John Gardner’s On Becoming A Novelist

Fiction writing, for all its pretensions to being a craft like any other, has a quasi-mystical element to it that should not be underestimated by even the most scrupulously rational of aspirants. In the first place, your material is not brick or clay or mortar but language itself, the mediating force between reality and your perception of it, and the vital link – in truth, the only link – between human beings. Only slightly less intimidating is the fact that the great writers of history, who become your predecessors as soon as you pick up a pen, have already charted the major areas of human experience, from the personal to the political; you cannot hope to be the first to describe love or loss, death or new birth. At every turn, you confront your belatedness. So it’s perhaps understandable that the aspiring writer will as often seek out spiritual guidance as practical advice, and no surprise, then, that a host of writers have sought to meet this need. John Gardner’s On Becoming A Novelist is one of the most highly acclaimed in the category, and for good reason: it is a no-nonsense guide to “making plain what the life of a novelist is like; what the novelist needs to guard against, inside himself and outside; what he can reasonably expect and what, in general, he cannot.”

Gardner was himself both a writer and a writing instructor, having taken the usual route from a writing program (in his case, the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop) into a university teaching position at Chico State University (where, incidentally, Raymond Carver numbered among his students). Both this book and the more nuts-and-bolts The Art Of Fiction grew out of material he used with his students, and both only appeared in print, for the public’s consumption, after his tragic early death from a motorcycle accident. The chapter titles give some clue to the content of On Becoming A Novelist: (1) The Writer’s Nature, (2) The Writer’s Training and Education, (3) Publication and Survival, and (4) Faith. In the first chapter, he describes two general personality types that will commonly find themselves attracted to fiction writing: the lover of language and words, and the philosopher or psychologist eager to explore their ideas about people and society. Both, Gardner argues, are capable of becoming good novelists, but neither quality on its own is sufficient to write great fiction, which requires some felicitous combination of both.

To be psychologically suited for membership in what I have called the highest class of novelists, the writer must be not only capable of understanding people different from himself but fascinated by such people. He must have sufficient self-esteem that he is not threatened by difference, and sufficient warmth and sympathy, and a sufficient concern with fairness, that he wants to value people different from himself, and finally he must have, I think, sufficient faith in the goodness of life that he can not only tolerate but celebrate a world of differences, conflicts, oppositions.

How many prose writers, in all of history, have managed such a juggling act? Gardner names Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Mann and Faulkner, and though you might triple his number with your own suggestions, you invariably concede that such minds are vanishingly rare – another sad fact that will work against the aspiring writer. Which is also why Gardner adds another aspect to his list of a writer’s vital qualities: “daemonic compulsiveness.”

A psychological wound is helpful, if it can be kept in partial control, to keep the novelist driven. Some fatal childhood accident for which one feels responsible and can never fully forgive oneself; a sense that one never quite earned one’s parents’ love; shame about one’s origins – belligerent defensive guilt about one’s race or country or upbringing or the physical handicaps of one’s parents – or embarrassment about one’s own physical appearance: all these are promising signs. It may or may not be true that happy, well-adjusted children can become great novelists, but insofar as guilt or shame bend the soul inward they are likely, under the right conditions (neither too little discomfort nor too much), to serve the writer’s project. By the nature of his work it is important that one way or another the novelist learn to depend primarily on himself, not others, that he love without too much need and dependency, and look inward (or toward some private standard) for approval and support.

You might mockingly dismiss this as the origin story of a superhero (or supervillain), but there’s something about reading and writing – the long hours of total solitude, the diminished concern for the ordinary goals of life – that bespeaks an incurable psychic wound, whose pains are abated only by the special consolations fiction can bring.

To judge from its reputation alone, generations of writers have warmed their souls at Gardner’s On Becoming A Novelist, and though, very likely, it did not make a writer out of any of them who were not already destined for the craft, it has probably helped keep any number of them from turning their back on writing forever – whether out of frustration or fear or that understandable conviction that one is not equal to the challenges and demands of the writing life.