For nearly half a century, William Gass has been American fiction’s most eloquent and committed proponent of literary autonomy. His famous 1969 dictum in Fiction and the Figures of Life, “There are no descriptions in fiction, there are only constructions,” meant that making a world, however fanciful or unfamiliar, displaced the task of portraying it, fundamentally differentiating novel-writing from journalism, history, psychology, sociology, or philosophy. The difficulty of this idea was not its unpersuasiveness or lack of clarity, which Gass’s essays made seem less formidable than many had imagined, but rather its practical consequence. Was Gass’s distinction between creating rather than mirroring reality anything more than a new, arguably more accurate, description of what all novelists had always been doing? If so, it seemed that we might be able to accommodate it merely by avoiding loose talk about lifelike characters, faithful renderings, uncompromising honesty, etc. But what if his theory actually represented a fundamental shift in our understanding of what novels are, one that would require a change in how novels were written and read?
During the 1980s, after excitement over polemics like Gass’s had receded, the answers to these questions began to appear murky. Although Gass has in the intervening years mitigated some of his programmatic-sounding early pronouncements, he has always intended his commitment to literary autonomy to be consequential, sketching in his essays a transformed approach to novelistic criticism, one that would focus on novels’ constitutive conditions and formal requirements rather than on their narrative meaning or content. His own essays on Stein, Ford Maddox Ford, Borges, Barthelme, and others comprised virtuoso examples. However, the consequences of his theory for novelists, for the actual making of fiction, have been more challenging to trace since they would seem clearly demonstrated only in some unidentified subset of all fictions, Gass’s own linguistically dense and complex works among them.
What does a commitment to constructing rather than describing mean for a practicing novelist? Early in his recent novel, Middle C, Gass recounts how his young protagonist, Joey Skizzen, on hearing a Metropolitan Opera matinee, falls under the voices’ spell:
the tenor, told he has but an hour left to live, will be brought to the battlements where he will write loving last words to his opera singer while sitting at a wooden desk set to one side of the stage. He writes something splendid, Joey remembered, about the shine of the stars perfuming the world. Of course the tenor would sing the words in the moment that he wrote them. Here, in this magical realm, singing words were all there were.
Language seems capable of a beauty irreducible to the beauty of its content or subject matter, a beauty sometimes audible even in foreign or unfamiliar words, and we are tempted to speak of this beauty in fiction, as we sometimes speak of a sustained note on the cello or a swath of blue in a Matisse composition, by calling it the beauty of the medium itself, as if we knew what the phrase “the medium itself” applied to fiction means.
Speaking of music’s medium, Joey’s piano teacher, Mr. Hirk, tries to evoke its meaning for his pupil, describing how notes transport us from the world of measurable distances and determinate objects to “a space not of this room or any road.” “Hear? The note is everywhere again. Not at the end of your finger. In its own space! That’s where it is, filling us up with it, making a world of its own on its own.” Unfortunately, Joey’s gift is for mimicry, a skill “suitable for a saloon,” enabling him to sound out by hunt and peck any music he hears. Practice only seems to make him a better copyist. Mr. Hirk exhorts: “your fingers, young shameful man—should sing; you should feel the song in their tips.” His urging is for Joey to inhabit this artistically constructed world, to internalize its ways. The point is to make music, or perhaps make...