[Kermode is an English literary critic who has written and edited a variety of works, including studies of such writers as William Shakespeare, John Donne, D. H. Lawrence, and Wallace Stevens. Among his works of critical theory are Approaches to Poetics (1973) and The Art of Telling: Essays on Fiction (1983). In the following excerpt Kermode approaches Gass in his role as philosopher-essayist, examining his ideas and praising his sumptuous prose.]
William H. Gass is not alone among leading American fiction writers in giving some of his time and talent to nonfiction, but nobody does it more energetically. How best may we describe him in this alternative role? He wouldn't mind being called a philosopher but would certainly object to the description “literary critic,” for he has small regard for most of the writing done by such persons. The best, most acceptable term is “essayist.” Mr. Gass has strong views about the essay and thinks it worthy of his best attention.
Habitations of the Word is his first collection of essays since The World Within the Word, published seven years ago. That book contained a number of reviews, but Mr. Gass has a genial contempt for reviewers, and his own specimens clearly indicate his determination to be as unlike them as possible. Not for him the plain expository manner they probably think appropriate to their task; everything must be charged by his virtuoso's passion for language.
So it is in this new collection, and its reviewers have an obvious problem. They may feel obliged to give some account of the gist of Mr. Gass's thinking about his chosen topics, and that could easily be done; but if there's one thing he hates more than another it's a gist. This may be, in part, because summary would falsely suggest that he is often repeating what he has said before, or what others have said in more pedestrian ways. But mostly it is because he won't have what is said separated from the manner of its saying. His hatred of readers who tear through a book looking for gists is well expressed in the following paragraph, specially designed to show how much more than gists there is in his...