The essays of William Gass are required reading for anyone interested in American writing. Irrespective of subject matter, Gass's essays are so well written that they can be re-read multiple times solely for the beauty of their prose. (Agreement with the often irascible author is not required.) This puts The Alliterative B.H.G. (his nom de rap) in rarefied company indeed: Bacon, Browne, Johnson, De Quincey, Emerson, Ruskin, Pater (limiting ourselves to pre-Modernist Englishers). I could easily spend the length of this post gassing on about Gass's writings. I could discuss, for example, how the form and content of his essays tune a reader's consciousness to appreciate the internal architecture of sentences, thus altering the way we read. I could encourage, persuade, hector, browbeat you until you run off to the nearest good library or bookstore and obtain a copy of Fiction and the Figures of Life, because if you haven't read it, you have no idea how beautiful and boisterous and reckless and rambunctious and witty and wise and pithy and pointed essayistic prose can be. But it's probably best to let Gass's words speak for themselves. So here are a few quotes from this first of his six volumes of collected essays:
The soul, we must remember, is the philosopher's invention, as thrilling a creation as, for instance, Madame Bovary. So I really should point out, though I shall say little more about it, that fiction is far more important to philosophy than the other way round. However, the novelist can learn more from the philosopher, who has been lying longer; for novelizing is a comparatively new, unpolished thing. Though philosophers have written the deeper poetry, traditionally philosophy has drawn to it the inartistic and the inarticulate, those of too mechanical a mind to move theirs smoothly, those too serious to see, and too fanatical to feel. All about us, now, the dull and dunce-eyed stool themselves to study corners.
--(From "Philosophy and the Form of Fiction")
It seems a country-headed thing to say: that literature is language, that stories and the places and the people in them are merely made of words as chairs are made of smooth sticks and sometimes of cloth or metal tubes. Still, we cannot be too simple at the start, since the obvious is often the unobserved. Occasionally we should allow the trite to tease us into thought, for such old friends, the cliches in our life, are the only strangers we can know. It seems incredible, the ease with which we sink through books quite out of sight, pass clamorous pages into soundless dreams. That novels should be made of words, and merely words, is shocking, really. It's as though you had discovered that your wife were made of rubber: the bliss of all those years, the fears...from sponge.
--(From "The Medium of Fiction"; for a possible source of Gass's image, see Tommaso Landolfi's tale "Gogol's Wife")
Although no one wonders, of a painted peach, whether the tree it grew on was watered properly, we are happily witness, week after week, to further examination of Hamlet or Madame Bovary, quite as if they were real. And they are so serious, so learned, so certain--so laughable--these ladies and gentlemen. Ah well, it's merely energy which might otherwise elucidate the Trinity.
--(From "The Medium of Fiction"; it must be said that contemporary social historians of art probably have wondered about the agricultural conditions of Cezanne's Provence)
The purpose of a literary work is the capture of consciousness, and the consequent creation, in you, of an imagined sensibility, so that while you read you are that patient pool or cataract of concepts which the author has constructed; and though at first it might seem as if the richness of life had been replaced by something less so--senseless noises, abstract meanings, mere shadows of worldly employment--yet the new self with which fine fiction and good poetry should provide you is as wide as the mind is, and musicked deep with feeling.
--(From "The Medium of Fiction")
Characters in fiction are mostly empty canvas. I have known many who have passed through their stories without noses, or heads to hold them; others have lacked bodies altogether, exercised no natural functions, possessed some thoughts, a few emotions, but no psychologies, and apparently made love without the necessary organs.
--(From "The Concept of Character in Fiction")
It is the principle function of popular culture--though hardly its avowed purpose--to keep men from understanding what is happening to them, for social unrest would surely follow, and who knows what outbursts of revenge and rage. War, work, poverty, disease, religion: these, in the past, have kept men's minds full, small, and careful. Religion gave men hope who otherwise could have none. Even a mechanical rabbit can make the greyhounds run.
--(From "Even if, by All the Oxen in the World"; the phenomena Gass warns against in this essay written decades ago--one of the greatest of all polemics against soi-disant 'popular culture'--have now succeeded beyond his nightmares, rendering his certainty about social unrest retrospectively naive; the rise of Sarah Palin is but one of the consequences of the cultural Triumph of Ignorance)
We live in ruins, in bombed-out shells, in the basements of our buildings. In important ways, we are all mad. You don't believe it? This company, community, this state, our land, is normal? Healthy, is it? Laing has observed that normal healthy men have killed perhaps one hundred million of their fellow normal healthy men in the last fifty years.
Nudists get used to nakedness. We get used to murder.
--(From "The Artist and Society")