“I write to indict mankind,” William Gass said on Monday night. But, in his discussion of his work as part of the “Works in Progress Series,” Gass indicted himself more than others.

Well-known for a variety of works, Gass’ latest novel, “The Tunnel” has been one of his best received. Spending a collective 30 years on the book alone, it has become, in the six years since its publishing, one of his most-read works. Gass, however, began his career with short stories, eventually giving way to a novella/essay style.

Originally from Warren, Ohio, Gass served in the navy during World War II before earning a doctorate in philosophy from Cornell University. Currently, Gass is a professor of philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis. Although he claimed that “writing has almost always been difficult for [him], something [he] had to do,” his achievements suggest otherwise.

After only 10 years at Washington U., Gass became the David May Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities. Additionally, he created the university’s International Writers Center, where he is currently serving as the president. Other accolades include two National Book Critics Circle Awards in the category of criticism and the Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, among others.

Gass captivated the audience with self-criticism of his writing style, charging himself with multiple infractions including excessive “naming, metaphoring and preaching.” He included excerpts of his works from his earliest limericks written in childhood to his more recent essays and novels, especially “The Tunnel.”

Although he describes his poems as poor, he recognizes the sensational imagery he employs in his later writing. Yet, Gass still feels uncomfortable with his talent, accusing his use of imagery as being “a curse disguised as a blessing.”

In turn, Gass offered advice to the potential writers present. While maintaining a jovial atmosphere throughout much of the talk, Gass departed from this format to offer his more serious recommendations.

After criticizing his verbosity in description, he proposed “to have a handful of nonsense is worse than a nose full of flu.” He then spoke of the structures of writing, stating “one poor paragraph stains the soul.” After this brief immersion in the serious, Gass returned to his former sarcasm.

Momentously, Gass guided future writers with his definitive concluding statement of “so, writers, get busy and stop writing.”

Yet, for Gass, there is no stop to writing. In his 81 years, his countless works, ranging from novellas and novels to essays and poems, have won praise several times repeated. But, the most important achievement for him seems to be his own satisfaction with his work, obtained through the enjoyment of the audience, a sentiment that was echoed on Monday night.

Schwartz can be reached at kschwartz@campustimes.org.



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