Lessons from John Gardner

John GardnerLast week when I was at the Baltimore Book Festival browsing through the titles at Daedelus Books’ tent, I came across new copy of an old favorite book about writing, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. I still have my original copy, purchased in the early eighties.  It’s showing its age.  It’s in the mass-market paperback format that was common to that era, inexpensively bound pages of paper that is clearly not acid-free.  The pages are yellow and crumbling.  My new copy is of a more recent printing in a sturdier trade format, and the paper is hopefully less susceptible to entropy.

American novelist John Gardner (not to be confused with the British author of thrillers by the same name) is probably best known for his novels Grendel, a retelling of Beowulf from the monster’s point of view, and October Light, a story about a family and a rural community in Vermont, which won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award in 1976. He died at age 49 in 1982 in a motorcycle crash.

In addition to being a novelist, Gardner also wrote literary criticism and taught writing.  He held very strong opinions about just about everything and frequently stirred controversy in literary circles. He made harsh, judgmental statements about his contemporary authors (including some of my idols like John Updike) and never shied away from an argument.  He was also arguably  one of the greatest teachers of creative writing who ever lived.  At the same time that I was a student writer at SUNY Albany, Gardner was to the south of me, teaching at SUNY Binghamton.  From what I’ve read and heard, I think I’m glad that I was in Albany studying with Eugene Mirabelli, a teacher with extraordinary sensitivity for young writers with fragile egos.  Gardner, while inspiring for some, could also be extremely intimidating.  He either drove one to greatness or made one give up forever.

It was a year or two after I graduated that I finally picked up his Art of Fiction, and it was probably good that I read it after college and not before.  It’s intimidating as hell.  Gardner apparently read every book ever written, in every language, and he’s not shy in citing them in his lessons.  While I was then, and still am, a proponent of literary canon, Gardner left me in the dust.  When I read through the reader reviews of his book at Amazon, they are mostly glowing, but occasionally there are ones that are scathing indictments of his elitism.

Admittedly, his tone can be condescending, pedantic, and elitist.  He does, however, know what he’s talking about.  Once I was able to get over feeling like a complete ignoramus (a word he frequently uses), I found that I agreed with him.  So, I did what I had done in school when I was stuck in a class with a professor who love to hear himself speak, I “took what I could use and let the rest go by,” to paraphrase Ken Kesey.  (There I go, dropping names just like Gardner).

This is not a Writing Crime Fiction for Fun and Profit kind of book.  Gardner’s focus is on creating literary art, and even though the title says “Notes on Craft For Young Writers,” it’s not a book for beginners.  Or at least is not a book for beginners who don’t have the utmost seriousness and willingness to do what they must to become great writers: devote the rest of their lives to studying, learning, and practicing their craft.

The first part of Gardner’s book is a discussion of aesthetic principles and values.  While the reader may be anxious to get to the “Notes on Craft” part, Gardner takes the position that aesthetic principles and craft (the nuts and bolts parts of character, setting, and plot) cannot be separated and unless a writer has a clear understanding of what he or she is trying to achieve artistically, craft is irrelevant.

It is in this section of the book where Gardner is at his most pedantic and I can see where some readers will reject what he says.  Unfortunately, this is a mistake.  I have been in far too many workshops with writers who haven’t studied much great literature and indeed reject the idea that it is even necessary to read in order to be a writer.  Their writing shows it.

In the second part of the book, Gardner gets down to specifics of writing craft, but in the context of the artistic principles that discussed in the first part:

The most important single notion in the theory of fiction I have outlined—essentially the traditional theory of our civilization’s literature—is that of a vivid and continuous fictional dream.  According to this notion, the writer sets up a dramatized action in which we are given the signals that make us “see” the setting, characters and events; that is he does not tell us about them in abstract terms, like an essayist, but gives us images that appeal to our senses—preferably all of the, not just the visual sense—so that we seem to move among the characters, lean with them against the fictional walls, taste the fictional gazpacho, smell the fictional hyacinths.  In bad or unsatisfying fiction, this fictional dream is interrupted by some mistake or conscious ploy on the part of the artist.  We are abruptly snapped out of the dream, forced to think of the writer or writing.

Gardner then sets out to show all the things that can interrupt that dream: a sudden change in point of view, imprecise use of language, an inappropriate change in narrative tone, etc.

When I first read it, it was that idea of fiction as a vivid and continuous dream that captivated me. It really is the best way to describe what reading is like and anything that disrupts that dream destroys the experience.  One of the reasons why real books, the physical kind made out of paper, have endured as a technology throughout the centuries, is that they “disappear” while we are reading them.  The dream takes hold and we are no longer conscious of the binding, the paper, the appearance of the type on the page.  The biggest challenge to designers of electronic book readers, such as the Kindle, is the ability to make the book disappear and not interrupt the dream.

The biggest challenge to the writer is to create a fictional dream and to sustain it.  All the elements of fiction—time, place, character, plot, dialogue—must be mastered to the degree that they become second nature to the writer in order to achieve that goal.

All in a life’s work.

I have to admit that I was put off a bit myself by Gardner’s continual use of the word ignoramus.  It’s a loaded term, and very pejorative, and Gardner, who teaches us to be precise in the use of language is making a point.  In Latin, ignoramus literally means “we do not know.”

Every few years or so, I open up Gardner’s book for a refresher course.  Ignoramus that I am, reading this book never fails to set me back on the right course when my writing has gotten sloppy or lazy.

He also still intimidates the hell out of me.

© 2009 – 2011, Fred Bubbers. All rights reserved.

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