Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Extraordinary variety and productivity marked John Gardner’s literary career: He published two collections of short fiction, numerous novels, three books of tales and one of verse for young readers, an “epic,” a book of poems, opera librettos, a radio play, and reviews. Since he was an academic as well as an imaginative writer, Gardner also published scholarly books and articles—most, however, directed chiefly at nonspecialists, with the aim of making the literature more accessible (his translations of medieval poetry, for example, or his biography of Geoffrey Chaucer). His interest in contemporary fiction and in teaching fiction writing resulted in his most controversial book, On Moral Fiction (1978), and in two related books of advice and encouragement for young writers, On Becoming a Novelist (1983) and The Art of Fiction (1984).


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The publication of his third novel, Grendel (1971), a postmodern retelling of Beowulf (c. 1000) from the monster’s point of view, brought John Gardner critical acclaim and a measure of commercial success. His next three novels—The Sunlight Dialogues (1972), Nickel Mountain (1973), and October Light (1976)—all became best-sellers, and the last one won the 1977 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Gardner’s other awards and honors include Woodrow Wilson, Danforth, and John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowships (1955, 1970-1973, and 1973-1974, respectively), election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Armstrong Prize for his radio play The Temptation Game (1977), and a Lamport Foundation award for his essay “Moral Fiction.” The book from which that essay was drawn, On Moral Fiction, became the focus of a national literary debate over the nature and purpose of contemporary fiction.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

As a writer, John Gardner was as versatile as he was prolific. In addition to his novels, he published an epic poem (Jason and Medeia, 1973), two collections of short stories, poetry, reviews, and four books for children. During the early 1960’s, when Gardner was a struggling assistant professor with a growing backlog of unpublished fiction and rejection slips, he turned to more academic pursuits. While some of this work is distinctly scholarly in nature, much of it is directed at a less specialized audience and is designed to make the literature more accessible and more understandable to the general reader or undergraduate student: thus Gardner’s translations, or modernized versions, of medieval poetry; a textbook-anthology of fiction; a popular biography of Geoffrey Chaucer; his controversial attack on the contemporary arts and criticism, On Moral Fiction (published in 1978 but, like his Chaucer books, begun more than ten years earlier); and a book of advice for young writers, The Art of Fiction (1984). Gardner also wrote a number of plays for National Public Radio’s Earplay series and several opera librettos (one of which, Rumpelstiltskin, 1979, was professionally staged by the Opera Company of Philadelphia).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

At a time when the line between popular and innovative fiction was often considered, in critic Raymond Federman’s word, “uncrossable,” John Gardner managed to make his mark in both camps. Although his first novel, The Resurrection, was indifferently received, his second, The Wreckage of Agathon, which deals with law and order in ancient Sparta, gained a small following as a result of its relevance to Vietnam and the Nixon administration. Grendel, a parodic retelling of Beowulf (c. 1000) from the monster’s point of view, was widely praised and in its paperback edition became as popular as The Catcher in the Rye (J. D. Salinger, 1951) was in the 1950’s. Its success established Gardner’s reputation as both an entertaining storyteller and an innovative parodist, a view that was confirmed by the publication of The King’s Indian: Stories and Tales in 1974.

Gardner’s next three novels all became best sellers: The Sunlight Dialogues, Nickel Mountain, and October Light, which won the 1977 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Among his other awards and honors were a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship (1955), a Danforth Fellowship (1970-1973), an award from the National Endowment for the Arts (1972), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1973-1974), an American Academy of Arts and Letters prize for fiction (1975), the Armstrong Prize for his radio play The Temptation Game (1977), and the 1978 Lamport Foundation award for his essay “Moral Fiction.”

Upon the publication of the full text of On Moral Fiction in 1978, Gardner became a center of literary attention. His plainspoken criticism of fashionable pessimism in the contemporary arts and his generally negative remarks concerning individual writers led to an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show in May, 1978, a cover story in The New York Times Magazine in August, 1979, a special issue of the journal Fiction International devoted to the question of “moral” art, as well as the censure of those who saw Gardner as a reactionary and the praise of others who quickly adopted him as a spokesperson for a more traditional approach to fiction.


