Critical Mass

Critical Library: William Gass

By William Gass

In this ongoing series, Critical Mass asks critics to name five books that should be found in any reviewer's library. Unable to settle on five, here are six books suggested by William Gass, who was a 1978 NBCC Criticism finalist for The World Within the Word, and winner of the 1985 NBCC Criticism award for Habitations of the Word, the 1996 Criticism award for  Finding a Form, and the 2002 Criticism award for Tests of Time.


A list:


You should have near you a copy of your latest book, and let it regularly remind you of how it feels to receive a stupid, malicious, or self-serving review.  Most of us try our best, so if you do not feel the text of the moment worth praise, you may join the author in his sorrow or her laments.

One crucial aspect of your work must be forming an estimate of the music the text makes.  The best book… One of the better books on this subject…  The only book on this subject is George Saintsbury’s A History of English Prose Rhythm. The examples he examines are exemplary, his judgments acute. He has an old school conservative bent, but that was a hundred years ago, when some conservatives could still be admirable. This book is hard to find, so pull it off the shelf of a good library and give it a look. Then respond to the certainty of its opinions.

When this little game was presented to me, I turned to Saintsbury to help me with my next choice, Ben Jonson’s slim commonplace book called Discoveries or sometimes Timber. Is there anything in the work under one’s review that is so memorable – thought, scene, feeling, situation – the reader will carry it away like intriguing shells picked from a beach. Jonson’s book is made of ideas he has found in other heads than his own, but sometimes he adds to the feast.  Saintsbury quotes Jonson and I quote both. Thus is the chain of appraisal linked from one age to another.  Jonson might have included reviewing in his dismal list of life’s routines: “What a deal of cold business doth a man spend the better part of life in! in scattering compliments, tendering visits, gathering and venting news, following feasts and plays, making a little winter love in a dark corner.” 

Coleridge, of course, sets the standard and The Biographia Literaria the method of measure. We should keep this amazing work close, again as a reminder: the best critics are significant artists in their own right (there are no exceptions); practical criticism can succeed without the help of theoretical assistance, which is like that of a fog machine aiding a leaky boat; sins by themselves will not destroy genius, even when they are plagiarisms whose sloppy theories have promised to make some dim Jim Dandy. For example: D.H. Lawrence is a great writer anyhow. When the books I praise disappear while those I despise survive, I should seriously wonder why, and, when I know, congratulate myself. Good books don't sell. Nearly no exceptions.   

H. L. Mencken (of all people) wrote The American Language whose three volumes put it two books past my allotment. Although thoroughly scholarly, it is an unalloyed pleasure:  hilarious, informative, combative, shrewd. It contains nearly everything you’ll want to know.  Particularly delightful is Mencken’s chapter on “Proper Names in America.”  Following the trail of names produces an instructive social map. Novelists will need to know these geographies, and critics to follow the novelists when they assign signatures to their characters – through the south, for instance. In the Cumberland Mountains, Mencken locates “Olsie, Hassie, Coba, Bleba, Onza, Retha, Otella and Latrina.”  “One girl was called Delphia ‘cause her Pa, he went to Philadelphia once.” “In the same vicinity lived a girl named Trailing Arbutus Vines.”  Who wouldn’t like to know her story?


Paris Review interview with William Gass.

The Believer interview with William Gass.


Photo of William Gass at NBCC awards ceremony March 10, 2011, where he introduced Sandrof award winner John O'Brien of Dalkey Archive Press, by David Shankbone

William Gass is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, David May Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis, and the author of five books of critical essays and four works of fiction (Omensetter's Luck, Willie Master's Lonesome Wife, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and The Tunnel).