restricted access William Gass's The Tunnel: The Work in Progress as Post-Modern Genre
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JOHN M. UNSWORTH William Gass's The Tunnel: The Work in Progress as Post-Modern Genre In Le Postmoderne expliqué aux enfants, Jean-François Lyotard says that, like myths, the "metanarratives" of modernity—the work-ethic, faith in technological progress, the Christian doctrine of salvation— . . . have as a purpose the legitimation of social and political institutions and practices, of laws, of ethics, and of modes of thought. But in contrast to myths, they do not look to the act of an original founder for this legitimacy, but to a future yet to come—in other words, to an Idea yet to be realized. (38, my translation) If, as Lyotard suggests, prolepsis is the characteristic mode of modern metanarrative, then in the realm of fictional narrative the work-inprogress might be regarded as a paradigmatic literary genre of modernity , since the published portions of a work in progress always imply a metanarrative—that of the performance which has not yet taken place, the edifice which is still under construction. Yet it is Lyotard's well-known opinion that the postmodern is divided from the modern by its rejection of metanarratives, and its acceptance of a perspective restricted to the ongoing: after Auschwitz, he maintains, it is impossible to believe that the future holds our redemption (40). What makes a work-in-progress paradigmatically post-modern, then, is the disappearance of the "Idea" of the finished work as an effective or Arizona Quarterly Volume 48 Number 1, Spring ??)2 Copyright © 1992 by Arizona Board of Regents issn ooo4-r6io 64John M. Unsworth believable justification for the work-in-progress, and the metamorphosis of this mode of publication from a provisional into a permanent state of literary production. Indeed, although the post-modern work-in-progress still tends, like its modern counterpart, to justify itself with reference to the metanarrative of the projected work, it seems in practice to have accepted endless revision and forestalled completion as the conditions of its existence; these conditions involve both the text and its reader with the world outside the text, in ways the author (and some readers) may not be willing to admit. If we take Lyotatd's broad definition of modernity as an eta beginning with the Enlightenment (Lyotatd xiii), then the work-in-progress might in general be described as a modem phenomenon: it has roots at least as far back as Tristram Shandy, a work which emerged over a period of seven years and may actually have been uncompleted at the time of Sterne's death.1 Later, during the nineteenth century, novels often received serial publication in monthly magazines before they appeared as books; in our own century there is the example of Finnegans Wake, which took fifteen years to write and was excerpted in various periodicals under the title "Work in Progress" for eleven. What I am describing, then, is not a complete departure from previous literaty practice, but rather a new constellation of literary and historical elements. In fact, a better understanding of the post-modern2 work-in-progress might allow us to isolate a previously unnoticed tradition in the novel: that of works which extend themselves temporally and spatially in the effort to contain (that is, include and control) the response of actual ot potential readers. In such a tradition, Tristram Shandy would represent the fitst incursion by the foreign element of ctitical self-consciousness into the creative text, and Finnegans Wake would mark the point at which the author's dialogue with his critics became both the subject matter for the fiction and the controlling factor in its reception.3 The institutional position of the post-modern wtitet within the academy has hypertrophied this feature of the genre,4 with two results: the author, in the guise of interpreter, increasingly overshadows and supervises the response of the reader, while the "work" that, even for Joyce, was always the goal of "work in progress" recedes from view—so much so that when we apply the term to post-modern examples we seem at times to be naming something that is a "work in progress" in the sense that a painting might be called "a work in oils." The...