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 21)

In 1973, Barry Silesky quit a teaching job he disliked and prepared to apply to law school. Stopping to read John Gardner's recently publishedSunlight Dialogues, he came across a passage that permanently changed his life. The passage read in part, “Poets made poems that might …endure a thousand years. But what was it a lawyer made …?” Silesky set aside his law school application after concluding that nothing “could be more worthwhile than the work Gardner was doing,” and embarked upon his own writing career. By 2004, Silesky's published works included two literary biographies, two volumes of poetry, and a book of short fiction.

That 1973 experience, which inspired Silesky to write this biography, is typical of Gardner's influence on many people he knew and some he never met in person. In addition to nurturing his academic students, Gardner fostered younger talents such as Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, and Charles Johnson. He inspired many others during his years as a key figure in the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Gardner would explain his popularity by saying, “You have to love your students.” Most returned the affection and esteem he showed them.

Gardner also achieved his own unique brand of distinction. During a short career, ended by a fatal motorcycle crash in his forty-ninth year, Gardner excelled in a wide variety of academic and artistic pursuits. While working in many literary genres, including poetry, fiction, children's tales, and even operatic librettos—and turning in fine performances on the French horn—he remained a university professor of medieval literature and creative writing. Gardner displayed imaginative use of scholarly learning in the first of his novels to reach critical and commercial success: Grendel (1971), a retelling of the Beowulf legend from the monster's viewpoint. Both Time and Newsweek magazines named Grendel one of 1971's best works of fiction.

Other triumphs followed. The Sunlight Dialogues (1972), a work of fiction set in Gardner's hometown of Batavia, New York, remained for sixteen weeks on The New York Times best-seller list. October Light won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1977. October Light is full of erudite allusions, prompting a few critics to attack it as excessively theme-ridden. Most, however, regard it as his finest novel, an ambitious but lively treatment of ultimately insoluble mysteries and the most successful of his attempts to bring past learning to bear on society's current predicaments.

Gardner's colorful appearance—shoulder-length white hair, black leather jacket, and ever-present pipe—caused some who did not know him to mistake him for a student. He had seemingly boundless energy, prompting Lennis Dunlap, Gardner's collaborator on short-fiction anthologies, to make a comment echoed by many other acquaintances: “The guy was just going all the time. Day and night…. It was like he never slept.” Gardner would shower praise on young writers he considered worthy. He would invite whole classrooms to his house for all-night parties. He talked people into collaborating with him on all manner of projects from magazine editing to operatic librettos. Once he importuned music professor Joe Baber to collaborate on an operatic libretto. Baber dismissed the proposal as drunken chatter and went home. Silesky reports, “The next morning, Baber was shocked to find Gardner at his door with a draft of a libretto he had written the previous night.”

Gardner constantly had a drink in hand, sometimes finishing a quart of gin before dinner, but typically stayed up all night to produce his work. Silesky relates that Gardner once produced overdue text for CliffsNotes to Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d’Arthur from 10 p.m. to 10 a.m., during which he consumed two pitchers of martinis and nothing else.

Gardner saw himself as an artist “beyond the mundane occupations of domestic life,” and his financial life tended to be in “constant disarray” unless others, such as his cousin Bill, an attorney, stepped in to manage his alimony payments and back taxes. The author also “loved to display his own penchant for life on the edge.” He married his cousin Joan at age nineteen, and for nearly twenty-five years until they divorced, they continually needled each other and argued, sometimes coming to blows. Friends likened their conflicts to those in Edward Albee's play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962). After this marriage...

(The entire section is 1860 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Chavkin, Allan, ed. Conversations with John Gardner. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990. Although the nineteen interviews collected here represent only a fraction of the number that the loquacious Gardner gave, they are among the most important and are nicely complemented by Chavkin’s analysis of the larger Gardner in his introduction.

Cowart, David. Arches and Light: The Fiction of John Gardner. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983. Like so many Gardner critics, Cowart is too willing to take Gardner at his (moral fiction) word. Cowart is, however, an intelligent and astute reader. He devotes separate...

(The entire section is 637 words.)