Fighting Words: The 1978 Gardner-Gass Debate

After graduating with his degrees in Illinois near where he grew up, comedic genius Stanley Elkin got a gig in 1960 as a member of faculty at Missouri’s Washington University. He worked there until his passing in 1995. In that time, he received a PhD, wrote tons of excellent works of black humor fiction, and hosted a fight in his kitchen (citation: Garth Risk Halberg during a discussion panel held in a diner during a dialogue on the 2019 William Gass Reader: ultra-reliable) that would reach its peak in a formal debate held in 1978.

The belligerents were William H. Gass and John Gardner.

Elkin was at the crux of the Gardner-Gass relationship from the beginning. At some point in 1960, Gass had shown his friend Elkin “The Pederson Kid,” and Elkin had mentioned it to Gardner. Gardner, at this time forming a literary journal called MMS, and having read another if Gass’ stories by then in circulation,  in September of 1960 Gardner wrote a letter to Gass asking if he could read the story Gass had shown Elkin.

The debate? On whether or not great aesthetics in fiction are an independent entity, or if they rise out of the moral integrity of a given work. William Gass thought aesthetic value to be independent, and Gardner thought great aesthetics in literature relied on moral competence and strength.

There are points during this decades-long argument where Gardner nearly seems to admit that both are theories upon one can operate to create great writing, but these are mostly early on. Over the years, Gardner has less and less give.

What is most revealing is that a great deal of their friendship was predicated on how much the two enjoyed reading one another’s fiction. It seemed more a matter of debate about what it was Gardner thought was so great about “The Pederson Kid,” or what Gass thought so great about Gardner’s works such as Grendel. The two weiters didn’t agree on what it was that made either of their own writing so great, albeit they agreed their writings were great most of the time.

Gass seems to have disapproved of his own miniature masterpiece, Omensetter’s Luck (1966). My own personal reading of that particular novel is fairly telling of my view if the debate. Omensetter’s Luck was, to me, both morally profound and aesthetically superb, but one does not necessarily seem emergent from the other to me. The two seem not only distinct, but are distinct enough that there is nearly a dialogue going on between the morality and the aesthetics in Omensetter’s Luck. I suppose this puts me on the side of Gass, on the one hand. On the other though, to dismiss using Gardner’s own claims about what he believes to be true about fiction is dismissing one of the most insightful lenses a reader can be given when interpreting a work of fiction: that through which the author wrote it themselves. Whether outside the context of that author’s work you agree or disagree with them on the whole, there can be no better insight into understanding a work of fiction than to, in addition to using your own interpretive method, to also read that author’s novel the way that author themselves reads and interprets fiction.

This is good practice. It is good practice because if you can learn to read an author’s novel the way that author consciously views reading in general, and if you can learn to evaluate that novel the way they themselves would evaluate fiction in general and therefore even their own work were it not written by them (though some authors aren’t afraid to admit the value of their own writing: Donald Barthelme would sometimes include a collection of his own stories on course reading lists for his fiction courses) then you can learn to read, interpret, and evaluate novels that the author(s) in question have (both) read. In addition to getting from the book what you did by reading it the way you do, by stepping outside of that for a moment and adopting the perspectives of other reader(s) (we’ll say they are Gass and Gardner) you can get a sense of why, for example, readers like William Gass (and Mary McCarthy but for different reasons I’m sure) would be so proud and feel so tiumphant yo be on a judge panel awarding William Gaddis the National Book Award (04-21-1976) for his novel J R (1975) (or “Junior,” which was Mary McCarthy’s nickname for the novel); and also why John Gardner might have written the review that he did write (06-10-1976 in the New York Review of Books) on J R, which resulted in him finding the novel to be morally bankrupt, emotionally uncontrolled, and unentertaining. That last charge I listed was one of Gardner’s first in his review, and it struck me as alien to my own experience. J R is genuinely, honestly, one of the only books I have ever described as hilarious to the point of laugh-out-loud funny, and its characters richly detailed despite all of their presence being in the form of dialogue, and above all else the relationships between those characters (especially that between J R and Edward Bast, which itself is my favorite in all of literature, as well as a number of others) which Gaddis does such a superb job of arranging.

William Gass on the other hand was, as I said, far more appreciative of J R than was Gardner. While introducing Gaddis as a speaker (10-27-1994), Gass said that “J R takes time, J R takes patience, J R takes work, J R takes faith,” and Gass said that “unlike other faiths, it does not put off salvation until some weekend after all who have lived are dead and only their bones dance. It is immediately and continuously rewarding.” Once again, I am personally aligned with Gass. But if one is to find themselves solely aligned with Gass and dismisses Gardner’s stance on the matter, one loses perspective.

There doesn’t seem to be any evidence available, but you can bet, having been a human being from time to time, that Gass and Gardner likely discussed Stanley Elkin’s novels. And what was Stanley Elkin’s approach? He seemed interested in beginning funny, and ending tragically, and getting you from one to the other without you having noticed the stages of transition. Which reader is this likely to speak more to? Gass or Gardner? My whole point is that not being either, and standing outside yourself enough to see only Gass’ and Gardner’s views, it’s easy to see how it could go one way or the other. And the fact that Elkin could stand outside himself enough to see the importance in inspiring Gardner to seek out Gass directly I think speaks to my point.

With all that being said, however, I do not find myself entirely aligned with the fullness of Gass’ opposition to Gardner. Gass made it clear by the time of the debate in Cincinnatti, recorded and hashed out formally in front of an audience (10-24-1978), and re-discussed between the two with an interviewer from The New Republic in 1979. Part of Gass’ position was not only that aesthetics in fiction are distinct from moral matters, but that great fiction is best when it does not seek out moral matters, and that moral matters are best explored when delegated to disciplinary philosophy. I don’t see why, of all the human matters explorable by fiction, morality ought to be exempt. Why should fiction, for example, be a fitting medium to explore emotions, human relationships, language itself, and other mortal matters, but not morality?

As I hope I have made clear, my position on the matter is not that one was more right than the other. Neither made a better case or pleaded a better argument. There was a great deal of cross-fertilization: of that I am certain. They likely didn’t express this aloud to one another too often because a part of the Gardner-Gass friendship was playing these disagreeing parties (this is according to both their wives), largely because each did very likely stick to his core principles, despite the mutual influence which undoubtedly occured between the time Gardner first read Gass, and the time of the 1978 debate and beyond.

If you can learn to read the 1st’s work as the 2nd did, and the 2nd as the first did, and then read ea h their own works as they themselves would, as well as however you yourself might have read these author’s books having never learned any of this, then your reading experience of a great number of works becomes immensely more textured, more variant. Your reading experience becomes multifaceted with an arrayed set of lenses, none of which you are ever obligated to agree with and yet always help you l develop a fuller opinion. Even if using one of the said lenses as a disagreeable example. Gardner disliking Gaddis’ J R is as much a part of my relationship with the novel as is Gass or Mary McCarthy’s praise of it. Even if none of them seemed to have gotten what I got out of the experience of reading  J R, and I’m sure that, having the understanding I do of the sort of readers William Gass and John Gardner each were, the three of us would have a lot to disagree on concerning the novels of, for example, Stanley Elkin. And yet, having come to understand each of them, their approaches to writing and reading, and the stances in their debate, and their mutual connection initially through Elkin, I can’t help but allow that to be a part of my experience. Even if it is, in the case of Elkin, mere speculation.

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