 28 pages later, with the narrator’s sense of isolation at Christmastime in the town, a time which represents the pinnacle of the town’s communal life. He finds himself (or merely imagines himself) in the deserted downtown, which has been bedecked for the holiday: “But I am alone, leaning against a pole—no . . . there is no one in sight. […] There’s no one to hear the music [“Joy to the World”] but myself, and though I’m listening, I’m no longer certain. Perhaps the record’s playing something else” (206).

Meanwhile, in the heart of the story, the narrator describes, here and there, his various fellow townspeople, especially his neighbor Billy Holsclaw, who “lives alone” (179). The narrator paints a sad picture of Billy (unshaven, dirty with “coal dust,” dressed in “tatters”), and ends the initial section about him with the statement “Billy closes his door and carries coal or wood to his fire and closes his eyes, and there’s simply no way of knowing how lonely and empty he is or whether he’s as vacant and barren and loveless as the rest of us are—here in the heart of the country” (180). We note that the narrator describes Billy’s actions inside of his house even though it is not possible for him to know what goes on after Billy shuts the door; thus, the narrator seems to be assuming Billy’s behavior based on his own, alone in his own house. This point brings up an important issue in the story: How does the narrator have access to all that he describes in B? H. L. Hix asserts, “He does not wander out into the world, so the reader gets not a picture of B, but a picture of the narrator’s confinement, the view from his cell” (49). Not literal cell of course: the cell of his isolation, his loneliness: the cell from which he projects everyone else’s isolation and loneliness.

Referring to the narrator’s view underscores what would become a major motif in Gass’s fiction: the window. There are numerous references to windows and what the narrator sees framed in them in “In the Heart.” He describes the windows of his house as “bewitching [. . . with] holy magical insides” (179). Through his window he views vivacious young women and fantasizes about them: “I dreamed my lips would drift down your back like a skiff on a river. I’d follow a vein with the point of my finger, hold your bare feet in my naked hands” (179), and “[Y]our buttocks are my pillow; we are adrift on a raft; your back is our river” (188). However, he knows he is well beyond the point when any such contact could reasonably take place. This realization makes especially poignant his later observation that rather than interacting with the world directly he has “had intercourse by eye” (202). That is, he has lived mainly through observation of his fellow human beings, not by talking to and connecting with them directly.

As I said, references to windows are everywhere in Gass’s oeuvre. The story “Icicles,” also collected in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, begins with the main character, Fender, sitting down to a lonely dinner eaten from a tray in his living room and looking through his picture window: “[H]is gaze pass[es] idly along the streets in the wheel ruts and leaping the disorderly heaps of snow. He was vaguely aware of the ice that had curtained a quarter of his window . . .” (121). Here the ice emphasizes the coldness of this sort of existence, an existence void of human warmth for Fender, even though his profession as a real estate agent requires him to interact with people all the time. Unlike the narrator of “In the Heart,” Fender does engage with people, but this engagement does not lessen his isolation; it only amplifies it. This is an important variation on the theme of isolation in Gass’s work. Often, Gass’s characters are not literally alone, but they feel isolated and lonely nevertheless. William Kohler in The Tunnel is married, but to a wife he hates and who has no interest in his life’s work as a historian. As the title suggests, Babs, the wife in the novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, is isolated, lonely and horny in spite of her marital status, or perhaps because of it. The ironically named, antisocial Mr. Gab of the novella “In Camera” spends his dreary days inside his shop that sells black-and-white photographic prints, with only his assistant Stu (short for “stupid”) for company. The boy-narrator, Jorge, in “The Pedersen Kid” is living among his family on a farm in North Dakota but is as desperately lonely as a boy can be thanks to his bellicosely alcoholic father, brutalized and traumatized mother, and live-in farmhand Hans, who may be molesting Jorge. The list goes on and on. (The Master is a real feel-good kind of author.)

