The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

In this review of The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, I am going to say some very negative things about both the book and its author. This is the third time I’ve read the book and I’ve had a different experience each time I’ve dipped into the pages. Do not let my negative comments dissuade you from reading this book yourself. [Oh, but do read my conclusion at the end for a different take on this.] Rather, consider them as a less than impartial guide to the text and its effect on one writer’s attempt (and failure) to produce serious literary fiction. John Gardner would likely say that I am simply not cut out to be a writer, but I disagree. I think that he unnecessarily obfuscates the craft of fiction by weaving it into a sorcerer’s tale and suggesting that only those of a special mind can create truly great literature. Writing is work. Never forget that. If you do, you’ll end up frustrating yourself to no end and wasting a lot of time.

Every creative writing student in the United States has read (or was supposed to read) John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. At least, that’s what I assume, but then I’ve never been an official creative writing student. I am an amateur.

From what I can tell though, this book generally inspires one of two feelings in its readers: deep reverential love or outright contempt. I’ve seen both types in others and experienced each personally. This isn’t the type of writing book you read if you want emotional disengagement from the subject of writing fiction. Regardless of your feelings after you’ve finished the book, you will no doubt admit that John Gardner was a man of passion who believed strongly in his vision of fiction.

Picking up this book a third time now (and I will probably read again), I’m struck by how funny it is. I don’t remember laughing the last two times I read it. I think that the first time I was all furrowed brow and conspiratorial nodding. The word brood looms over my memory of that reading. The second time I read the book (about two years ago), I recall flinging it across the room in a rage and shouting, “And how do I feed my children with this!” Or something like that though no doubt laced with lots of obscenities and other colorful metaphors.

But like I said, this third read of the book makes me chuckle. In part because I see my failures reflected at every turn and while the word failure generally makes people wince and look upon me with pity, I see it as a potential for improvement. It is the uncharted territory. It is my humility.

Humility is not a common trait in writers, especially novelists. I am certainly not in possession of this quality in any great abundance. On the contrary, my head is pretty big. I have always been the clever one, the creative one, the outrageous one. In most settings, I dominate the conversation. In short, I am a bore. Although I have heard tell that I am a lovable bore, which at least is something.

I mention this because not once in The Art of Fiction does John Gardner mention humility, and I think this is one trait that authors need to get in touch with. Why? Because they are going to fail. Over and over. They are going to fail.

About the Author

John Gardner was a literary legend of the hard drinking, hard living variety. He taught creative writing for over twenty years and produced some of the most endearing literary fiction of his day. His book Grendel is still read in classrooms across the country, though most of his other work has fallen to the wayside. His two books on writing instruction (The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist) are to be found in nearly every bookstore around the country (especially in the used bookstores where copies appear to breed like rabbits).

Who is this book for?

In the preface, John Gardner (and it seems I must always call him John Gardner, just Gardner seems too informal) sets out the following guide for the book:

This is a book designed to teach the serious beginning writer the art of fiction. I assume from the outset that the would-be writer using this book can become a successful writer if he wants to, since most of the people I’ve known who wanted to become writers, knowing what it meant, did become writers.

With a beginning like that, who wouldn’t want to dive in? It seems like success is assured. However, John Gardner has some stern words for would-be novelists of a the popular variety:

The instruction here is not for every kind of writer — not for the writer of nurse books or thrillers or porno or the cheaper sort of sci-fi — though it is true that what holds for the most serious kind of fiction will generally hold for junk fiction as well… What is said here, whatever use it may be to others, is said for the elite; that is, for serious literary artists.

He is very serious about being serious. It’s a word that keeps popping up.

Now, I should note that I have diligently tried to follow the advice in this book and some of it is truly excellent. However, the seriousness thing really brings me down. It’s almost like writing is not supposed to be fun. And while I might say that for the amateur or hobbyist, writing should always be fun, I have to think that the professionals are also enjoying themselves. But perhaps this isn’t true for the serious literary artists? If I look through my journals and read the places where I have tried my best to be a serious literary artist, it doesn’t seem like I was having a lot of fun. It seems like I was mostly depressed as hell and enjoyed reading the works of other writers who were clearly depressed as hell writing about characters who were depressed as hell. Like I said before, there is a lot of good advice here but what I’ve come to learn is that this book is powerful rhetoric, even insidious rhetoric.

You should be prepared for the effect of the rhetoric lest it corrupt you and turn you into an acolyte of John Gardner’s. As always, learn from my mistakes.

Aesthetic Law and Artistic Mystery

John Gardner believes in rules, but only the rules one creates for one’s self and one’s art. This is the hallmark of serious literary fiction and indeed of most serious art in general. It is serious because it is personal and because it is personal it is nearly non-sensical. This is one reason I stopped being angry at this book and decided to learn something from it. If one chucks all the things in this book which are completely subjective to John Gardner’s personal literary experience, you have some powerful teaching, even here in this chapter which tries to shake off any and all of the rules that you really should follow if you want to write something popular (i.e. something that will actually sell).

