Recursions, Part 9: “Finding a Form,” by William H. Gass

Toilets at Attention

This is the ninth in a series of short critical looks at books of literary criticism. Yes, a writer writing about writers who write about writers! I composed these for a private Facebook group originated by my friend Sara Mortimer Boyd, called the “Literary Criticism/Critical Theory Reading Group.” Members suggested a number of books about writing, and read them and reacted to them.  I will publish mine here, once or twice a month, in the order in which I wrote them–an order voted on by the group. 

“Finding a Form,” by William H. Gass

I had to wait two or three weeks after finishing William H. Gass’s Finding a Form before I could even consider writing this critique–this in spite of his undeniable ability as a prosodist. He is a master of every technique the English language offers to help writers create mellifluous phrases: assonance, alliteration, allusion, rhythm, and more flow like explosive diarrhea from his mind, and in the end are about as pleasant. In short, as you might just have guessed, I disliked his book. Or perhaps I should say i abhorred it. There’s more to writing than mere prettiness of speech. And in Mr.Gass’s case, that “more” is a flatulent pretentiousness that fouls his pretty words.

Perhaps my reaction is exaggerated by a case of convert’s zeal, because I too used to overwrite in much the same style. But even at my post-adolescent peak of glitterary excess, I was nowhere near as self-indulgent as this man. (Perhaps regular doses of Hemingway held back the flow a bit.) I found this book almost terminally irritating.

I won’t quote him here–in part because I couldn’t get the book back to the library fast enough after I finished, but in part because you should read the damned thing yourself, if only as a guide for what not to do….

Yes, writing should be musical on the whole (and music does include dissonance, the shadow that reveals the light, to get a bit ecumenical with metaphor), but it should not consist entirely of endless literary cadenzas with no theme nor key. Mr. Gass spends almost all his energy showing off how nicely he can turn a phrase, to the point where sometimes you just can’t tell what he’s talking about.

He is a man who walks the world holding a mirror in front of his face. There are several book reviews in this collection, and damn me if you don’t realize they are in fact book reviews till you’re more than halfway through the text!

You do learn what Mr. Gass thinks of his own writing, though….

Of the pieces in the collection, the only one I found truly worth reading was the piece on Ezra Pound and exile. Mr. Gass seems to have a high regard for the sweet-tongued fascist poet (as did left-wing Hemingway; Pound must have been a complex personality.) There were flashes of insight here and there in the others, but there were also occasional simple errors of fact. Mr. Gass is so caught up in his own verbal elegance that he seems to forget the one big thing about writing: that words stand for something beyond words.

But the glitter’s good enough for Bill. He performs the alchemical magic of turning gold into brass.

Please, read this book–if only to learn the value of holding back.

Have you read this book? Scroll down to comment with your own reaction to it, or to my essay.

Rick Risemberg