John Gardner: The Art of Fiction
Preparing a syllabus and course pack for my upcoming Fiction Workshop at Interlochen, I decided to read John Gardner’s apparently sacred text: The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. In graduate school, I found myself in the minority for not reading this book. While this position made me curious, it also made me put other books first on my reading list as I felt certain I’d eventually read Gardner’s text.
The time has come and I’d like to share a few choice quotes. Ignore, if you can, Gardner’s overt use of the masculine pronoun:
“A common and usually unfortunate answer [to the question “What should I write about?”] is: ‘Write about what you know.’ Nothing can be more limiting to the imagination, nothing is quicker to turn on the psyche’s censoring devices and distortion systems, than trying to write truthfully an interestingly about one’s own home town, one’s Episcopalian mother, one’s crippled younger sister…’A better answer, though still not an ideal one, might have been Write the kind of story you know and like best…’” (18)
“To put this another way, the organized and intelligent fictional dream that will eventually fill the reader’s mind begins as a largely mysterious dream in the writer’s mind. Through the process of writing and endless revising, the writer makes available the order the reader sees. Discovering the meaning and communicating the meaning are for the writer one single act.” (36)
“Though no one can say what the number is, the number of fictional elements that exist is finite, like the number of words in the English language…No new elements are likely to be discovered; this is what we mean, or ought to mean, when we say that ‘literature is exhausted.’ What writers do discover is new combinations. The search for new combinations is both guided by and one with the fictional process.” (52-53)
“But however it may be achieved, in all great fiction, primary emotion (our emotion as we read, or the characters’ emotions, or some combination of both) must sooner or later lift off from the particular and be transformed to an expression of what is universally good in human life—what promotes happiness for the individual alone and in society; in other words, some statement on value…(62)…But the fact remains that art produces the most important progress civilization knows. Restating old truths and adapting them to the age, applying them in ways they were never before applied, stirring up emotion by the inherent power of narrative, visual image, or music, artists crack the door to the morally necessary future.” (80)
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