Finding a Form: Essays

Overview

William Gass writes about literary language, about history, about the avant-garde, about minimalism's brief vogue, about the use of the present tense in fiction (Is it due to the lack of both a sense of history and a belief in the future?), about biography as a form, about exile - spiritual and geographical - and he examines the relationship of the writer's life to the writer's work. With dazzling intelligence and wit, Gass sifts through cultural issues of our time and contemplates how written language, whether a...
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Overview

William Gass writes about literary language, about history, about the avant-garde, about minimalism's brief vogue, about the use of the present tense in fiction (Is it due to the lack of both a sense of history and a belief in the future?), about biography as a form, about exile - spiritual and geographical - and he examines the relationship of the writer's life to the writer's work. With dazzling intelligence and wit, Gass sifts through cultural issues of our time and contemplates how written language, whether a sentence or an entire book, is a container of consciousness, the gateway to another's mind that we enter for a while and make our own.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Reading these essays is like watching a glass blower at work over the flame, seeing his forms emerge—at times amusing trinkets, at times vessels of beauty and purpose. . . . The vases of Mr. Gass's making (something like extruded golden bowls with nearly undetectable flaws) would be in such a thoughtful essay as 'The Story of the State of Nature,' in which he mounts, in clear expository fashion, an entire history of narrative."—Maureen Howard, New York Times Book Review

"Gass's commitment to ideas, concentrated energy and originality shine through on every page. . . . These pieces deal with Ezra Pound as a failed modernist; the lives of Nietzsche and Wittgenstein in relation to their thought; various species of the avant-garde from Pierre de Ronsard to Degas, Beckett and the Bauhaus; the exacting demands of autobiography; the Pulitzer Prize Committee's 'banal and hokey' choices in fiction; and the abyss between the moral viewpoints expressed in works of art and the lives of their creators. Gass's deeply felt essays . . . are quotable, flecked with fertile insights and a pleasure to read."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"These essays showcase precision intellectual workmanship, displaying intricate multifaceted models of how writing and thinking relate to life."—Kirkus Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In his first gathering of essays in several years, novelist and critic Gass's commitment to ideas, concentrated energy and originality shine through on every page. The title essay, an exploration of how writers navigate complex, refractory reality, discloses how his childhood with an abusive father and alcoholic mother influenced his escape into writing and shaped his fictional characters, symbols and preoccupations. "Nature, Culture, and Cosmos" pessimistically gauges the "immense indifference" of the universe to our moral values and our deaths. Other pieces deal with Ezra Pound as a failed modernist; the lives of Nietzsche and Wittgenstein in relation to their thought; various species of the avant-garde from Pierre de Ronsard to Degas, Beckett and the Bauhaus; the exacting demands of autobiography; the Pulitzer Prize Committee's "banal and hokey" choices in fiction; and the abyss between the moral viewpoints expressed in works of art and the lives of their creators. Gass's deeply felt essays, reprinted from the New York Times Book Review, Antaeus, etc., are quotable, flecked with fertile insights and a pleasure to read. On stoicism: "If we have to accept what we get, why not imagine that it's just what we want?" On Impressionism: "It allows subversion to go on with the approval of the subverted." (Aug.)
Library Journal
Gass (The Tunnel, LJ 1/95), the head of the International Writers Center at Washington University, is "as obdurate as nails" when it comes to the best possible use of the written word. Each essay in this wide-ranging book (be it titled "Ezra Pound," "Nietzche: The Polemical Philosopher," "Robert Walser," "Nature, Culture, and Cosmos," "Pulitzer, The People Prize," or "The Music of Prose") offers evidence for such a conclusion. Gass is concerned with how best to use a phrase or word and believes we should be tough-minded when it comes to reading. He reveals a sardonic sense of humor as well, for example, in discussing the winners of the Pulitzer prize, and he dislikes the fact that anyone would enjoy his/her own writing. His compound sentences"little shimmied stretches of human awareness"are utterly unique and perfectly difficult. This collection succeeds in his aim to arrest and inform persuasively. For literature collections.Robert Kelly, Fort Wayne Community Schs., Ind.
Kirkus Reviews
These 19 essays showcase precision intellectual workmanship, displaying intricate, multifaceted models of how writing and thinking relate to life.

Gass won the 1985 National Book Award for a previous essay collection, Habitations of the Word; most recently he authored an ingenious, gigantic novel, The Tunnel (1995). The essays reprinted here belong to a variety of genres, but all centrally consider how writing enters into the world—how writers find forms adequate for their thoughts. In an opening section Gass takes on several institutions that in his opinion mark today's writing with mediocrity; he dissects the disgraceful track record of the Pulitzer Prize for literature and the inadequacies of the minimalist prose style that emenates from academic fiction-writing programs. His main focus, however, is on conjunctions of writing with philosophy and experience. Gass offers appreciations of favorite modern authors whose works and lives are rich in philosophical meditiation, such as Robert Walser and Danilo Kis; biographical review essays treating the relationship of life to work for Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Ezra Pound; and digests of intellectual history burdened with such portentous titles as "Nature, Culture, and Cosmos." These latter can suffer from showboating and cutefying. Such faults crop up occasionally even in the best essays here. Gass's postmodern idiom at times leads him to facile would-be cleverness—informing us with regard to Nietzsche, for instance, that "of course, the superman doesn't sport blue underwear." At his best, however, when Gass puts his philosophical bent at the service of his literary gifts, singular insights emerge. This volume's finest essays shed new light on the workings of prose style—on "the music of prose"—in cases ranging from a lively piece of Middle English sermonizing to the impressionism of Ford Madox Ford.

Gass shines when he addresses the subject most befitting a self-described "Methodologist," one "for whom the medium is the muse"—his own prose medium itself.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801484896
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 11/1/1997
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 5.49 (w) x 8.39 (h) x 0.95 (d)

Table of Contents

Pulitzer: The People's Prize 3
A Failing Grade for the Present Tense 14
Finding a Form 31
A Fiesta for the Form 55
Robert Walser 65
Ford's Impressionisms 77
The Language of Being and Dying 104
Nietzsche: The Polemical Philosopher 119
At Death's Door: Wittgenstein 146
Ezra Pound 160
Autobiography 177
The Vicissitudes of the Avant-Garde 199
Exile 213
The Story of the State of Nature 237
Nature, Culture, and Cosmos 262
The Baby or the Botticelli 277
Simplicities 293
The Music of Prose 313
The Book As a Container of Consciousness 327
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