August 2nd, 2012 / 8:01 am

In honor of William H. Gass’s 80th birthday on 30 July, Big Other ran a whole mess of “50 literary pillars” lists (an idea borrowed from Gass).

Participants included Matt Bell, Samuel R. Delaney, Rikki Ducornet, Johannes Göransson, Christopher Higgs, Christine Schutt, and many others.

I also assembled a compiled list.

Lots of reading suggestions, in other words.


  1. dl.flsxzkmrkyrzk

       cool thanks

  2. Neil Griffin

      I’m digging my way through the Tunnel, so this is very relevant for me now. I didn’t realize how influential he was to other authors. 

  3. deadgod

      Surprised, disappointed (as a fan), and pleased (as a possessive fan) not to see Celan’s name (except dropped from another’s book).  Maybe I missed it in the useful compilation?

  4. Don

      Damn, no Aeschylus or Sophocles.

  5. postitbreakup

      i’m furies-ous

  6. A D Jameson

      No, one person listed Celan. I don’t remember who, though.

      Recall that I didn’t list the authors who were mentioned only once. There are nearly 600 such authors.

  7. A D Jameson

      Someone listed Sophocles. Again, I didn’t list in my compilation the authors who were mentioned only once.

      But you’re right: no Aeschylus.

  8. A D Jameson

      34 people participated, and if there were no overlap in anyone’s lists (highly improbable), that still leaves only 1700 authors who can be listed.

      So there are always going to be omissions. The way to read the lists, I’d argue, isn’t to say that certain authors aren’t important, but rather to see which authors the participants feel have been most influential (on them).

      My first attempt at making a list was 100+ names. In cutting it to 50 (an arbitrary number), I had to omit many writers who’ve had a vital influence on me.

  9. A D Jameson

      I do have to wonder, though, to what extent Gass’s inclusion was motivated by his being the inspiration for the exercise. (Which isn’t to try and take anything away from his excellence and importance; it’s just an observation that his inclusion here is marked in a way no other author’s is.)

  10. Don

      Yeah, the lists were interesting. I just found the lack of Tragedians surprising because I assumed Greek tragedies were pillars for almost every writer.

  11. Neil Griffin

      I agree with your observation. I’ve been trying to think of authors who have noticeably been influenced by Gass’s style, but have been coming up empty. It might be because his style is so singular and anybody influenced would end up making an unintentional parody of it. 

  12. deadgod

      Yes, I misunderstood the step from two mentions to surprisingly unmentioned.  There are probably many ‘names’ – along with Celan and Sophocles – among the once-mentioned whose entire omission would have prompted addition to your ‘unmentioned’ list.

      I also now notice, from the two Guest Post lists (of contributors) and your own “Posts by”, the absence of a Gass 50 from ‘A. D. Jameson’, ‘A D Jameson’, ‘Adam Jameson’, ‘”Nolan” Jameson’, or any similar allonym.  ?  (Surely you would have big-upped Shklovsky…)

      The “Celan” that I noticed was in Schenkenberg’s 50 “Gass Sentences” — which was itself an interesting way to dodge Gass’s entertaining but impossible-to-be-definitive-even-about-oneself task.  From the “To a Young Friend Charged with Possession of the Classics” quotation:

      hiking many a hard mile through Immanuel Kant or the poetry of Paul Celan

      –which I think (as I say) fairly qualifies as a name-drop rather than a “Pillar among 50”.

  13. A D Jameson

      I know that Jeremy M. Davies considers him a big influence, because he’s told me as much. And his Rose Alley bears that out. (Jeremy studied with Gass, during his MFA.)

      Gass’s essay “The Concept of the Character in Fiction” was a tremendous influence on me, especially c. 2003.

  14. deadgod

      One qualification to consider might be the effect of seeing others’ lists on a re-run of one’s own–‘Oh, right… you know, I didn’t think of her/him under the pressure of making my list, but three days don’t go by that I don’t think of ______, and I really haven’t thought of a couple of ‘names’ on my list – not really – for years.’

