The eternal battle between Gardner and Gass

At Bad Eminence, a lengthy, well-written post on the somewhat contentious (but always respectful) argument between William Gass and John Gardner on the purpose of fiction.  I am in Gass’ camp, myself, but it’s worthwhile to note that his fiction and his theories on same often contradict each other; just because Gass has doubts about the importance of such nebulous concepts as “character”, “plot” and “meaning” doesn’t mean that he eschews them in his own work.  I in fact would argue that Gass’ work in the short story form is among the greatest that has been produced by an American in the second half of the last century, worthy of being ranked with Carver, O’Connor and other masters.  His two novels are both, in their own way, practically without compare.  Omensetter’s Luck is the closest thing we have to a Midwestern Faulkner and The Tunnel is such a tour-de-force of metaphor and peculiar linguistic construction that the OED itself might seem starved for words by comparison.

Gardner’s work has not aged as well.  Grendel is clever and remains an excellent read, but October Light is one of the worst, most hideously didactic books I’ve ever read.  On Moral Fiction, his infamous treatise on the aforementioned subject of fiction’s purpose, happens to be an excellently written argument–but nevertheless one I don’t agree with a single word of.

–Jonathon Walter

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Founded in 1980, Sonora Review is the oldest student-run literary journal in the country. From start to finish, each issue is put together solely by graduate students in the Creative Writing Department at the University of Arizona. All staff members volunteer their time. Former staff members include Antonya Nelson, Robert Boswell, Richard Russo, Tony Hoagland, and David Foster Wallace. Work originally printed in the Sonora Review has appeared in Best of the West and Best American Poetry, and has won O.Henry Awards and Pushcart Prizes. Sonora Review maintains a congenial relationship with the Department of English while safeguarding the editors' complete aesthetic and managerial control. You can contact Sonora Review via email at: Or by mail at: Sonora Review Department of English University of Arizona Tucson, AZ 85721

One thought on “The eternal battle between Gardner and Gass

  1. Jonathan,

    Thanks for reading my piece and mentioning my blog. I have been intending to read Omensetter’s Luck for some time and I think I will do so now. Gardner praised it greatly and thought Gass was or would have been the greatest writer of his time, except in Gardner’s view he moved away from the fictional values that made Omensetter’s Luck so great. I cannot judge. I haven’t read The Tunnel either. Though I certainly have read some of the other authors who also represent Gass’s views. Gass acknowledged that Gardner’s view would probably win out in the long run. I agree with you about October Light. But Gardner’s fiction doesn’t stop there. There are The Sunlight Dialogues and Mickelsson’s Ghosts, where Gardner is at his best. I think maybe it would be unfair to judge whether Gass or Gardner prevailed based on their present literary fortunes and also on whether Gardner or Gass was the better novelist (especially if you use October Light as the standard of Gardner’s talent). Yet, if Gass agrees with Gardner in the actual writing of his fictions, than Gardner was right. Gass’s skeptical views were just a pose, something theoretical he didn’t really believe in.

    On Moral Fiction is a book that makes me queasy because while I feel Gardner is right in many ways, I think it was badly expressed in that book, unlike his other excellent books on writing craft: The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist. There he makes the case for what fiction can be without scolding anyone about what it shouldn’t be. One reason Gardner appears not to have aged as well is because his reputation took a beating after On Moral Fiction was published. Mickelssohn’s Ghost was savaged unjustly as payback and his reputation (except as a theorist) has not yet recovered. Further, he died in 1982 and there is no telling what he might have contributed to fiction by now were he still alive. I’m willing to bet that Grendel, The Sunlight Dialogues and Mickelsson’s Ghost will earn Gardner lasting credit and secure his reputation.

    Thanks for your thoughtful piece.


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