On Becoming a Novelist

The publication of On Moral Fiction in 1978 sparked a literary controversy that has not yet completely subsided. Reviewers lamented or, more often, condemned John Gardner’s shrill, preachy tone; his Philistine anti-intellec-tualism, arbitrary judgments, and intemperate remarks concerning fellow writers; his careless writing, haphazard organization, and sloppy thinking; and his literal-minded approach to fiction—an approach that seemed to leave no room at all for moral ironists such as Joseph Heller, who portray the contemporary malaise without actually succumbing to it. The negative effect of these critical views on Gardner’s literary reputation was immediate and perhaps, given the number of unfavorable reviews of Freddy’s Book (1980), The Art of Living and Other Stories (1981), and Mickelsson’s Ghosts (1982), permanent. The posthumous publication of On Becoming a Novelist is, therefore, especially welcome in that it recalls for readers of contemporary American literature another side of Gardner’s personality. As a fiction writer, he was both an innovator and a traditionalist. As a medievalist, he wrote both a scholarly study of Geoffrey Chaucer’s poetry and a distinctly nonacademic popular biography of the poet. Furthermore, as a visiting writer on numerous college campuses, he gave freely of his time to students while remaining rather aloof from those same students’ professors, whom he satirized in the brilliant opening section of Freddy’s Book. On Moral Fiction is best understood as a reflection of one side of Gardner’s personality. In that book, he tried to demonstrate, by means of his impassioned “table-pounding,” what had gone wrong with the contemporary arts and criticism. His audience was, as always, anyone interested in literature and more especially the professors/critics/writers who could deconstruct James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939), but who had trouble understanding the simple moral of “Jack and the Bean Stalk.”

Much less dogmatic than its controversial predecessor, On Becoming a Novelist is aimed at a different primary audience; as a professional guide, it is written both for aspiring novelists (who will appreciate Gardner’s avuncular tone) and for teachers of writing. Nevertheless, there is one most important way in which On Moral Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist are alike: Gardner’s commitment to what his former student Raymond Carver calls “a set of values that is not negotiable.” It is this commitment that gives On Becoming a Novelist a much broader appeal than its title might suggest. This is a book which will interest readers of novels who have no intention of becoming writers; it will also reward students of the creative process.

The wellsprings of On Becoming a Novelist can be found in the nearly twenty-five years Gardner spent teaching creative writing and, more particularly, answering students’ questions. What Gardner does is to penetrate beyond the deceptively simple surfaces of those questions (“Do you use a pen or a typewriter?”) to the questioner’s real concerns and anxieties. Like Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer (for which Gardner wrote an appreciative foreword in 1980), On Becoming a Novelist attempts to allay the young writer’s fears concerning himself and his work by offering specific, practical advice and a considerable amount of encouragement. Unlike Gardner’s The Art of Fiction (published by Knopf in January, 1984), On Becoming a Novelist is not primarily a book on the writer’s craft, although it includes a number of detailed and valuable observations in that vein. These remarks on craft are subservient, however, to his larger purpose, which is nothing less than a manifesto of the novel, an unashamed declaration of the novelist’s calling. Along the way, Gardner describes the writer’s life, warns the young writer of internal and external dangers to his art, explains what rewards the writer can reasonably expect, and throughout reassures the writer as to the appropriateness of his calling. Gardner makes clear from the outset that the novel is a more exalted form than the short story, which he tends to disparage. (It is worth noting here that neither of Gardner’s collections of short fiction, The King’s Indian, 1974, or The Art of Living, 1981, was especially well received by reviewers.) Moreover, Gardner is concerned with the novel as art, not as ego-gratification or as a way to make money. For the high-minded Gardner, the real question is not “Is this publishable?” but “Is this worth publishing?”

The true artist, as Gardner calls him, must possess or cultivate four qualities: “verbal sensitivity,” accurate and original perception, “intelligence,” and “daemonic compulsiveness.” Because language is the means by which the writer creates his “vivid...

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