[(essay date Fall 1991) In the following essay, Stevick examines the significance of Gass's comments on his own work in light of his problematic insistence on the nonreferentiality of his texts. Stevick draws attention to paradoxical distinctions between Gass's authorial persona and his actual existence as creator and critic of his own writing.]
Not very many writers refuse to talk about their work these days. A writer has to be resolutely reclusive to do so, or perhaps supremely rude. People do ask. It is probably attractive for most writers to respond, partly because the questions in most interviews are thoughtful, incisive, and not self-promotive, partly because it is surely good for the ego, creating a secondary level of discourse in which one comments on one's own work, Narcissus as Narcissus, in Tate's classic phrase. Once done, those commentaries can have every possible result and readers will use them as they wish, regarding them as essential keys to the work, like Hopkins talking about sprung rhythm, regarding them as one reader's opinion, no more privileged than any other merely because the reader happens to be the writer, or regarding them as harmless obbligatos, virtuoso exercises in which we are permitted to hear the writer's voice in what seems a more informal setting than the primary works themselves.
The interchanges involving writers as auto-commentators would make an attractive history, especially in the past thirty years. One thinks of that splendidly resonant sentence "Fragments are the only forms I trust," spoken by the narrator of "See the Moon," and Barthelme's attempts ever since to disavow the sentence as his personal credo. Or one thinks of Hawkes, protesting to bemused audiences over the years that his fictions have nothing to do with his inner life. Or one thinks of Barth explaining and explaining that neither his fiction nor his criticism is intended to express a situation in which the possibilities of narration are "exhausted."
William Gass's statements on his own work carry more authority than any of the other members of that rich and fascinating group we have come to think of as the prominent postmodernists or postrealists or metafictionists. It is not primarily because he has spoken and written quite a lot and obviously has a fondness for critical commentary with a polemical edge, although that is true. It is not because everything he says is stylish and witty, although it is. It is that he has spent a lifetime perfecting his skills as a disputant, a professional philosopher, and even before his opponent has opened his mouth, Gass has reduced him to idiocy. It is hard to find people who cherish Gass's opinions. But it is harder to find people who argue them away.
In 1976, Shenandoah published a symposium with Gass, Walker Percy, Grace Paley, and Donald Barthelme as participants.1 It makes as good an example as any of Gass in action. The participants are very different from each other, strenuous, witty, passionate. But soon into the symposium, there...