Success Is Merely Another Form of Failure
Everywhere men of lesser imagination have failed to understand the dreams of geniuses. So it was with Charles Shattuck, editor of the University of Illinois journal Accent. After publishing two of the novelist and critic William H. Gass's stories, he turned his nose at a lengthy excerpt from what would become Gass' first novel, Omensetter's Luck. In his reply, Gass touches on the profound limitations of what rubes call "realist fiction" and posits another place for literature:
It was good of you to write so soon. It has saved me a month's fruitless work.
You are probably quite correct. You have had more experience in these matters than I have. You have thought about them longer and harder. You have a wider range of acquaintance with literature. So it has been unfortunate for our understanding of one another's points of view that our judgements seemed sometimes to harmonize - about "Tot and Mean", then about this one. We dislike the story, however, for fundamentally different reasons. This difference has been clear to me for some time and I suspected it from the moment Accent accepted my stories. Perhaps other editors disliked them for what they really were.
On my view there aren't any good subjects. Or any bad ones. Technique (though I view it broadly) is not confining, but enlarging, and your remarks about technique I have heard made about all those works of literature I value most. You love people and the wide world. I love words and arrangements. I want the reader stopped short at the language. You want the reader, I take it, to see through that language and to consider what that language is about in a world of things - to envision through the artist's power, if I have to say it! - life!
To you, I suppose, character, incident, anecdote, physical tics that suggest psychic ones, the rich qualities of existence, narrative line, etc - in short most of those notions about stories which I ascribed to Tott - are important. To me the beauty of a story lies in its treatment, and this treatment should cut it off from its subject as painting, music, and poetry are cut off. One does not possess a story until the end, for the end modifies and enriches the beginning, and fiction may run backward as well as forward, so it is not only natural but inevitable that one not know any until he knows all.
Even so, from my point of view, your suggestion that the story unroll chronologically (a technique) by means of progression of effect (another technique) might be correct, for certainly the story as it stands does not succeed. But I consider that this technique (as I persist in calling it) is wholly artificial as far as significance and esthetic effect are concerned, since it merely imitates life (a sloppy affair at best) and not even life as experienced but as historically described. It is a difficult technique to use because chronology does not normally accommodate itself to an esthetic movement. It is not even realistic. In Pimber's life the connections are made by means of their emotional significance, as I take it they are generally, and he experience the past at the same time he experiences the present and the force of it in the fiction comes through the fact they are joined without a seam.
Our misunderstanding has extended to our standards of judgment, and the control these standards have over the way we talk about things. When speaking of my own work I always judge it in terms of what I consider esthetically its proper aim, and I rate its success against the very highest possible mark. Of course, I shall always fail and hate everything. This is presumptuous, but putting words together at all is already the greatest presumption. A second rate writer has no reason to exist unless he is on his way to being a first rate writer, and there is no point at all in doing pleasant easy things, or altering one's conception of how a story ought to be to get it in print.
Nor has any writer any responsibility to the reader. If the reader is an artist he may want to make his own object. Others will wish to sink the story to the level of their own sensibilities. He has a responsibility to the thing he is making.
Now the difficulties the readers found with the story (putting it together I mean), as I father from the marginal notations and your own remarks, are difficulties of the most elementary sort. (If it were poetry more effort would be expended as a matter of course, but then poetry is an art and fiction an entertainment). It would appear that in complete violation of the point of view, I am to give a kind of dossier on every one who name is mentioned, to mention those names in a way they could not possibly occur in any consciousness, so as to ease the reader's way through something which, to be fair, he should be discouraged from getting into as quickly as possible.
In one case the reader couldn't wait one line to find out who was speaking.
In another case it was too much to remember that Doctor Orcutt was a doctor for half-a-dozen sentences. To specify who Watson is the first time he appears is destructive to the point of view, for this is the way his name would enter Pimber's mind. Pimber knows a great deal more than the reader. The reader must infer (if the writer has made this possible) the carpet from the string.
Such a complaint does amount (as you indicate) to writing the story omnipotently or in another way. From this, and another's notes, I can conclude only that the reader is not prepared to give me a fraction of that absolute and exacting attention that is to be given to any serious work. A primitive notion of narrative clarity has been insisted upon at every turn, as if it was important to the story that every corner of Pimber's mind be lighted with the same bulb that lights the telephone directory. Surely, I have to ask myself, they would be more humble in front of a writer they took seriously. The point is this, and I believe it is one you made over here - the difficulties aren't worth it.
This would bother me considerably if it were true. The question is then - to get what? To get the story. But there is no story. There remain but words - the continuous exploration of concepts. I hate to seem to be defending a story I believe to have faults. I do not intend to. I feel I am defending the profession.
I should like to point out that you would not ordinarily have had to trouble yourself with it, and that I would not have sent it out (my letter was designed to emphasize this), for when it was asked for it wasn't ready and I released it as a favor (oh irony) because I felt indebted.
What are you are asking me to do is not just change a work of fiction. You are asking me to make it over from a work of art into a story. My work may be ugly but it's not cheap. I take it hard and I'm damned if I'll do it.
16 November 1958
William H. Gass is a novelist and critic.
Images by Frank Di Piazza.