John Gardner, The Art of Fiction
John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers (Vintage, 1983, 1991; 224 pp.) is a classic. It’s printed like a classic: thick paper, hazy letters. It speaks like a classic: note the subtitle, for young writers, which we would most likely write today as beginning writers. Gardner’s voice in the book has the gusto and loftiness of an early twentieth century don, with an inordinate faith in formal, humanist education. It’s surprising that, despite the old-fashioned tone, Gardner died at the early age of 49. Finally, the work is self-consciously a classic in its intended audience (“What is said here […] is said for the elite; that is, for serious literary artists” [x]) and in its high regard for itself (this book, says Gardner, is “the most helpful book of its kind” [xi]).
The claim that Gardner’s book is the most helpful book of its kind has ceased to be true in view of the profusion of writing manuals published over the decades that separate us from 1983. Gardner’s volume may be important and revealing, but others have produced books that are more useful. Nevertheless, it’s a good, witty, and committed book, both because of the theory of literature it presents and because of the writing techniques it sets before us (more on both below).
I mentioned an old-fashioned tone. The book did often strike me as dated. Would a book on writing published today dedicate several pages to what Gardner considered “fiction’s primary forms,” that is, “realistic narratives, tales, and yarns” (33)? How about emphasizing that “the nature of our mortality” conditions what we consider important, dislike, or feel indifferent to in fiction (55)? And how about proposing to use the voice of “a black” as an “interesting variant” in telling a yarn (197)? Gardner takes a long time dissecting and remonstrating with artistic movements, such as surrealist, superrealist, and objective fiction, whose virtues have seeped into contemporary literature while the movements themselves don’t garner as much attention in today’s writing manuals.
The book also feels old because of the author’s faith in university education, which is, as I said, inordinate. (Gore Vidal has said that Gardner saw “Heaven as a paradigmatic American university.”) Gardner expects every serious writer to get a literature degree at a university, or at least a few years’ worth of courses, where he or she needs to learn “how to analyze fiction” (13). The writings of the self-taught, he says, no matter how brilliant, suffer from ailments such as the “spottiness and therefore awkwardness of their knowledge” (12). He proves his point by focusing on more recent authors, so one is left to wonder what his assessment would be of, say, Shakespeare’s “little Latin,” or of Homer’s and Cervantes’s educations. To be fair, these views are tempered in On Becoming a Novelist, where Gardner admits it’s possible to be a good writer without a university education, and that a writer can come from any intellectual discipline (92-97).
So, according to Gardner, reading a lot is not enough. Living a lot isn’t, either (“the first-hand knowledge of a dozen trades is likely to be of less value to the writer than twenty good informants” ). Writers must learn the right way, read the right authors, grasp the right emotions, and work awfully hard guided by their intuition.
Intuition stands high in Gardner’s assessment of writers. Sometimes, this teeters toward the Romantic obsession with great creators; at one point, Gardner compares a writer with a séance (49). But, more often, feeling and intuition balance a picture of artistry that can seem pompous and aloof. And so, despite the book’s evident elitism, Gardner can reach out to “lesser” forms of literature when underscoring literature’s sensuous and entertaining side: “drugstore fiction can often have more to offer than fiction thought to be of a higher class” (40). We must “beware of reckless high seriousness,” he says, and recognize that “the true literary artist and the man or woman who makes ‘toy fiction’ may be the same person in different moods” (81). He often turns to such “lesser” forms of literature as models, and some of the exercises at the end of the book engage with those genres.
Once you set aside those distracting details, and the discussions that consume pages unnecessarily, you’ll find yourself surrounded by interesting sentences and insights. There are plenty of them, like this one: “Nothing leads to fraudulence more swiftly than the conscious pursuit of stylistic uniqueness” (163). You’ll also see Gardner’s much quoted theory of fiction: fiction is understood as a “vivid and continuous […] dream” (97). You’ll run into interesting examples of the creative process: specifically, three descriptions of how a story can be created from scratch. There are illuminating literary critiques. There’s a whole chapter on plotting, “the hardest job a writer ever does” (165).
Furthermore, there’s a handy list of common faults. Some are “failures in the basic skills” (99), like excessive use of the passive voice, shifts in diction level, lack of sentence variety, lack of sentence focus, accidental rhyme, and needless explanation. Some are crass mistakes made by “very bad writers” (112), like faulty chronologies and an awkward presentation of details. There also are mistakes “of soul” (115), namely, sentimentality, frigidity, and mannerism. True, we can quibble about the categories. True, we can say Gardner’s censure of some devices is antiquated. But his discussion of each fault is useful. For instance, he presents the three main syntactical slots in a sentence (subject, verb, object), and recommends not to load with descriptions more than two of them—and preferably just one—so that the sentence doesn’t lose its focus (105-106). Elegantly put. Also, the fledgling manner of ramming details into the reader’s eyes, while thinking it was done smoothly, is a fault that Gardner describes lucidly (114).
Say you don’t want to read Gardner’s whole book. Then you can safely skip part I and move straight to chapter 5. Just keep the dream theory in mind, which is arrived at and fleshed out in the first four chapters. Chapters 5 through 7 are the most practical. You can omit the exercises at the end, and turn instead to book-length compilations of writing exercises, such as Naming the World or Now Write! If you want to abridge further, skip the first half of chapter 6. In that succinct version of The Art of Fiction, the tapestry’s remaining threads are still useful and they give a good sense of Gardner’s outlook and tone.