  15. A D Jameson

      I made a list but didn’t send it in time to John for posting on the 30th, because I’ve been traveling. But I’ll post it anon.

      And, yes, Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose is definitely on it :)

      I thought about listing all the single-mention authors, but it seemed like too much work. Especially since I was more interested in multiple mentions. And in the omissions.

      I do know that someone listed Paul Celan, though. I remember taking it from an actual numbered list. I think.

  16. A D Jameson


  17. A D Jameson

      I keep a list of every book I’ve ever read (of course I do), and I made my list by cutting that down. Though I also won’t claim my records are error-free.

      And it’s very possible to have been strongly influenced by writers you’ve never read. (And along those lines, this old post might be relevant.)

  18. mimi

      i thought i was a listanista but you… i bow…


  19. A D Jameson
  20. deadgod

      Yes, people are influenced – and not just aesthetically – by history of which they’re not (much) conscious — as they are physically by, say, food, the weather, gravity, the obscurely impingements of genetic inheritance, and so on.  Joyce is an excellent example, or the (conscious, gladly acknowledged) influence on Eliot and Stevens of Laforgue, who’s surely far less read by those influenced by Eliot and Stevens than he was read by them.

      You could even ask how influenced by ‘Homer’ are those who’ve not read him in Greek — or, with any comprehension, heard him recited.  –likewise with all translated literature–the now-old joke of Constance Garnett being the greatest 19th c. Russian writer.  (Perhaps by now she’s been surpassed as an influential 19th c. Russian writer by Pevear/Volokhonsky.)

      I’m not a fan of connect-the-infielder chains of influence, Harold-Bloom-style:  Wordsworth-to-Browning-to-Stevens, that sort of thing.  Some influences, acknowledged or not, seem empirically compelling; Shakespeare actually did copy North’s Plutarch, and the presence of a (large) response to Marlowe in Shakespeare’s verse is not rationally deniable.

      But I think Shakespeare was influenced in untraceably fine ways – perhaps in rhizomatic ways, for which ‘untraceably rhizomatic’ would be redundant – by… well, everything around him:  books, observed drama, his schooling (which surfaces very comically in Merry Wives), everyday language.  (Rooke’s Shakespeare’s Dog makes a great joke of the last.)

      I also think there’s plenty ineffable about the individual talent in traditions, affecting those traditions, but not directly generated by those traditions–not something absolutely novel – which would be unrecognizable – , but the unanticipatable contribution of an unprecedented perspective.  (–which isn’t just true for ‘geniuses’, but rather, is the (itself mutating) self-kernel of all historically effected consciousness.)

      In other words, I don’t think a work of art can be translated into the/a product of its influences.  In this, I think Higgs was more right than you in your recent conversation here (the one(s) that ended up in argument over “intention”).

  21. A D Jameson

      Actually, I couldn’t understand why Chris kept trying to say I was saying influence is so linear. I’ve always felt it’s just like you describe here. I don’t think I’ve ever said otherwise…?

      I was speaking more about norms—that a given time and place will have certain expectations, broadly speaking, about what an artwork is. And one can then measure any given work of art against that norm. So, for example, I’d say it’s completely customary in many small press indy-lit experimental circles to make languagey fragmented collagist texts that aren’t organized around narrative. And so, within those circles, those texts aren’t experimental, because they don’t do all that much to redefine literature’s possibilities. (To someone outside those scenes, those text might be very experimental.)

      That’s really all that concerns me, honestly. What can be done with lit? What is being done? What isn’t being done? Why do certain norms arise, in favor of other things? Are there lineages that can be traced out?

