8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Peter F Cook
- Published on Amazon.com
When I first saw the book "Conversations with William Gass," I was excited-Gass has always fascinated me, both for his byzantine but flawlessly-executed prose, and for the marginalized place he occupies in belles letters next to his more-recognized peers (John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, et al.). Now, I thought, I would finally have the opportunity to bore into his tightly-guarded head, to worm my way under his notoriously-thick skin-the literary voyeur in me was nearly slavering at the prospect. Slavering, that was, until I read the table of contents and realized that a more apt title would have been "Collected Interviews With William Gass."
The closest "Conversations" comes to providing a real conversation is in "William Gass and John Gardner: A Debate on Fiction." This piece is by far the most interesting in the book, pitting Gass against his long-term acquaintance/friend/mentor/nemesis (depending on whom one asks). The subject of their debate is the moral responsibility of the author; Gardner is a staunch defender of the need for fiction to tackle real-life ethical questions, while Gass believes that the only moral obligation a writer (or any artist) has is to the beauty of his or her creation. This is good stuff-some of Gass's more particular theories of writing (e.g., the necessity of anger for an author, the importance of a text modifying its reader in much the way one object in a metaphor modifies the other) are brought into sharp focus when he is up against an antagonistic and well-spoken interlocutor.
The only other truly bright spot in the book is Thomas LeClair's interview for The Paris Review. LeClair, rather than attempting to demonstrate his smarts or spark an argument, asks terse, considered questions-Gass responds at length, and elegantly, and the topics covered are well-chosen (from Gass's reaction to contemporary linguistic philosophy and meeting Wittgenstein, to his dislike of Nabokov for being too clever (a strange critique from Gass)). The interview has an air of having been written, but if it is it's to LeClair's credit, for it would stand to reason that Gass would have more faith in his pen than his tongue.
Aside from these two pieces, the book just doesn't deliver. Every other entry is an interview struggling to become a conversation (perhaps like those falsely promised in the title). The difference between interview and conversation is very simple: in a conversation each participant should be equally represented. An interview is about the interviewee-unfortunately, the majority of the interviewers in this book seem to think the interview is at least half about them. Usually it doesn't take much of their obsequiousness or facile rambling to silence Gass.
Some of the interviewers are downright embarrassing, particularly the hapless Jo Brans, the length of whose questions rivals the length of Gass's answers. While talking about Gass's over/use of sexual metaphors, she breaks in with "I'm being very fancy, but I wondered if your using them (sexual images) had something to do with the generation of the fictional word" (108). Even the normally-charitable Gass is frustrated by this brand of blundering self-aggrandizement, and curtly responds with a "It's basic...." Then, just in case Gass misunderstood her oh-so-clever posturing, Brans follows up with "I'm not really accusing you of having a dirty mind or anything." "Oh, I do...," Gass assures hers. That he doesn't resort to this brand of prickliness more often speaks a great deal for Gass's patience. The majority of the interviewers (including Theodore Ammon, the editor of the compilation) have the conception that the more they are talking, the better the "conversation" actually is. The sad truth, as an impartial observer, is that they just aren't as interesting as Gass.
Why Ammon chose some of these pieces over other, far better ones (for instance, a real conversation between Gass, Donald Barthelme, and others (it can be found in Donald Barthelme's "Not-Knowing") the inclusion of which in the place of, say, Ammon's own clumsy interview, would have greatly improved the compilation) is a mystery. Also mysterious is why he didn't invest in some proper proofreaders. The book abounds in groan-worthy errors, from consistently mysterious comma placement "You are, very interested in architecture" (65), gross usage blunders: "For sometime (my italics) now you have been..."(ibid), and rampant typos (my favorite being: "Solipsism is one of the risks of the letter `L' ..."(26)). I'd feel more charitably toward these blunders if they weren't so emblematic of the lack of care and time spent on all facets of this book.
Misnamed and poorly edited as it is, "Conversations With William Gass" speaks to a genuine desire in most readers. When we approach a book we often want to get to the author behind the text, to somehow dig through all the words and get some sort of privileged insight into what he or she really thinks. The lesson in "Conversations With William Gass," a lesson Gass would likely heartily endorse, is that attempts to get inside the author invariably result in something less interesting than the author's actual work.