John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist

We already saw (here) that Gardner’s The Art of Fiction gave good advice on writing techniques. But writing is more than techniques. Being misunderstood and frequently undervalued by people outside of writing seem to be common denominators for writers, who are thus often prone to recurrent anxieties. In his second book on writing, On Becoming a Novelist (New York, 1983, 1999; 150 pp.), Gardner counsels writers on their expectations, frustrations, and challenges. He knows about them. He’s dealt with rejection and with publication. He has good advice on what to make of all the turmoil. In today’s parlance, we could call him a writing coach. He’s not proselytizing, turning people into writers; he’s talking to “serious writers” again (as he did in The Art of Fiction), and he wants to walk them through the questions and the struggles without wearing rosy lenses.

Here’s the bottom line: “Nothing is harder than being a true novelist, unless that is all one wants to be, in which case, though becoming a true novelist is hard, everything else is harder” (70). Prepare for difficulties, while remaining uncertain of the outcome. Prepare for “spiritual profits” (149), and—for very few—financial ones too. Prepare for menial jobs that won’t, or so we hope, drain you enough to mangle your art. Prepare to be disgusted by terrible books that gain critical and commercial success. As I said, no rosy lenses here. If, in spite of the life you must prepare yourself for, you still want it, chances are you’re a novelist at heart.

The intense doubts that assail writers, particularly beginning writers, are convincingly portrayed by Gardner. Do I have enough talent for this? Am I wasting my time marooned in the room while others are out in the world enjoying professional success? Am I crazy to opt for reading and writing as a profession?

The first of these questions begins the book. There is no definite answer, says Gardner—as one would expect him to say. But he does tackle the issue seriously. He presents four indicators of talent in a writer (3-70): verbal sensitivity, accuracy of eye, the special intelligence of a storyteller (which includes rejecting stupid ideas and a requisite amount of the right kind of strangeness), and daemonic compulsiveness.

Gardner still favors getting a college education (as he did in The Art of Fiction), but he takes on writing programs more specifically. Yes, many are bad, and can even derail a talented beginner, but more often than not, they do help by providing admission to the writing community, with its much-needed encouragement.

On Becoming a Novelist dedicates a chapter to publication. Should I look for an agent? Sure, and particularly if you’re a novelist. What should we make of editors? “One should fight like the devil the temptation to think well of editors” (100), he says, but goes on to explain that deep down they mean well and their flaws are often the result of their being overworked. Don’t take an editor’s rejection too seriously—unlike an agent’s: agents evaluate potential, and not just the manuscript as is. Seek the reassurance of publication, but don’t become obsessed with it. Concentrate your compulsions on the work itself, aiming “not [for] publication at any cost, but publication that one can be proud of” (xxiii).

If you’re having second thoughts (or third or nth thoughts) about writing, this book is a good resource. Technique is valued highly, but it’s not Gardner’s main concern here. The mindset of writers is. It doesn’t hurt to know that you’re not alone in suffering those anxieties. We’ll come back to other similar books over the next few days, but this one has the advantage of being written by a professional writer.


  1. Thank you a ton for posting this. I have this book and I was looking for this specific quote tonight.

    As a writer, Gardner's quote is one of the most powerful things I've ever read.

    Thanks again - you deserve an immense amount of magic and good fortune for posting this.

  2. You're welcome, Brad. Glad it helped.


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