Book Review – The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

Several writers recommended John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction to me on the grounds that it’s a “classic”. My interest in agreeing with fellow authors leads me to concur with that observation. The iconoclast in me struggles to find reasons for encouraging prospective writers to read the book.

I cannot refute Mr. Gardner’s erudition. He cited works from a varied group of authors…and cited them…and cited them. After a while, the repeated name dropping became tiresome. Did I mention he referred to a variety of different writers? The author conveyed the impression that he’d read everything ever written from Homer to William Gass. To put a positive spin on this, as I perused The Art of Writing Mr. Gardner convinced me he earned the right to opine on the topic.

I thought many of Garner’s points intelligent and well-reasoned. I enjoyed his twist on the old adage about “writing what you know.” He suggested, “Write the kind of story you like best.” (Page 18) The author discussed how the temptation to explain should always be resisted. (Page 111) He author also pointed out that an ending should be both “inevitable and surprising.” (Page 172.) As the subtitle of the book read, “Notes on Craft for Young Writers” I liked these sound observations.

Which allows me to segue into my main issue with the book: a lot of the ideas I read seemed far advanced for someone just beginning to write. At one point Gardner used a concept from the field of physics to illustrate something involving writing.

But there remains one question, a central concern in all modern art, as in contemporary science; namely, the implications of the Heisenberg principle: To what extent does the instrument of discovery change the discovery, whether the instrument be “the process of fiction” or the particle bombardment of an atom. (Page 130)

Huh? I’m not a physicist, but I define the Heisenberg (Uncertainty) Principle as the understanding that it’s impossible to know both the speed and location of an object at the same time. What that has to do with literature exceeds my powers of comprehension. I can’t imagine how observations such as this benefit aspiring authors.

In addition to that, Gardner included other high minded concepts that could scare off beginners. One of his ideas terrified even me. The author included thoughts on how fiction has “the power to enslave”; Gardner used those exact words. Using a hypothetical protagonist as an example he explained:

The effect on the reader of this lonely, lofty hero could be very great indeed-but not necessarily healthy. If such heroes occur in very many plays and novels, if the appeal of such a character becomes widespread, then democracy, even common decency is undermined. We have been taught to admire, to submit to, or behave like the well-meaning Nazi officer, the business-world tyrant, or the moral fanatic. Nothing in the world has greater power to enslave than does fiction.
(Page 87)

To my mind the greater danger entails authors possessing such a degree of pretention that they believe the entire universe reacts to every word he/she writes.

The Art of Fiction came out in 1983 shortly after the author’s passing. With the advent of the internet and flash fiction, the early 1980s seem like a lifetime ago. Because of that I thought some of the concepts rather dated. I liked Gardner’s view that authors should include a good amount of detail in his/her writing. I agreed with his assertion that this makes fiction better and more believable to the reader. I thought his idea of what constitutes sufficient detail much too excessive for the modern era. He cited a passage from Ivan Bunin’s “The Gentleman from San Francisco” that took up three quarters of a page. The author wrote this piece in 1915. I think a more modern example would’ve buttressed Gardner’s point better.

I did find some useful guidelines for aspiring writers in The Art of Fiction. The book serves readers better as a “classic” treatise on writing, however. It provides an excellent snapshot of the state of the craft in the early 1980’s. A wealth of information about numerous authors appears in The Art of Fiction. (In case I didn’t emphasize it enough before: Gardner cited a lot of different writers.) It belongs in a similar category with Arthur Schopenhauer’s The Art of Literature or Edgar Allan Poe’s Literary Theory and Criticism. It doesn’t work as a practical “how to” book for young writers, though.

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One comment

  1. I liked the book too. I got the physic’s quote in a different sense. I see it as a plot that may end in ‘they live happily ever after’ or ‘they didn’t live happily ever after’ and the way the story got there is unique from other writers using that same plot. The reader, and maybe even the writer, won’t know how they’ll get to the ‘ever after’ until the end and hopefully enjoy the new ride. Thanks for this.

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