The consciousness of what he cannot do is a mark of the good novelist. The second rate novelists never know: nothing is beyond their sublimely foolish confidence as they turn out their great epics of European turmoil or industrial unrest, their family sagas. The Lake novelists, the Severn novelists, the Yorkshire novelists, the Jewish novelists, they stream by, like recruits in the first month of a war, with a folie de grandeur on their march to oblivion. Not for them the plan of campaign, the recognition of impenetrable enemy lines which cannot be taken by direct assault, which must be turned or for which new instruments of war must be invented. And they have their uses as cannon fodder. They are the lives lost in proving the ineffectiveness of the frontal assault.
– Graham Greene, “The Dark Backward: A Footnote,” Collected Essays (1969)
“Big books are big sins,” David Krell observes in his study Postponements: Woman, Sensuality, and Death in Nietzsche, “but big books about Nietzsche are a far more pernicious affair: they are breaches of good taste.”
– William H. Gass, Finding a Form (1996)
There had always been – let us face it – a suspicion of vulgarity about the Old Master. Just as the tiny colloquialism was sometimes hidden unnoticeably away in the intricate convolutions of his sentences, so one was sometimes fleetingly aware of small clouds – difficult to detach in the bland wide sunlit air of his later world – of something closely akin to the vulgar.
– Graham Greene, “The Plays of Henry James,” Collected Essays (1969)
It is impossible to replicate relations whenever they’re wanted (I can father my firstborn but once), or refasten properties like trousers or stamps, or mimic postures, or picture places upon our ease and inclination. It is equally hard to reenact responses by making heartfelt promises, to restore the past like dry skin, or reproduce whatever qualities might be in question (2 pigs, 3 sisters, 30,000 kroner); so we must bring in our names and numbers, our scales and tables, glottals, grammars, our languages and all our computations, and they—what do they bring?—they bring along all of their private paraphernalia; they bring their freak shows and their friends, their camp followers, babies, baggage, dogs—the poets Plato warned us of, speechifiers, preachers, lectures like this one—their brassy bands, their quarrels, their ambiguities like dirty pots and pans; they attract the criminal element; they pitch their tents in our yards (and you can’t bargain with King Zeno); they leave us the mess I’ve just made us wade through: a sodomous love of limits and a thirst for contradiction like a thirst for wine, a potpourri of worlds perceived by peering between subject and predicate like the shutters of a window (yet who can overcome the pronounced pushiness of the letter p or the pop of the pursed lip when producing it?); then in addition they encourage us to conceive the relations between material things as if they were elements in a valid argument, to imagine Perfect Beings and immaculate contraceptions, to confuse middle terms and causes, to entertain the quaint idea that the Universe is a grandfather’s clock, or hold onto the monstrous notion that it’s someone thinking, dreaming, screaming, or is the process of thought, dream, scream, itself, or tells a story, or exhibits a plan, or celebrates a value, or is fastened together by the mind the way words are clenched in the fist of any judgment, or that such judgments themselves may be logical pictures, or to believe that certain symbols may have the power—how amazing!—to represent their own representational skills, and in signs which are both other and the same as the signified, to picture the very act of that picturing itself.
– William H. Gass, The World Within the Word (1978)