October 4th, 2007

on becom ing

-Picture the poor, young, serious-fiction writer. He toils alone at a pace not so different from that of Lincoln Tunnel traffic at rush hour in New York. His spouse has a "real" job, or perhaps he has a trust fund. His college friends are cashing in on their dot-coms and wondering if he's ever going to join the real world. He is not hell-bent on publication; he is trying to write "serious, honest fiction, the kind of novel that readers will find they enjoy reading more than once, the kind of fiction likely to survive." He's likely to have no idea whether he's succeeding. Nobody understands him.

Well, almost nobody. John Gardner understands him. Gardner's sympathetic On Becoming a Novelist is the novelist's ultimate comfort food--better than macaroni and cheese, better than chocolate. Gardner, a fiction writer himself (Grendel), knows in his bones the desperate questioning of a writer who's not sure he's up to the task. He recognizes the validation that comes with being published, just as he believes that "for a true novel there is generally no substitute for slow, slow baking." Gardner also has strong feelings about what kinds of workshops help (and whom they help), and what kinds hinder. But a full half of Gardner's book is devoted to an exploration of the writer's nature. The storyteller's intelligence, he says, "is composed of several qualities, most of which, in normal people, are signs of either immaturity or incivility." In addition, a writer needs "verbal sensitivity, accuracy of eye," and "an almost demonic compulsiveness." But wait--there's more. A writer needs to be driven, and to be driven, he says insightfully, "a psychological wound is helpful." --Jane Steinberg

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Gotham Book Mart

"The most important single notion in the theory of fiction I have outlined--essentially the traditional theory of our civilized literature--is that of the vivid and continuous fictional dream."

"Almost all modern art is tinny, commercial and immoral. Let a state of total war be declared not between art and society but between the age-old enemies, real and fake."

He was famously obsessive with his work, and acquired a reputation for advanced craft, smooth rhythms, and careful attention to the continuity of the fictive dream. At one level or another, his books nearly always touched on the redemptive power of art.

Gardner's compelling thesis, perhaps the most clear articulation of his normative fictional philosophy: that fiction should be moral.

that fiction should aspire to discover those human values that are universally sustaining

Gardner felt that few contemporary authors were "moral" in this sense, but instead indulged in "winking, mugging despair" (to quote his assessment of Thomas Pynchon) or trendy nihilism in which Gardner felt they did not honestly believe

elegance and efficiency, and strangeness

he maintains, "It's the law of the universe that 87 percent of all people in all professions are incompetent."

It is only in the process of revision that one "discovers" what he wants to say.

that good writing often comes from a wound the writer has suffered.

and writing for the sake of art, over commercialism

writing takes discipline, skill, perseverance and teachability