On Writing: The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

“What moves us is not just that characters, images, and events get some form of recapitulations or recall: We are moved by the increasing connectedness of things, ultimately a connectedness of values.”

John Gardner was perhaps as well known (if not more so) for his instruction on writing as for his own fictional works, and his Art of Fiction: Notes on the Craft for Young Writers compiles the fullness of his teachings on what makes a great writer great. There is, on the whole, a lot to take away from Gardner’s book, but there’s also a lot to work through. The attitude of Gardner’s narrative often tends toward the stereotypical elitism of the highly-educated “serious writer” (to use his term, at other times referred to as a “true writer”), and as a result readers might be at risk of missing some of Gardner’s most crucial lessons under the weight of all his posturing. His musings on the significance of a writer’s formal education to his skill range from referencing the self-educated man as an “imbecile” (intended with its original meaning, though made no less harsh by the continuation of his thought that such a man may write a great novel if he’s lucky) to somewhat backhanded compliments like, “The best writers do not always (or even often) come from the well-educated upper middle class – art’s cauldron is only on rare occasions gold or silver.” (Another aside: though at times his narrative may strike some readers as sexist, he does admit – in one line which I forgot to note verbatim – that many of the greatest novels were penned by women. Huzzah!)

Still, though some of his opinions may be dated, his advice certainly isn’t. Here Gardner digs profoundly deep into the foundation of writing; for obvious reasons his discussion focuses predominantly on the science of the art, but he does at times give leave to its inevitable changeability (as he says, “no laws are absolute in fiction”). The translation of Gardner’s generational perceptions can be perhaps a little rocky (there are no romance writers here, only “pornographers”), but the bones of his advice can be aptly applied to any genre, any generation, and certainly any style. Whether or not the bones are worth digging for is obviously each unique writer’s opinion.

Here are some of my favorite takeaways from The Art of Fiction:

On narrative...

“Vividness urges that almost every occurrence of such phrases as ‘she noticed’ be suppressed in favor of direct presentation of the thing seen.”

The writer...

“It is the novelist’s reward for thinking carefully about reality, brooding on every image, every action, every word, both those things he planned from the beginning and those that crept in in the service of convincingness.”

On style...

“About style, the less said the better. Nothing leads to fraudulence more swiftly than the conscious pursuit of stylistic uniqueness. But on the other hand nothing is more natural to the young and ambitious writer than that he try to find a voice and territory of his own, proving himself different from all other writers.”

The long and short of it...

“The most useful hint is perhaps this: Read the story over and over, at least a hundred times – literally – watching for subtle meanings, connections, accidental repetitions, psychological significance. Leave nothing – no slightest detail – unexamined, and when you discover implications in some image or event, oonch those implications toward the surface. [...] As for the warnings, two are of most importance: On one hand, don’t overdo the denouement, so ferociously pushing meaning that the reader is distracted from the fictional dream, giving the narrative a too conscious, contrived, or 'workshop' effect; and don’t on the other hand, write so subtly or timidly – from fear of sentimentality or obviousness – that no one, not even the angels aflutter in the rafters, can hear the resonance.”

There are a lot of interesting points in Gardner’s book, particularly following along with him as he crafts a story idea and explores the right and (potentially) wrong moves, how the story would change with different intents, and the myriad ways it could be done well. He also provides exercises at the back of the book – both group exercises intended for classes and writings groups, and individual exercises for the endeavoring writer to tackle alone. (I’ll possibly write about those in the future since I haven’t pursued them yet.) On the whole, for writers looking to better their craft through strongly academic, objective study, The Art of Fiction offers a very thorough perspective.