The chapter begins with a sucker punch, and a cheap one at that:

What the beginning writer ordinarily wants is a set of rules on what to do and what not to do in writing fiction.

Yes, this is absolutely what the beginning writer wants and then John Gardner sets about telling us why this isn’t important. His lesson is valuable though it’s just phrased in the worst possible manner. What he wants you to learn is that you can be trapped by aesthetic laws and that this can stifle your creativity. But I’m surprised by the method he uses because it is dangerous. Beginning writers need some rules because they need to learn the fundamentals before they go off galavanting across the countryside. John Gardner isn’t going to advocate that path either. In fact, taken as a whole he is a very structured writer. It almost seems as if he is writing about himself rather than others.

The Question of the Question

After dropping this nugget of wisdom, John Gardner begins by attacking the idea of answering every question asked in fiction. He asks if it is necessary for a work of fiction to answer every question it raises, if some things are better left unsaid. He uses Achilles love for Briseus and Hamlet’s escape from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as examples of powerful writing where the main question goes unanswered. Does Achilles love Briseus? How did Hamlet escape? It isn’t important to know. Both authors, John Gardner says, understand that it is important to keep the focus on the action between major characters. In the case of Shakespeare, it’s the business between Claudius and Hamlet.

Absolutely, I agree with that. How often have I run off the rails with side stories and subplots that have nothing at all to do with the main story? But then, we’re sort of back at the rule stage aren’t we? The rule here is focus on the action between the major players, but John Gardner phrases it in what I call “The Rebel’s Voice”:

This refusal to be led off to the trivial is common in great literature.

Rhetoric Warning: This is the most basic rule in writing fiction but it phrased in such a way as to make you, the would-be writer, think that you are getting away with something by posing questions and then running back to the question.

A diligent novelist would find a way to work those elements in to the plot or cut them out entirely. Yes, I know it is presumptuous of me to say that Shakespeare wasn’t diligent, but remember Hamlet isn’t a novel it’s a play. Stuff happens off-stage, that’s part of the art.

In any case, John Gardner goes on to say that the comic opposite to his statement of this rule is the relentless and elaborate extrapolation of events that have nothing to do with the main plot. To use the specific example of Hamlet, there is a movie called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and it is the funniest thing you will ever see (if you are a lit-freak like me). I think this is vindication of a sort too, but I doubt John Gardner would see it that way. He would rather flip things around so that every rule is written like a trick whereby the author seems to be ignoring the rules but in fact is following them like a zealot because they have been written in a heroic and rebellious style.

You Are Your Own Worst Enemy

Art depends heavily on feeling, intuition, taste. It is feeling, not some rule, that tells the abstract painter to put his yellow here and there, not there, and may later tell him that it should have been brown or purple or pea-green… The great writer has an instinct for these things… He knows where an when to think up and spring surprises, those startling leaps of the imagination that characterize all of the very greatest writing.

If you are in any way like me, you will read this and your head will swell to even more magnificent proportions. I walked away from this section thinking I could do anything at all, that I was in command. And true enough, I am in command. I can do anything I want with my fiction, as long as I don’t mind being a hobbyist for the rest of my life. This kind of thing is flat out damaging. One, it leads to the very thing that John Gardner rails against, that is the loss of story and the devotion to aesthetics. If there are no rules but those you create for yourself, you will create a universe unto yourself that only you understand. This may make for a great literary work in the eyes of the critic or the academic, but what about the reading public? Do they matter? James Joyce never saw Ulysses performed on stage, but we revere it as a work of art. Yet how many people have read it? I mean really turned each and every page and read it front to back… You might think that this is an attack of James Joyce, but really it is quite the opposite. I am trying to save you from the same fate. I am trying to teach you from my mistakes. I read this section of John Gardner’s book and set off on a folly of writing that focused entirely on my own sense of judgment and cast the rules aside. The result was an awful book that even my closest and most literary-minded friends wouldn’t read. My response to the rejection?

“Philistines! They wouldn’t know Art if it bit them on the ass!”

“Um, excuse me for just a second. The book was really bad. It was awful by almost every standard.”

“But I set the standard for Art! Me! The Author Almighty!”

“I don’t know about Art, but I know what I like.”

