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William Gaddis


“I feel like part of the vanishing breed that thinks a writer should be read and not heard, let alone seen. I think this is because there seems so often today to be a tendency to put the person in the place of his or her work, to turn the creative artist into a performing one, to find what a writer says about writing somehow more valid, or more real, than the writing itself.”
–from his acceptance speech for the National Book Award in Fiction for J R , April 1976

William Gaddis was born in Manhattan, New York City, in 1922, a year which saw the publication of two of the great works of literary modernism, Joyce’s Ulysses and Eliot’s The Waste Land, whose techniques of multi-voiced narration and literary allusion would have a profound effect on Gaddis’s own working methods. In the early 1940s, he attended Harvard, where he edited the Harvard Lampoon but left without a degree. After working as a fact-checker at The New Yorker in the mid-1940s, he traveled to Europe, North Africa, Spain and Central America and wrote his first novel, the monumental The Recognitions (1955).

William Gaddis was famously labeled “Mr. Difficult” by Jonathan Franzen in The New Yorker, and the length of most of his works does little to encourage the new reader. But time has shown that he is a writer who can change how a reader looks at the world. His concern with the detrimental effects of the desire for money links him to Twain, Henry James, Dreiser and Fitzgerald, while many of the most important novelists writing today, Don De Lillo for example, have acknowledged the influence of Gaddis’s fiction on their own work. Gaddis is one of those writers whose role is to deny the easy affirmations by which we live and to expose the abysmal blackness of life we choose to ignore.

It’s high time to overcome my fear and read Gaddis.


2 Responses

  1. Awesome, Gaddis is one of my favourite writers. His books really do provide a unique immersive experience once you acclimatize to the highly individualized, speechlike rhythm of the prose. Which of his works are you thinking about starting with? I would advise to start with something other than The Recognitions. J R is possibly his best. Someone I can’t recall said of Joyce that he was unique in that every book he published was a masterpiece: Gaddis is that rare (maybe the only!) American writer who also qualifies.

  2. Great advice, and thank you! I have a copy of The Recognitions but I am not ready to dig in. He and Thomas Pynchon are among the “scariest” authors for me to read. I will let you know how I fare with J R.

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