The Art of Fiction
Among contemporary American writers—indeed among writers anywhere at anytime—the late John Gardner was one of the most prolific—thirty-three separate book publications—and one of the most loquacious—more than one hundred and fifty known interviews and speeches. His was, as well, one of the most varied literary careers in recent years. Although best known for his novels, Grendel (1971) in particular, Gardner also made a name for himself as a writer of short stories and children’s literature, as a critic, editor, translator, biographer, reviewer, medievalist, poet, editor, anthologist, and librettist, and, with the publication of the highly controversial On Moral Fiction in 1978, as literary gadfly and spirited polemicist for what John Barth and other critics considered the literary equivalent of Reaganism and the Moral Majority. With the posthumous publication of On Becoming a Novelist in 1983, readers discovered another side to Gardner, one that his friends and students had long recognized: the committed teacher, a tenured Walt Whitman espousing his faith in art and his fellowman rather than, as in his 1978 manifesto, a latter-day Jonathan Edwards preaching hellfire and moral fiction. Just how seriously he took his role as teacher, Gardner made clear in his last published novel, Mickelsson’s Ghosts (1982), in which the novel’s autobiographical hero (like Gardner a professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton) comes to believe that teachers are the modern version of those metaphoric shepherds, the minister and the priest, and that their responsibilities toward their “flock,” whether parishioners or students, are exactly the same. This emphasis on responsibility is a recurring theme throughout all of Gardner’s novels and stories, and it plays an equally important role in his triptych on the aims and techniques of fiction writing: On Moral Fiction, written, Gardner claimed, for all who are concerned about the state of contemporary literature; On Becoming a Novelist, which was directed at the apprentice writer; and now The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers all deal with the writer’s responsibility to his audience.
The fact that The Art of Fiction is directed at “young writers,” specifically undergraduates enrolled in writing courses such as the ones Gardner himself taught at Binghamton, explains the reasons that this book will be of considerable interest and usefulness to its intended audience but rather dull going for anyone already familiar with Gardner’s theory of moral fiction or, for that matter, with the material covered in well-taught introductory literature and expository writing courses. Gardner lists common writing errors and problems, offers advice, and provides examples and exercises on a wide variety of topics ranging from vocabulary building and sentence structure to the most effective ways to plot a novel. Much of what Gardner has to say is interesting, if elementary. Some of it, however, seems merely pedantic and overblown, such as the seven pages devoted to the scansion of literary prose. Some, too, is unnecessarily coy (“About style, the less said the better”); some is factually incorrect (Gardner, for example, praises Barth’s story “Lost in the Funhouse” as “one of the most elegant of recent metafictions” but then manages to get the plot wrong). There are, as well, several passages which seem to border on the simpleminded, as if Gardner intended his remarks for students enrolled in a remedial English class (“Between these extremes, the endless sentence and the very long sentence, lies a world of variation, a world every writer must eventually explore”). There are other passages that appear downright inane, such as Gardner’s claim that William Shakespeare had the usually indecisive Hamlet impulsively jump aboard the pirate ship and return to Denmark because Shakespeare wanted to get back to what was really important in his play—the conflict between Hamlet and Claudius. The Art of Fiction may be “the most helpful book of its kind,” as Gardner says in his preface; nevertheless, it is by no means as good a book as it could have been.
Stridency and invective, however, are not among its several flaws. As in On Becoming a Novelist, Gardner takes great pains here not only to inform and encourage young writers but also to write fairly, even generously, of those authors he earlier savaged in On Moral Fiction for their “false” narrative practices and failure to worship at the altar of “true art,” as Gardner likes to call it. Although he avoids the table pounding...
(The entire section is 1912 words.)