The ten years after a writer’s death are crucial to the reputation of his work. And the fates are capricious during this important decade. Writers who have the veneer of durability can dwindle into obscurity. Writers of little more than mediocrity can linger inexplicably. In such a period, any critical perception trumpeted with the necessary brio can doom or rescue. Think of Melville in the decades of his wilderness.
The remarks that follow here are assembled near to the fifth anniversary of the death of one of the last century’s most influential voices, William Gaddis. Gaddis, during his lifetime, attracted passionate responses. He was a writer eagerly castigated in some quarters, even as he accomplished the considerable feat of winning the National Book Award not once, but twice (for J R and A Frolic of His Own). He wasn’t a celebrity; he was, more likely, an enemy of literary celebrity, a writer who rarely gave interviews, never read aloud from his work, didn’t blurb, wouldn’t turn up at book parties. His work was gigantically ambitious, demanding, especially in his first two novels, but it was also hugely entertaining. He lived and worked from the ferment of the fifties, through the experimental upheavals of the sixties and seventies, the minimalism of the eighties, into the go-go digital culture of the nineties, and yet he was never allied with the literary fashion of any of these periods. He was an adherent of no particular literary movement. He was neither modernist nor post-modernist; neither realist nor fabulist. In fact, any attempt to arrive at an exhaustive critical analysis of Gaddis’s output seems doomed to little more than provisional usefulness. The scale of his work always exceeds small-minded taxonomies.
As many of the writers who contribute below also observe, what gets lost in the debate about Gaddis, however, is how much delight there is in him, both on the surface of his novels and in their subcutaneous pulsations. When we lost the voice of William Gaddis, we lost one of the very few American writers who could produce genuine comedy without sacrificing literary values. All of Gaddis’s novels (with the exception, arguably, of the posthumous published work) were laugh-out-loud funny, full of all the characters who surround us everyday—the unredeemed frauds, quacks, artists, and con men—but who too rarely turn up in the naturalist fiction of the present moment. Gaddis wrote as a ghost inside the machine of late-model capitalism, with a dark understanding of its costs, and he did so without yielding to the seductions of the literary world. Along the way, he magnified language and imagination, making the tapestry of literature that much more glorious to behold. His passing has robbed us of a sensibility that enriched the world of books. But perhaps by assembling some of the people who knew him or found value in his project, we can reignite the bright candle of this reputation for readers of the next generation.