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Thursday, May 10, 2007

William Gass Comes Out Swinging...

William Gass comes out swinging in his collection of essays "Finding a Form." He first takes on the Pulitzer Prize, criticizing it for taking "dead aim at mediocrity and almost never miss[ing]." For the most part Gass is right. He exposes the irrelevant qualities that a novel must have in order to receive the prize. He further explains the complexity of selecting a board of jurors for the award. He states, "Not only will they have to be partisans of their own tastes--that's natural--each will be implicitly asked to represent their region, race, or sex, because one will have to be a woman, another a black or academic or journalist, old hand or upstart.... The only qualification a judge ought to have is unimpeachable good taste, which immediately renders irrelevant such puerile pluralistic concerns as skin color, sex, and origin." Gass is not a fan of the process, obviously. The politics of the prize as exposed as well, a turn in which Gass himself feels burdened by the expectations of the prize committee. "A lot of writers are disliked and their works slighted because they have been praised by the wrong critics, have sappy photographs on their dust jackets, overly effusive or too bountiful blurbs, made-up, movie-star names. Or are known to have the wrong politics. (I like to believe I could have voted a poetry prize to Marianne Moore even though I know she once wore a Nixon button)." This essay is an exemplary echo of what has been happening with literary prizes lately. It has turned into a geo-political popularity contest instead of what it should really be--how many of us can really identify or say to have read ALL of the works of the recent Nobel Prize for literature winners? I hardly think so. Even with someone as popular as Gunter Grass--I still haven't read all his works. Why do people like John Updike don't get the Nobel Prize? Politics, perhaps... and a good added doze of anti-Americanism.

In the essay, "A Failing Grade for the Present Tense," Gass explores the idea of present tense writing and why it has become so popular in recent years. He offers a great variety of examples from young writers and taps it off as inexperience, not literary experimentation. There is a good deal of definition as to what exactly is present tense, whether it can exist or not, and how does the written word impacts the idea of the present altogether. He states: "Henry James and William Faulkner had the temerity to put long sentences in their short stories, and these now-old masters thought carefully about the relationship of technique to reality, about the relative weights of meaning and shifts of points of view, accreditation and authority, pacing and scene shaping, among many other issues." I consider this last quotation a great map to editing any fiction one has written. It seems to work parallel with the creative process from beginning to end. Gass explores other mediums, such as film, in his exploration of the present tense. All in all, this is a great essay but not one easy to read.

William Gass style is very mature. There's nothing easy about his essays' structure. Come prepared to duke it out with a writer who doesn't wait for the reader to get it; you either don't or you do. Expect plenty of allusions (including to numerous titles from the 20th Century Latin American literary boom), connection to previous ideas, and generally a circularly pace. These are magnificent essays to read and cherish what we learn from them.

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At 12:11 PM, Blogger Imani said...

It sounds like a fun read! I admit that I never paid any attention to literary prizes (except the Nobel) until I read litblogs. Now I know that they exist and am usually aware of which books win what, but I'm not invested. I don't buy particular authors because of any prize because I'm rarely familiar with the tastes and aesthetic sensibilities of the judges -- so why bother?

What the Nobel prize does is get me to read an author I've been meaning to read (like Pamuk) but that's about it. If I were a "reading list" kind of girl, I'd use it as an aid too.

At 8:46 AM, Blogger Stefanie said...

This sounds like great reading. I love essays like this. Must look for this book.

At 12:16 AM, Blogger suzanabrams said...

An illuminating post, JCR. :-)


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