      But lineages aren’t always direct in that Bloomian sense you mention. Stein makes for a perfect example. Sure, she influenced Hemingway, who influenced Carver, who influenced Tao Lin. And in that way, there’s a kind of linear progression. But Stein also influenced the Language poets in the 1970s and 1980s. Once a text exists in the culture, it can come and go, and it can influence different people and scenes in many different ways. I don’t think I have any disagreement whatsoever with Chris on this topic. It seems commonsensical to me, in fact. To reiterate, I didn’t really understand the way Chris redescribed my position back to me; it always seemed wrong.

  22. A D Jameson

      Relevant here would be that great passage in Wittgenstein’s Mistress:

      Once, when I was listening to myself read the Greek plays out loud, certain of the lines sounded as if they had been written under the influence of William

      One had to be quite perplexed as to how Aeschylus or Euripides might have read Shakespeare. (38)

      Later, she decides that it was those plays’ translator who had been influenced by Shakespeare.

  23. mimi

      have you made a list of your lists?

  24. Richard Grayson

      I looked only at Gass’s list. As someone not quite as old as Gass but older than most people here, have younger people read “The Red and the Black,” which I was assigned as a undergrad and again in grad school; “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” which is amazing (Porter is highly underrated but I assume she is out of fashion) and which I taught in a “short novel” class in the summer of ’78 and haven’t read since; “At Swim-Two-Boys,” which is wonderful; Colette (I probably read 7 or 8 books); “The Golden Bowl” or much of James at all (I must admit I liked the BBC version of “The Golden Bowl” first; I have two friends, both English professors 60+ who did their doctoral dissertations on “Bowl”); Ford Madox Ford (I’d say “The Good Soldier,” but then I didn’t read the novel Gass put on his list). 

      My sense is that certain writers just become unfashionable and go basically unread among literary people.  Gore Vidal was famous enough so that you all know him even if you didn’t read much or any of him, but for days last week a paid obituary notice ran in the New York Times for Irvin Faust, essentially describing him only as a WWII veteran and a beloved high school guidance counselor.  I couldn’t believe that the obituary page didn’t realize when they saw this that this was a very important (at least to me) writer.  I thought, “Willy Remembers,” one of the best novels I read in the early 70s and he wrote some great stories, too.  Finally, someone must have tipped them off and they ran an obit with some of the lavish praise for “Willy Remembers” and his other books. “Willy Remembers” was considered a very important literary novel, and it sold very well, too.  It’s true the author wasn’t self-promoting and remained a dedicated high school guidance counselor but how could his books get forgotten (apparently) so quickly?

      For that matter, Gass’s good friend, colleague and debating partner, John Gardner, who I had as a teacher in Bread Loaf, was considered an important novelist when I was in my twenties.  Everyone read his books, and he was a provocateur with his annoying claims about “moral fiction” (I don’t think he fully believed half the stuff he said about fiction, but he liked to stir things up).  Yet I was shocked to discover, a few years ago, that his books were out of print. (This is no longer true for all of them.)

      Writers many of you in your 20s and early 30s whom you routinely mention here will probably be, in 30-40 years, similarly either forgotten or so unfashionable as to be known only by scholars.  One of the annoying things to an older person is that obviously digital natives are overrepresented in the online world, not just in literature/writing/publishing, but in all fields, and so that “presentism” — always a problem, clearly — just becomes overwhelming unless someone does a post like this.  People tend to overvalue what’s happening or popular now (hard to do otherwise when you’re not that old and there are few old voices around, as on blogs like this one) and assume, even if they don’t believe it intellectually, that present trends will continue indefinitely.

      That’s why posts like this one are so valuable.  Thanks to AD.

  25. A D Jameson

      No! I haven’t! But that’s a good idea…

      What kinds of lists do you keep?

