Thursday, January 17, 2008

John Gardner (My favorite books on writing)

[Before we begin, let me make it clear that this is not the John Gardner who wrote the James Bond books after Ian Fleming died.]

John Gardner. The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist.

When the chemist Lavoisier was beheaded during the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution, the mathematician LaGrange (of the L5 point beloved of science-fiction writers) said, “It took them only an instant to cut off that head, but France may not produce another like it in a century.”

John Gardner died in a motorcycle accident before he was fifty. He left behind a long line of marvelous novels. Critical opinion (and, more important, my opinion) is unanimous that his novella Grendel—which is Beowulf told from the monster’s point of view—is a masterpiece. Opinions are more divided on his other novels; his earlier works, such as The Sunlight Dialogues and Nickel Mountain, were widely praised and have a cult following, but I admire his later October Light and especially Mickelsson’s Ghosts (which the critics generally scorned).

Had his head not been (metaphorically) cut off, I think it would now stand up there next to writers like Bellow and Mailer—not perfect, and far from uncontroversial, but one of the major figures of twentieth-century literature. The fact that he got on the wrong side of the critical establishment by attacking Pynchon and Barth and a few other darlings as being “frigid” writers without a sense of moral duty in that highest of all callings, writing fiction, didn’t help him much. (I rather like Pynchon and Barth, as it happens, but I don’t find that the critical politics of the situation are terribly interesting: these are novels, not football teams.) I’m hoping Gardner will be resurrected in the 21st century the way forgotten Melville was in the 20th.

Nonetheless, Gardner made his mark on literature in other ways than his fiction. He was a master teacher, and fostered a number of important (if sometimes tragic) writers, notably Raymond Carver. And he also penned two of the most influential books—at least in the US—on writing. They need to be read as a pair; they really ought to be one book.

Gardner’s books on writing are frustrating. They are meandering, ranting, illuminating, digressive. The books are like having a brilliant, half-mad professor deliver a lecture with you trapped in the classroom: at moments, you want to argue, at other moments you wonder if he’s lost his mind, and then he hits you with a lightening bolt and you say, my god, this man is pure genius.


There are things no one has ever dealt with as well as Gardner: Psychic distance. Levels of diction. Genre (in the grander sense of tale, epic, etc.). Rhythm and prosody. And when you go to look up what you remember he said, you find that what you recalled as a chapter is in fact two pages at most.

But, beware. Gardner thinks fiction is a high calling, and that reaching out to strangers who may read your work carries a heavy moral burden. He reminds us that the reader who picks up your book may be dying of a terminal illness, or that the reader may be someone wronged who is teetering on the edge of forgiveness or vengeance, or that the reader may be bereaved or contemplating suicide or abortion or even just getting divorced or quitting a job. And here you come with your novel, portraying life through a particular lens, messing with their emotions…

On second thought, don’t read Gardner’s books on writing. The insights are marvelous, but they aren’t worth the guilt he loads on your back. Every time I write anything, I feel like I’m failing Father John.

I’d really recommend Grendel, though.

12 comments:

Neil said...

"...reaching out to strangers who may read your work carries a heavy moral burden. He reminds us that the reader who picks up your book may be dying of a terminal illness, or that the reader may be someone wronged who is teetering on the edge of forgiveness or vengeance, or that the reader may be bereaved or contemplating suicide or abortion or even just getting divorced or quitting a job. And here you come with your novel, portraying life through a particular lens, messing with their emotions…"

Thankfully no one reads any of my stuff, so I am completely guilt-free. :)

David Isaak said...

Hi, Neil--

Brilliant approach! (Though I seem to recall reading a novel of yours...)

Janet said...

Wow. It is nonetheless refreshing to find an artist of any description who believes in his moral responsibility. Now I'm interested.

Anonymous said...

I am going to pick up both books!

Suroopa

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

Yes, his insistence on what he called "moral fiction" infuriated a lot of peopl at the time. (In fact, he ha another book out there called "On Moral Fiction," but it's more of a book on criticism than on writing!)

David Isaak said...

Hi, Suroopa--

I have a couple of the paperback versions laying about the house, so if they aren't readily available in your neighborhood, drop me your address and I'll mail them to you.

Jamie Ford said...

I've read On Becoming a Novelist and skimmed the other. I couldn't quite handle a double dose, though I thought they were great. He certainly doesn't toss rose petals in anyone's path, but they are certainly fun reading.

He rips a bit on Harlan Ellison (and SF&F) which I thought was vaguely uncalled for. Sort of entrenching himself in a little literary snobbery to other genres, which didn't seem helpful, but aside from that...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jamie--

I don't think it's genre prejudice, as Gardner makes it clear he thinks that "Isaac Asimov, Samuel R. Delany, Walter M. Miller, Jr, and Roger Zelazny" all have more to offer than much of academic lit-fic.

I just think he's got it in for Harlan Ellison in particular. But Gardner's hit list is pretty long; he's also fond of slamming John Barth (one of my favorite writers), and EL Doctorow (in my opinion a very good writer). He thinks they all posture rather than write.

Anyhow, he may be nuts--well, almost certainly was, to be more accurate--but I don't think his opinion of Ellison is snobbery-driven. He just loathes the man's prose.

It's interestimg to me that Gardner can get that wound up on the topic. I've never had that violent a reaction to anyone's way of writing. Maybe I'm just lacking in passion, but nobody's writing makes me foam at the mouth.

(Although Dan Brown comes close for me sometimes. But my solution is to not read his books.)

Jake Jesson said...

Ha! Don't read them? If only I'd read this post in-depth before I purchased Gardner's "The Art of Fiction". Too late now!

On the subject of rediscovery, I know "Grendel" is taught in high school; I was perhaps the only one of my closest group of friends to have not been required to read it. They loved it, by the way. And it's on my shelf... now, if only I could get through "Against the Day".

(I feel as though I ought to mention that even in my pop-culture circles of the Internet, Harlan Ellison is mildly infamous. He had a mini-feud with the creators of the terribly popular - and in said pop-culture circles, influential - webcomic Penny Arcade.)

David Isaak said...

They're teaching Grendel in high school?

Oh, Jesus, I feel very old...

Nellie said...

Well written article.

jojo said...

Gardner was the son of a preacher ---- and,as such, understood the power to words to elevate and inspire mankind towards their better selves. Of course, he found disturbing literature which failed to inspire, which reported from the muck and mire of human failings or worse, dragged man further into moral mediocrity, evil or narcissism.


Gardner's objections were grounded in his desire that man transcend our limitations and understand ourselves --- He also was a medievalist and musician - and, understood the necessity of the cooperative effort required for music - and, like Tolkien, another medievalist - was interested in both language and the on-going battle of good and evil.