You would be well within your rights to ask where this is going, or even to tell me to get on with it, but I am beating this point to death because the rhetoric is strong and the temptation to write as if there were no rules is intoxicating. Don’t do it, I beg of you. You don’t need to write as if you’re wearing a corset, but the opposite is a terrible place to be because it will lead you to think that you are better than everyone else, which shuts out the possibility of further instruction. Instruction is perhaps the most critical (and ongoing) element in a writer’s development. You are instructed at every turn, by every book you read and by every line you write. You are instructed by the voice of the reader who takes the time to share their opinions and questions. You are instructed by the advice of editors and fellow novelists. Don’t put yourself on an island of One.

And yet, here again, John Gardner contradicts himself:

No ignoramus — no writer who has kept himself innocent of education — has ever produced great art. One trouble with having read nothing worth reading is that one never fully understands the other side of one’s argument, never understands that the argument is an old one, never understands the dignity and worth of people one has cast as enemies.

So which is it? Do we make up our own rules or do we read others and learn? Well a little later he tells us that, “some professors are guilty of oversimplification.” Again, this is where I’m laughing out loud. Up until this point, John Gardner has been bashing John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath for being simplistic and one-sided, but was is the opposite? Being wishy-washy. When you read it this way, it stops being serious and becomes pretty funny.

The lesson to be learned here is buried in the arguments John Gardner makes with himself. Writing is Art and Art is not Mathematics. Yet, there are techniques to be learned and learn them you should but don’t let them rule your work in such a way that they overwhelm your sense of beauty. Tug to hard in either direction and you will damage the work. In other words, you are your own worst enemy.

Basic Skills, Genre, and Fiction as a Dream

The first skill John Gardner wants you to learn, and I know you are going to be shocked by this, is the power for Rhetoric. He recommends W. W. Watt’s An American Rhetoric as the “the most accurate and efficient book on composition available”. Well, it isn’t available, not generally anymore. You can get a copy on eBay or Abebooks for $100 or more, that was too pricey for me. So, I spent some time looking for other books on rhetoric. I worked through the exercises in one book I found, then I found a website with similar exercises and worked through those.

There’s real power in using rhetoric, but I doubt it’s strength in producing readable fiction. In fact, so much of what one learns by studying rhetoric seems to me to be the opposite of good storytelling. Learning about rhetoric isn’t a waste of time. If nothing else, it will help you spot the use of rhetorical devices in essays, speeches, non-fiction books on writing, etc. When you see such a thing in use, you can say to yourself, “Someone is trying awfully hard to convince me that something is true.” To which you would be wise to ask, “Is it?” The answer more often than not is no. Why else would someone need to use rhetoric? If a thing is true (and plain as day), it shouldn’t be a tough thing to demonstrate that it is true.

After rhetoric, John Gardner asks what sort of writing a new writer should start with. He turns the old maxim of writing what you know on it’s head. It’s a rule and he doesn’t like it. However, after a few twists and turns he arrives at the inescapable conclusion that yes, you write what you know. However, what you know many not necessarily be your surrounding but rather the genre which you enjoy and love.

Okay, so here is something funny that you should watch out for in this book. On multiple occasions, John Gardner will attempt to connect writing with painting and music. In the case of painting, I happen to know a tiny, tiny bit about the subject so the quote above about innate feel for the canvas ticks me off. Yes, an artistic eye can see how things should go together, but that is only after intense study and guidance. Music is the same way. Yes, a prodigy should be able to riff on a melody and improve it dramatically but there is also instruction that becomes second nature and if nothing else, there is real structure underneath it. If you want to read a book that connects writing, serious writing, with music, then I recommend Milan Kundera’s Art of the Novel. Kundera studied classical music in his youth and the structure of many of his novels are based on the theories he acquired during that time.

In any case, after presenting examples of form in both music and the visual arts, John Gardner goes on to explain that in fiction novelty comes from “ingenious genre-crossing or elevation of familiar materials.” He is recommending a mashup. There are rules for genres and they must be obeyed to a certain point and that mixing in something else is what makes for an artistic take, an effect, on an old tale.

After listing a number of books and authors in this tradition, John Gardner leaves the following:

None of these writers, ancient or modern, sat down to write “to express himself.” They sat down to write this kind of story or that, or to mix this form with that form, producing some new effect. Self-expression, whatever its pleasures, comes about incidentally. It also comes about inevitably.

Rhetoric Warning: Here begins another build-up to a major point, which is in fact the main point of the whole book, “The Art of Fiction is creating a vivid and continuous dream.” To this, we can add things like universal truths which are expressed through rhetorical devices also known as the underpinnings of various genres.

I realize this might seem a bit technical and jargonish. I apologize. It’s just that when I get into talking about this book I can’t help but speak in its language. The next thing you know, I’ll be off writing as if I know what the heck I’m doing and not listening to anyone else!

This chapter goes on for several pages whereby John Gardner continues his construction of the palace of dreamy fiction. By the time you reach the gates, you are totally entranced and ready to fly. You are ready to chuck every last bit of intellectual study (a term he actually puts in italics within the text) and give yourself over completely to emotion. Good, lord! Don’t do that!

