John Gardner’s The Art Of Fiction

The book I am now reviewing, a classic how-to manual for writers, began its life with a much smaller circulation, first among John Gardner’s writing students, and later among a slightly larger community of writers and writing instructors, who affectionately referred to it as “The Black Book.” It is the companion book to On Becoming A Novelist, focusing on the craft of writing rather than the psychology of the writer, though unlike general style manuals or writing guides, Gardner bills this explicitly as a book for “the elite,” for “serious literary artists,” whom he contrasts with “junk writers” and “pornographers,” more concerned to excite their readers rather than to edify or instruct them. As such, this is not a book aimed at a general audience, nor even at the smaller audience of aspiring writers, but at those who have been moved to aesthetic, moral or philosophical heights by literature and would like to try their hand at recreating that experience.

To that end, there are chapters on plotting, technique and “common errors,” as well as useful breakdowns of sentence rhythm and meter, designed to give amateurs an ear for the sonorous qualities of good writing. But Gardner also stakes out a position on what constitutes great literature and what does not, and his answer to this conundrum earned him the ire of many of his contemporary writers. Gardner was an unabashed defender of what might be called realist fiction, which is not to say that he opposed science fiction or fantasy (he himself wrote a novel reimagining the Beowulf myth), but that he regarded the self-conscious style of so many of his contemporaries (the Johns, Updike and Barth, in particular), as well as the post-modern movement more generally, as something of a dead-end – interesting, often clever, but not uplifting and therefore not art. This prejudice, if it can be called that, did not stop him from being an early champion of William H. Gass, as self-conscious a prose stylist as the 20th century produced, but it also led him to warn aspiring writers of the temptations of metafiction. In the chapter “Metafiction, Deconstruction, and Jazzing Around” (whatever “jazzing around” is, we’re not invited to take it seriously), he gives a fair account of these sub-genres, but also suggests that they arise less out of faith in their ability to impact the reader and more out of the general collapse of belief precipitated by the 20th century. Every other system of belief proved susceptible to man’s skepticism – why should the novel be any different?

Gardner champions the classical notion of verisimilitude: the writer, he claims, should aspire to create a “continuous fictional dream,” as vivid a reality as he can sustain, into which the reader will be invited to share in a perspective not his own. The concept may be simple, but the execution is treacherously difficult, as all aspiring writers well know:

We may observe, first, that if the effect of the dream is to be powerful, the dream must probably be vivid and continuous – vivid because if we are not quite clear about what it is that we’re dreaming, who and where the characters are, what it is that they’re doing or trying to do and why, our emotions and judgments must be confused, dissipated, or blocked; and continuous because a repeatedly interrupted flow of action must necessarily have less force than an action directly carried through from its beginning to its conclusion.

Metafiction and post-modernism, which deliberately call attention to their artifice, interrupt this dream state, thereby undermining the vehicle by which fiction drives home its most important truths.

Gardner’s little book probably won’t make all who purchase it into artists. Whatever combination of talent and drive separates the supreme masters of the craft from those of us left pounding away at our keyboards in frustration almost certainly cannot be taught. And yet the constituent elements of literary writing, from constructing a narrative to describing a landscape, can be broken down and discussed; the art of fiction, however mysterious it may be in the hands of James Joyce or William Faulkner, nonetheless begins upon foundational principles, which can be taught and communicated and learned, and Gardner is as good an instructor as I’ve come across.