As with his first novel, Gass's first book of non-fiction,  Fiction and the Figures of Life, made an immediate and profound impact on critics. The New York Times Book Review said, "the unlikely combination of criticism, philosophy and metaphorical inventiveness has resulted in a kind of poetry." A collection of essays and reviews, Fiction and the Figures of Life set the stage for numerous books like it to follow, strengthening Gass's reputation as a master prose stylist and linguist.

One of the Special Collections' more recent and interesting Gass acquisitions is related to this book: an uncorrected proof produced by Harper & Row, who was going to publish it originally, until Gass's editor, David Segal, took a job at Knopf and took the book with him. As a result, this uncorrected proof is very likely to be one of only a few copies ever made by Harper & Row, and may differ in significant ways with the published Knopf version.

The William H. Gass Papers contain many early drafts of the essays that Gass published in various periodicals before collecting them in Fiction and the Figures of Life as well as his other nonfiction books.