All fictive writing is autobiographical to some degree, but Gass has never been one to make the veil especially opaque. The autobiographical elements flash neon in his work, and in his copious interviews he has been happy to connect the dots for readers and critics. In The Tunnel (his magnum opus) and Willie Masters’ he’s given the main characters his own name, or variations of it. The tunnel-digging William Kohler is a university professor, as was Gass, with a history and a list of interests quite similar to Gass’s. Eerily similar; disturbingly similar for some readers. Joseph Skizzen of the novel Middle C is an isolated music professor who specializes in Arnold Schoenberg, the composer whose twelve-tone system Gass used to structure The Tunnel. Like Jorge in “The Pedersen Kid,” Gass was born in North Dakota and grew up an only child in a family devastated by alcoholism and hatred. The list goes on and on.

Gass painted

Understanding the extremely close—at times, uncomfortably close—connection between Gass himself and his characters is especially important when viewed alongside his fascination with windows. Hix explains: “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 […] fiction” (124). Windows, then, and their representation of separation through observation, seem to be a commentary on Gass’s own sense of isolation: that is, Gass the writer, Gass the intellectual, Gass the artist. It is the artist’s job—their curse perhaps—to observe the world around them, closely; to think about it, deeply; and share their interpretations with the world, honestly. It is a vital function, but one that requires and creates distance from one’s family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. In a 1984 interview, Gass identified himself as “a radical, but not one allied with any party. Parties force you to give up your intellect” (Saltzman 92). In other words, he was, in essence, a lone-wolf radical. To clarify, Gass has not seen himself as a writer with an overt political agenda, but rather one with a loftier, more ethereal, more profound goal: the alteration of his readers’ consciousness. [About the photo: William H. Gass painted by Philip Guston for his lecture at Yaddo, “Why Windows Are Important To Me,” 1969.]

In his landmark essay “The Artist and Society” (1968), Gass writes that the artist is “[naturally] the enemy of the state” and “[h]e is also the enemy of every ordinary revolution” (287). Moreover, he “cannot play politics, succumb to slogans and other simplifications, worship heroes, ally himself with any party, suck on some politician’s program like a sweet. […] He undermines everything.” Again, the artist/writer as lone-wolf radical. The payoff, though, can be sublimely effective. Gass writes, “The artist’s revolutionary activity is of a different kind. He is concerned with consciousness, and he makes his changes there. His inactions are 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). In other words, to be the sort of artist, the sort of writer, the sort of radical Gass admires most—the sort whose work will be worth reading a century from now, or a millennia—he must be solitary and isolated: the observer behind the window encased in ice.

Paul Valery 1If this paper were to be extended, I’d try to make the case that Gass’s philosophy may be traceable to one of his idols, the French writer Paul Valéry, of whom he said, “He dared to write on his subjects as if the world had been silent . . .” (Fiction and the Figures of Life, xi). Known mainly as a poet and essayist, Valéry also wrote the novella “The Evening with Monsieur Teste” (1896), whose title character is an isolated intellectual very much akin to many of Gass’s fictional creations, especially William Kohler and Joseph Skizzen. In the Preface to his novella, Valéry describes the philosophy which led to the creation of the character Monsieur Teste (or, in English, essentially “Mr. Head”), and I think at this point we can see that it could have been written by his devotee, William H. Gass. I shall let Valéry’s translated words be my final ones here:

I made it my rule secretly to consider as void or contemptible all opinions and habits of mind that arise from living together and from our external relations with other men, which vanish when we decide to be alone. And I could think only with disgust of all the ideas and all the feelings developed or aroused in man by his fears and his ills, his hopes and his terrors, and not freely by his direct observation of things and himself. . . .  I had made for myself an inner island and spent my time reconnoitering and fortifying it. . . . (4-5)

Works Cited

Gass, William H. “The Artist and Society.” Fiction and the Figures of Life, Godine, 1979, pp. 276-88. [The complete draft, from William H. Gass’s papers, is available online via Washington University.]

—. “Icicles.” In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories, Godine, 1981, pp. 120-162.

—. “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories, Godine, 1981,  pp. 172-206.

—. Preface. Fiction and the Figures of Life, Godine, 1979, pp. xi-xiii.

Saltzman, Arthur M. “An Interview with William Gass.” Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, UP of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 81-95.

Valéry, Paul. Monsieur Teste. Translated by Jackson Mathew, Princeton UP, 1989.