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Authors: William H. Gass

Finding a Form

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Omensetter’s Luck
In the Heart of the Heart of the Country
Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife
The Tunnel


Fiction and the Figures of Life
On Being Blue
The World Within the Word
Habitations of the Word


Copyright © 1996 by William H. Gass

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Distributed by Random House, Inc., New York.

Owing to limitations of space, acknowledgments for permission to reprint previously published material may be found on
this page

    Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Gass, William H.
    Finding a form: essays / by William H. Gass.—1st ed.
        p.      cm.
    eISBN: 978-0-8041-5093-4
     1. Literary form. I. Title.
355     1996



To Mary, as always,
and to Heide Ziegler and Marc Chénetier,
faithful lovers of language


All of the essays in this collection have been revised and even rewritten for their appearance here. Occasionally the changes I made were slight, but more often they were extensive, so that these versions should be considered the final and only authorized ones. “Pulitzer: The People’s Prize” and “A Failing Grade for the Present Tense” were first published in
The New York Times Book Review
; “Finding a Form,” “Ford’s Impressionisms,” and “The Music of Prose,” in
; “A Fiesta for the Form” and “At Death’s Door: Wittgenstein,” in
The New Republic
; “Robert Walser,” as an introduction to a collection of his stories called
, published by Johns Hopkins; “The Language of Being and Dying” and “Nietzsche: The Polemical Philosopher,” in
The New York Review of Books
; “Ezra Pound,” in the
Times Literary Supplement
(London); “Autobiography,” “The Vicissitudes of the Avant-Garde,” and “The Baby or the Botticelli” (as “Goodness Knows Nothing of Beauty”), in
magazine; “Exile” and “The Story of the State of Nature,” in
; “Nature, Culture, and Cosmos,” in
Daphnis: Zeitschrift für Mittlere Deutsche Literatur
; “Simplicities,” in
The Review of Contemporary Fiction
; and finally, “The Book As a Container of Consciousness” was given as an address to a conference on the book sponsored by the J. Paul Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, and published, in part, in
The Wilson Quarterly


t is not a serious novelist’s nightmare (the possibility is so absurd); nevertheless, suppose you fancied yourself a serious novelist (a writer, as they say, of the first rank), and a wire were delivered in your dream (the telephone rang, there was a sudden knock), and this were followed by the formal announcement that you, Julia Peterkin, or you, Marjorie Rawlings, or you, Allen Drury or Michael Shaara or Alison Lurie, had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for 1929 or ’39 or ’60 or ’75 or ’85. Well, what a pleasant supposition: to receive a prize, a famous one at that, with considerable prestige and the presumption of increased sales, as well as other benefits. Why should such a compliment to your art be denied; why should the thought be unlikely, the award embarrassing, the fact nightmarish? Because the Pulitzer Prize in fiction takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses; the prize is simply not given to work of the first rank, rarely even to the second; and if you believed yourself to be a writer of that eminence, you are now assured of being over the hill—not a sturdy mountain flower but a little wilted lily of the valley.

The giving of prizes is a notoriously chancy business. Look at the mistakes the Nobel committee has made. Or shall we amuse ourselves by listing the important works the National Book Awards missed, even before it renamed itself the American Book Awards and brought in movie stars to crown pulpy books at its ceremony, or even after it reformed itself and endeavored to return to respectability
again by failing to give Toni Morrison its prize in an oversight so flagrantly outrageous the Pulitzer was forced for once to do the right thing? Any award-giving outfit, whether it is the National Book Critics Circle or PEN, with its Faulkner Award, is doomed by its cumbersome committee structure to make mistakes, to pass the masters by in silence and applaud the apprentices, the mimics, the hacks, or to honor one of those agile surfers who ride every fresh wave.

We must be realistic. The judges are supposed to be notables, not ninnies; consequently they are busy people, a long time in the rackets, with grudges and buddies and old scores and IOUs and other obligations like everybody else. They will have a hundred novels to peruse, most of them so porous even the dense will feel ventilated. They will have to find time for the customary committee get-togethers, which will mean still more debits against an already overdrawn account. The rules for the award will normally be ridiculous, their wording narrow, ambiguous, vague, and overly hortatory. Joseph Pulitzer specified the first fiction prize this way: “Annually, for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the whole atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood. $1000.”

