“Works of art,” William Gass, who died this week, at ninety-three, once
wrote, “are governed by the question, ‘Why this, rather than that?’ ”
Gass spent most of his life in the Midwest. He was born in North Dakota
and taught philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis, where he
counted James Merrill and Stanley Elkin among his colleagues. He first
got attention, in the nineteen-sixties, for his short stories, which
were dreamlike, and formally challenging. He would go on to publish
several novellas, a volume of Rilke translations, and three novels, one
of which, “The Tunnel,” narrated by a cranky, eloquent historian of Nazi
Germany, won the American Book Award.

But he was best known for his essays, a fact that he would occasionally
acknowledge with sadness. “Fiction is what I really want to write,” he
confessed in one interview, but, he knew, “people are less interested in
it, they really prefer my essays.” Between 1970 and 2012, Gass published
seven collections of them, including “Fiction and the Figures of Life,”
“Habitations of the Word,” and “Finding a Form.” (He won the National
Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism three times.) As the titles
suggest, the essays in these books probed the demands and delights of
language, and articulated a highly original view of the novel, one that
was not widely understood, or much credited. Though Gass was revered by
many, he was also seen as a contrarian, and occasionally dismissed as
such, regarded as the sort of person who will overstate things to make a
point.

It’s true that he attacked the conventional critical citadels of plot
and character with a certain glee. In “The Concept of Character in
Fiction,” an essay from 1970, he discussed a figure in Henry James’s
novel “The Awkward Age.” “Now the question is: what is Mr. Cashmore?”
Gass wrote. “Here is the answer I shall give: Mr. Cashmore is (1) a
noise, (2) a proper name, (3) a complex system of ideas, (4) a
controlling conception, (5) an instrument of verbal organization, (6) a
pretended mode of referring, and (7) a source of verbal energy.” Over
the years, this comment followed Gass around. Irving Howe devoted a page
to parsing it in a piece for The New Republic, and it became a
stand-in for a new, more programmatic and skeptical mode of reading, one
that sought to divest fiction of all human presences.

But Gass had not set out to deny character. What he wanted was to
refocus attention on a book’s elemental matter. Mr. Cashmore is, after
all, a series of words. There’s no portrait of him, no audio track of
his voice. If he seems to possess a vivid reality—if he seems, to use a
phrase Gass would have abhorred, to leap from the page—that is because
James pulled off a trick. So what was the secret of the illusion? In
essence, Gass wanted readers to ponder the same questions as writers.
Which of these words is better, and what order should they go in? Why
this, rather than that?

Works of prose, he insisted, were not mirrors; they did not show us
life. He called sentences “containers of consciousness,” and the
consciousness he meant was not mine, or yours, or even the author’s. It
belonged to the book alone. “Emerson’s essays build the mind that thinks
them,” he said, in accepting the Truman Capote Award for Literary
Criticism, in 2007. Then he took up a passage from Emerson’s “Circles”:

And when he thought “the eye is the first circle,” I’ll bet he didn’t
know what the second circle was. But writing notions down means
building them up; it means to set forth on a word, only to turn back,
erasing and replacing, choosing and refusing alternatives, listening
to the language, and watching the idea take shape like solidifying
fog.

Only by struggling with the demands of form, by revising until he found
the right set of choices, could Emerson arrive at the ideas expressed in
his essay. “For that is what fine writing does: it creates a unique
verbal consciousness,” Gass said in the same speech.

This idea sounds natural enough when applied to an essayist like
Emerson; it becomes harder to accept when applied to fiction, when words
are being used not to explain but to dramatize. If prose has no
referent, if it is unique and points only to itself, then we cannot
say that the novel teaches us how we think, or that one of its primary
virtues is the way it tracks the mind’s habits and irregularities. This
was another sacred tenet that Gass punctured. The charge of a writer, he
maintained, was not to relate a world but to create one—a world of
sound, of the rhythm and melody made when syllables collide. “No prose
can pretend to greatness if its music is not also great,” he wrote.

For many readers, these poetics will seem insular and narrow, and
represent a last retreat into aestheticism. Seen another way, however,
they are liberating, and inclusive—uniting books as disparate as, for
instance, Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves” and Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood
Meridian,” prose works with their own rich music that rises, as Gass
demanded, to the level of a dynamic verbal consciousness. What sounded
like contrarianism, in Gass’s essays, was really an unmatched reverence
for language, a love that was inseparable from piety. To try and solve
the mystery of a sentence, to wonder at the felicities of its
construction, did not have to diminish awe but could replenish it.