Notes on Gardner from a “Young” Writer

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The Book

Recently a workshop instructor recommended John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. As fiction writing is still fairly new to me (though I would hardly call myself “young”), I eagerly ordered it. Whereas Stephen King’s On Writing took me a mere few hours over the course of two days to read, this book took me the entire month of February. It felt like a huge accomplishment just to finish it.

The book is structured into two parts: the first with four essay-like chapters on “theory” and the second with three practical chapters: Common Errors, Technique and Plotting.

The Good

First, let’s stipulate that Gardner knows what he’s talking about. He is able to describe particular fiction-writing approaches and clearly articulate why they work or don’t work, while acknowledging that rules don’t always hold: “Whatever works is good.” I learned what I need to consider in writing fiction—some new concepts, some things I might be doing poorly, some opportunities to enhance the impact of my writing. Good stuff.

Without rehashing the whole book, here are a few things that struck me:

  • Gardner laments that works of literature taught in many writing classes are “lesser” works of fiction, often chosen because they demonstrate a certain element of writing (“theme” for example), but frequently are missing good storytelling. This surprised me coming from an academic and, in all honesty, probably made me more open to listening to what he had to say.
  • Gardner emphasizes working on one aspect of writing at a time (e.g., in exercises). He tries to get “young” writers to surprise themselves how well they can do a particular thing, in order to build confidence. While this is certainly isn’t a new concept (practice improves performance—go figure), there was something comforting in the way Gardner allowed the chunking of Writing into manageable pieces.
  • The concept of “psychic distance” was new to me (actually it was mentioned in the class that led me to the book, but still new). Think of a movie camera panning a landscape vs. zooming in for a close-up on the main character. Same idea in writing. Stay further back on less important things, and get closer (inside the character’s head) on more important things. Notice how it changes the pace. I think I understood this intuitively, but Gardner’s description of it helped me realize what’s happening when I get stuck in the slog of “this happened, then this happened, then this happened.” Pull back and speed things up.
  • Gardner provides several technique exercises at the end of the book. While I have not done them (yet), I did do one exercise found in the middle of the book. In a nutshell, the idea was to describe a barn from the perspective of a father who had just lost a son in war, but not mention the son or the loss. I was surprised how vivid the description became for me and where my mind took the exercise. Aha!—a new technique to improve my writing (probably in poetry as well as fiction).

The Bad

The biggest complaint I read in reviews of this book is that Gardner is condescending and elitist. Now, I can understand that perception. He is erudite and pedantic. He makes many references that, to me, felt obscure. I like to consider myself fairly well read and well educated, but I would have to do a lot of catch-up reading to follow all his allusions. His prose is dense—a great example of academic writing, but not a style that itself demonstrates how to write fiction. (By contrast, King’s book helped me learn by example, even though he, too, was writing non-fiction.)

But I did not really interpret Gardner’s academic philosophizing as condescending or elitist (at least not in the negative use of the word). My two biggest issues were structure and sexism.

Structure

Structure might seem like an odd complaint. Here’s the thing: This book would be a useful reference book—but it is not designed to be easily referenced! The format of the writing, chapters, and pages does not allow for easy scanning and location of key points.

Perhaps my preference for easily scannable writing is due to my many years of writing in the business world. In that realm, headings, subheadings, and bulleted lists are your friends. I want my eyes to be able to quickly locate the section on “psychic distance.” One might think it is in the “Technique” chapter. Nope. It’s in “Common Errors.” Huh?

The book is also inconsistent in the bare formatting that does exist. The “Technique” chapter does have some subheadings (Vocabulary, The Sentence, etc.), but the “Common Errors” chapter does not.

Poor formatting plus long, academic writing equals a text that demands a lot of work on the reader’s part to find key information.

Sexism

Another common complaint about Gardner’s book, with which I agree, is his sexist language (some say misogynistic—I’m not sure I would go that far). Gardner bemoans the patriarchal nature of English,

Again and again this book speaks of the writer as “he,” though many of the best writers I have read or have taught in writing classes are female.

But then he goes ahead and reinforces the patriarchy by using the masculine pronoun entirely, and using female examples that are cliché bordering on sexist, e.g., strippers, unhappy housewives (really??).

The book was written in 1983, so perhaps a bit of allowance is made for academics who follow “proper” rules of English. But, good grief, even at that point in time language was evolving (using the plural instead of singular to avoid the pronoun gender problem altogether; alternating masculine and feminine pronouns; or, more controversially, using “they” as singular), and clichés were still clichés.

Gardner knows that the writer needs to control the language, learning but disregarding the “rules” when needed (“Whatever works is good.”), but somehow ignores his own advice on this terribly obvious point. Pronouns and clichés are within your control!!

The Recommendation: Read (in small doses, with your tolerance hat on)

I think the next time I read this book—and despite its flaws, I’m pretty sure I will—I will outline the key points, print them out, and tuck them inside the book as a reference tool. But what I would really like to see is a new edition, formatted for easy scanning and updated for contemporary usage.

That will probably happen only in my fictive dreams…

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