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Fiction and the Figures of Life

4.04  ·  Rating details ·  284 ratings  ·  19 reviews
Twenty-four essays by the modern master of literary criticism, ranging from discussion of Gertrude Stein and Jorge Luis Borges to Henry James and "The Evil Demiurge."
Paperback, 288 pages
Published January 1st 1979 by David R. Godine Publisher
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4.04  · 
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 ·  284 ratings  ·  19 reviews

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MJ Nicholls
First, an admission. Gass’s first collection of essays is lightyears beyond my intellectual level. Switching between heavy philosophical investigations to poetical and opaque literary meditations (by way of book reviews), the essays here lack the same layman’s entrypoint as in later collections Finding a Form or A Temple of Texts—two stronger, more musical and spellbinding books. So my three-star verdict is a partly a reflection on my own shortcomings and partly because Gass has not fully master ...more
May 01, 2008 rated it it was amazing
What is there to say about a book that has brilliance, usually several brilliancies, on every page? My first acquaintance with Gass, this very book (although not this copy) actually, was way back when I was getting my philosophy degree. I was up in the WWU philosophy library, doing research for a paper on the mind-brain problem and its significance to the problem of personal identity (whether we have one—an identity—that is)—reading, specifically, D. M. Armstrong's Bodily Sensations, even more s ...more
Ian "Marvin" Graye
Gass vs. Franzen

"In every art two contradictory impulses are in a state of Manichean war; the impulse to communicate and so to treat the medium of communication as a means and the impulse to make an artifact out of the materials and so to treat the medium as an end."

William H. Gass, 1970

In 2002, much to the consternation of white male American post-modernists, Jonathan Franzen would make a similar distinction between writing models, which enables readers to call writers who prefer one impulse or
Eric Cartier
Jan 26, 2010 rated it really liked it
Essays to read during my commute. No way I can handle Finnegans Wake on the bus!

April 8, 2010 update: I finished this more quickly than I thought I would and then discovered I could read FW on the bus (with Sunn O))) doom drone blocking out other peoples' cell phone chatter). Gass can do anything he wants to do with the English language; he's a truly extraordinary writer. Like each of his books I own, my copy of Fiction and the Figures of Life is heavily marked up and dogearred, despite some of
David R. Godine
Dec 24, 2008 rated it it was amazing
"Gass's criticism, in the best tradition of eloquence, wit, and passion, is a defense of 'poesy' in a time of need... Nearly all the essays are a pleasure to read and some—it almost seems shocking to say it—are works of beauty. It has happened before—one thinks of Keat's letters and some fragments of Lawrence—that the unlikely combination of criticism, philosophy and metaphorical inventiveness has resulted in a kind of poetry."
New York Times Book Review

"For anyone who writes fiction or writes
Alissa Hattman
An unlikely combination of criticism, philosophy, and metaphorical inventiveness, this book of essays explores fiction as a specific construction: “There are no descriptions in fiction,” Gass states, “there are only constructions”(17) and goes on to say that fiction is “not a reality rendered, but a universe embodied”(53).
Scribble Orca
Apr 20, 2013 marked it as to-be-consideread  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Scribble by: MJ Nicholls

Damn status updates. Nearly as bad as reviews.
B. Mason
Jan 05, 2015 rated it really liked it
The only thing that kept me from giving this collection five stars, as the essays are dense but also accessible, witty, and lucid was Part Three, which I found to be wholly vague and uninteresting compared to the rest of the collection. I highly recommend Parts One and Two for any and all writers searching to deepen their understanding of some seminal authors and the role of fiction.
Christian Schwoerke
Sep 05, 2014 rated it liked it
I found a good deal of this frustrating and misguided, despite the erudition, polish, and thought that lay behind the pronouncements. Windbag is the word that comes to mind when looking back on these essays.

More to come...
Nov 06, 2009 marked it as to-read
Shelves: fiction
Francois Camoin recommended b/c it gives great tips on how to characterize characters vividly with concise descriptions.
A little hard to comprehend, but once you do, it is definitely worth the read.
Richard Wu
Nov 28, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Solid, punchy litcrit; product of a life spent honing aesthetic sensibility. Persuaded me to add Under the Volcano, Sea and Sardinia. Favorite essay: The Case of the Obliging Stranger. Docked a star for reusing the upside down pocket shaking metaphor.

Selected quotes
"Protective speech must cut off meanings, not take them on. It must find contexts that will limit the functions of its words to that of naming. Gertrude Stein set about discovering such contexts." (90)

"[James] merely wrote his novels
Apr 26, 2018 rated it liked it
Read a few of the key essays and skipped around some. Gass is good here, but I prefer his fiction. His books on literature are all the same, basically.
Aug 20, 2015 rated it it was amazing
If I could I would have every student of the humanities have this book on their reading lists, even if it was just the general essays rather than the specific book reviews (which do contain pearls of wisdom but are largely only of interest to fans of Gass and critics of whichever writer is discussion (excepting the Stein piece which lays out an incisive attack on certain methods of criticism and sets out ideas for how it should be done)). I feel like I've only scratched the surface of what this ...more
Erik Wyse
Nov 13, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Gass is a unique and important voice in Literature, bringing his knowledge and affinity for Philosophy into the context of the art of fiction. His understanding of the craft, particularly language and its functioning process, is vital and thought provoking, best summed in the maxim "There are no descriptions in fiction, there are only constructions."
Nov 05, 2015 rated it liked it
Without a doubt, Gass is much smarter than me. Unfortunately, sometimes this can be as endearing as someone being much better at dropkicking me in the scrotum.

Come for the genius writing. Try to stay for the final essay on linguistics. Drink plenty of Powerade in between.
Elizabeth Andrew
Thought-provoking, philosophical, and also dense.
Jun 08, 2009 rated it liked it
contains a very nice essay on gertrude stein
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William Howard Gass was an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, and former philosophy professor.

Gass was born in Fargo, North Dakota. Soon after his birth, his family moved to Warren, Ohio, where he attended local schools. He has described his childhood as an unhappy one, with an abusive, racist father and a passive, alcoholic mother; critics would later cite his characters as
“Works of art are meant to be lived with and loved, and if we try to understand them, we should try to understand them as we try to understand anyone—in order to know them better, not in order to know something else.” 22 likes
“It is not a single cowardice that drives us into fiction's fantasies. We often fear that literature is a game we can't afford to play — the product of idleness and immoral ease. In the grip of that feeling it isn't life we pursue, but the point and purpose of life — its facility, its use.” 5 likes
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