The panel will be formed with the same unfailing dimsight its members will feel obliged to display, and the three judges or the occasional five (for early National Book Awards, for instance, as well as its rejuvenation) will collide like cars at an intersection. Not only will they 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. At least one novelist ought to be on the fiction panel, and a place found for a poet on the poets’, as obnoxious as they both often are. 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. Egalitarians shouldn’t give prizes and be too humble to receive them.

It is also likely that the judges will be as conscious of themselves and their reputations as they will be of the books (it adds tone to one’s
and authority to the voice). Indeed, power, self-importance, and pomposity will bloom like a garden. The judiciousness of some will extend only to writers who come from the Old South or are politically okay or of a fine family, or who drive with a can of beer between their knees, or who have got old in the service, have been neglected, are awfully nice, and would simply love the honor.

Then there will be members too lazy to do the work, or too busy, and those who will pretend they’ve read every line of everything when they are ignorant even of the blurbs. There will be quirks and tics and idiosyncrasies brought into play the normal person could not imagine or allow in the bedroom. Some will want to ram their friends and fancies through into the glare of all that glory no matter what (besides, wouldn’t Ann or Phil or Billy do the same for them—when that other jury meets next Tuesday?), while others will be so intent on bending over backward all they’ll see is sky. Some jurors will try to intimidate others or, failing that, will try to gang up, their cliques meshing like a zipper, and sometimes they’ll succeed. A few will be honestly persuasive about weak work, while the most effective will simply be stubborn. Some judges, some juries, abide by their names and treat each work before them as someone accused of a crime.

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.) If a work has already won a prize, it is very likely going to be found unfit for another. Oh, yes … and publishers don’t make the books available to the panel sometimes, even when the prize-givers are willing to pay for them. According to John Hohenberg’s history of the awards,
The Pulitzer Prizes
, only five books published in 1916 were submitted to the jury for the first year of the award, 1917, and I
have served on juries where repeated requests to publishers brought no response. Nowadays, it costs publishers money for each book they submit to the NBA. Recently, one juror, Paul West, had to ask Dalkey Archive Press to put up Felipe Alfau’s
, an extraordinary novel, which ought to have won instead of the third-rate work that did.

To complete our descent into the tacky: in some cases the jurors are expected to give the books back. Moreover, publishers have been known to complain bitterly when one of their authors won a prestigious prize—in the first place, because the news would have to be hailed in
The New York Times
(in the same costly box that would announce the writer’s demise), and in the second place, because the victory entailed a victory party for which the publishers had no desire to foot the bill, and which, in the third place, they didn’t wish to attend because they had no interest in shaking the hand of an author whose merit was an embarrassment to the house.

Someone always foots the bill, of course, and when the outcome doesn’t smartly show the shoes, the soles are inclined to squeak, as Nicholas Murray Butler did in the old days when, as president of Columbia University, he oversaw the labors of the Pulitzer Advisory Board, to which the jury makes its recommendation for a final decision. Overseers are inclined to meddle, or to withdraw their moral and monetary support (as the publishers did from the National Book Awards when the modest level of excellence it usually approved was still too elevated to be useful to the concerns of the market).

In addition to these hazards, the fact is that good taste and sensible judgment are rare, and excellence itself is threatening, innovation an outrage. On the other hand, one must be most wary of the jurors who boast that only literary quality guides their selections, because the phrase “literary quality” is a conservative code word these days that means “I wouldn’t toss a dime into an ethnic’s hat.” And “experimental” can be more frankly replaced by “self-indulgent and inept” so often as to cause one to despair of the
word. In the face of all these frailties, then, is it any wonder that awards go awry? So complain about human nature if you want to, but there’s no need to pull a face about the Pulitzer.

BOOK: Finding a Form
2.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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