  26. mimi

      1. private
      2. mundane
      3. idiosyncratic
      4. personal
      5. ‘experimental’
      6. cryptic
      7. ironic
      8. useful
      9. useless
      10. shameful
      11. embarrassing
      12. silly
      13. secret
      14. nostalgic
      15. lascivious
      16. magical
      17. realistic
      18. autistic
      19. delusional
      20. hopelessly incomplete

  27. A D Jameson

      Mine tend to be
      1. pragmatic
      2. obsessive
      3. clerical
      4. analytical

  28. deadgod

      From my small reading:

      Stendhal is read.  Alain de Botton, in The Consolations of Philosophy writes memorably (to me) in some detail of Stendhal in his Nietzsche chapter as exemplary of “consolation” to be had by facing “difficulties”.  de Botton is reviled for being a popularizer, but, in my view, he’s very good at what he does (the angry criticism I’ve seen foolishly and inaccurately condemns him for not being abstruse enough, like criticizing a baseball player for not rebounding enough), and he sells a lot of books.  Not that de Botton is the thin edge of a Stendhal revival, but de Botton’s championing of Stendhal might indicate more contact with The Red and the Black than you (reasonably) worry might be in play.

      There’s a recent At Swim, Two Boys which I don’t know, but At Swim-Two-Birds is, I think, still prominent on the ‘experimental’ greatest-hits parade; in Adam’s “compiled” lists (linked to above), “Flann O’Brien” has four mentions — more than Sophocles and Celan combined, ha ha.  Maybe “Myles na gCopaleen” and “Brian O’Nolan” are mentioned once each, ha ha ha.  I think Dalkey Press is named for O’Brien.  If he’s whom you meant, he’s safely remembered (if not much read, as with Joyce (?))… for now.

      I don’t see Colette or Ford on that “compiled” page (one mention each?).  James is mentioned three times, and I think he’s still widely taught–I’d guess, because he has short stories and novellas that are, eh, convenient.  And as you suggest, he’s been well-movied recently.

      I think your point is interesting; it’s obscure – and unfortunate – how worthwhile writers are submerged, perhaps never to resurface except academically and in only a small way.  It has, of course, to do with the increasing flood through modernity of voices and books, and, I think, with the changing itself of mundane ‘relevance’.  I sure can’t keep up nor will ever catch up.  One thing to be done is, as you’ve done here, to celebrate one’s enthusiams; another, to attend those of others’.  “Irvin Faust”?  –something to look out for.

  29. deadgod

      Ha, that’s very good.  I remember – or think I do – Borges saying that ‘we create our ancestors’.

  30. deadgod

      Fair enough that you found yourself given to defend something you’d not proposed.

      In that Stein-to-Hemingway-to-Carver-to-Tao Lin lineage, one would also have to figure that Carver and Tao Lin could easily have read Stein herself (rather than depending exclusively on the most recent mediation).  –and, of course, have read Beckett, say, and Romeo and Juliet (whence ‘would a rose smell as sweet’), and maybe late-medieval philosophers (Abelard was, to my small knowledge, the initiator of the convention of using ‘rose’ to question the reality of universals).  I mean that each node that causes–that has an “influence”–is more a complex membrane than it is a runner passing a single baton forward.

      And, as I say, each generator also contributes something of itself, something ‘original’, to what it writes, or thinks, or anyhow does.

      Surely there are sometimes pretty simple ‘lineages’, but that’s a very insecure default mode!

  31. A D Jameson

      Yes, it all gets pretty complicated pretty quickly!

      I also don’t think influence matters all that much. It’s more about what one does with what one receives.

      And, again, I’m more interested in overall trends. Like, how Stein rises and falls in popularity. Or in how something like parataxis becomes more and less dominant—that kind of thing. Influence is simply one mechanism as to how that occurs, and not really what’s important, at the end of the day.

  32. Don

      What are the best Stendhal translations?

  33. mimi

      and how (if at all) do you feel about spreadsheets
      venn diagrams
      family trees
      taxonomy (a personal fave)

  34. A D Jameson

      There can never be enough.

  35. NLY

      On the side, for Stevens I believe Bloom traces Wordsworth-(Emerson)-Whitman-Stevens.