It is important to dream. Fiction after all is essentially that, your dream as an author made flesh (in a way) and shared with a willing reader. However, if you don’t have a plan you’re in for trouble. Actually, what you’re in for is a lot of extra work. Revision, revision, revision. If you’re working on a large project, you’ll probably find you have to go back and rework huge sections of the book to make up for the things that got better at the end.

My own experience here is that as I come to the close of a long work, it gets better. The characters become clearer and the plot more developed. Well, what is actually means is that I’ve finally spent enough time with the story to figure it out and that I would have been well served to begin with more structure and thought before diving into the prose. Once the structure is there, the prose (in theory) should flow around it. Without the structure, the prose floats free.

I guarantee you that Shakespeare plotted his plays and that there was an enormous amount of intellectual study that went into the scenes he put together. Do not hide from the truth by making up your own.

Interest and Truth

In the third chapter, which also has the same name as this section, John Gardner lays out the following principle:

To read or write well, we must steer between two extreme views of aesthetic interest: the overemphasis of things immediately pleasurable (exciting plot, vivid characterization, fascinating atmosphere) and exclusive concern with that which is secondarily but at times more lastingly pleasurable, the fusing artistic vision.

Prior to this, John Gardner speaks of the difference between abstract and concrete pleasures, the simple and the complex. In short, he wishes again to ride the middle road and take his personal stand where he sees fit. Once more, it is about the rules we define for ourselves and not about anything universally true.

As you can tell, this chapter frustrates me to no end. I believe that this is probably the point where I tossed the book across the room the last time I read it. Of course, the first time I read it (more than ten years ago), I was held in rapture to the ideas and I spent a number of years trying to sort out the muddle it made of my brain.

However, what this chapter concerns itself with overall is the teaching of creative writing. It’s a chapter designed for teachers of fiction, not writers of fiction and I think it ought to come with a warning label.

I’ll tell you now that this is a very long chapter, and I’ll admit that I couldn’t read it a third time. It’s just dull slogging over the same tired point over and over. If this is the first time you’ve picked up this book, then I apologize for ruining it for you, but really skip ahead.

Metafiction, Deconstruction, and Jazzing Around

I’ve spent years screwing around with the first two terms heading this chapter: metafiction and deconstruction. I’ve spent years diddling about with modernism, post-modernism, realism, etc. Thinking of writing as opposed to actually writing. These things are dangerous if you want to succeed, even as a serious literary artist.

John Gardner also argues strongly against these overtly literary mechanisms. Again, this is where it gets really frustrating because he is essentially finding excuses for the structures of popular fiction and yet he trashes the field constantly.

I do recommend that you read this chapter though if you are at all enthralled by the idea of writing experimental fiction. Why? Because, more often than not, authors of experimental fiction are actually hiding their stories from the readers. They themselves are afraid of their own craft and fail to meet it head on because of their fear. Most of these writers will bristle at the suggestion that they are afraid of their work. They will claim that anyone who criticizes their methods is simply incapable of understanding Art.

I do not believe that Art must always render its material in the most obvious manner, but if Art is not for others to enjoy then for whom is one creating? The Artist? That seems rather silly. And yet, writers try to get their heads around these things all the time and spend years racking their skulls for the answers that are not forthcoming because there are no logical answers to the creation of Art for the Artist.

See how this stuff gets out of hand? I could probably rant like that for sixty or seventy pages and yet in the end all I’ve done is, well, bored you the reader to tears.

Common Errors, Technique, and Plotting

Now that John Gardner has prepared the way, he actually begins to share lessons about writing that are worth learning. Unfortunately, he has encapsulated them in such a dry wrapper that they are difficult to get your mind around.

Again, we have another great contradiction. The first half of the book is all manifesto while the second half reads like VCR instructions. Highs and lows.

I am not going to go through each section here in detail. I was going to, really and honestly, but I just can’t. It’s too boring, and this is from a fellow who loves writing books.


Although I tried to soften the blow at the start of this article, I must admit what you already know to be true: this book is terrible. You will learn nothing from it. You will come away from it more confused than when you started on your path to becoming an author.

I do not recommend this book to anyone except for those writers who wish to become literary critics instead of novelists. Using John Gardner as an example, you cannot help but succeed in your endeavor.

2 thoughts on “The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

  1. Ha. Took the time to wade through your article, and thank you for taking the considerable time it must have taken to write it. It gives a good balance, and although I am certain there is a lot of good to be learned from John Gardner, it is refreshing to read there’s another side to the coin.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to comment! I do believe there is plenty of good too be found in Gardner, even if the only thing is that it gets a young writer to write more. 😀

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *