John Gardner on Writing: On Becoming a Novelist, On Writers & Writing, and On Moral Fiction

John Gardner on Writing: On Becoming a Novelist, On Writers & Writing, and On Moral Fiction

by John Gardner

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Three books in one volume: Advice and reflections on modern fiction from “one of the greatest creative writing teachers we’ve ever had” (Frederick Busch).

In On Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner advises the aspiring fiction author on such topics as the value of creative writing workshops, the developmental stages of literary growth, and the inevitable experience of writer’s block. Drawn from his two decades of experience in creative writing, Gardner balances his compassion for his students with his knowledge of the publishing industry, and truthfully relates his experiences of the hardships that lie ahead for aspiring authors.
In On Writers & Writing, acclaimed novelist John Gardner discusses the craft of fiction writing, taking to task some of his best-known contemporaries in the process. Gardner criticizes some for writing disingenuous fiction, and commends others who produce literature that acts as a life-affirming force. He offers insights into and exacting critiques on such writers as Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, Saul Bellow, and John Cheever, while addressing his personal influences and delivering broad-ranging observations on literary culture.
And in On Moral Fiction, John Gardner’s thesis is simple: “True art is by its nature moral.” Since the book’s first publication, the passion behind Gardner’s assertion has both provoked and inspired readers. In examining the work of his peers, Gardner analyzes what has gone wrong, in his view, in modern art and literature, and how shortcomings in artistic criticism have contributed to the problem. He develops his argument by showing how artists and critics can reintroduce morality and substance to their work to improve society and cultivate our morality.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781480466005
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 12/10/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 680
Sales rank: 88,882
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

John Gardner (1933–1982) was born in Batavia, New York. His critically acclaimed books include the novels Grendel, The Sunlight Dialogues, and October Light, for which he received the National Book Critics Circle Award, as well as several works of nonfiction and criticism such as On Becoming a Novelist. He was also a professor of medieval literature and a pioneering creative writing teacher whose students included Raymond Carver and Charles Johnson. 
John Gardner (1933–1982) was born in Batavia, New York. His critically acclaimed books include the novels Grendel, The Sunlight Dialogues, and October Light, for which he received the National Book Critics Circle Award, as well as several works of nonfiction and criticism such as On Becoming a Novelist. He was also a professor of medieval literature and a pioneering creative writing teacher whose students included Raymond Carver and Charles Johnson.

Read an Excerpt

John Gardner's Collection on Writing

On Becoming a Novelist On Writers & Writing On Moral Fiction

By John Gardner


Copyright © 1994 Estate of John Gardner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-6600-5


The Writer's Nature

Nearly every beginning writer sooner or later asks (or wishes he dared ask) his creative writing teacher, or someone else he thinks might know, whether or not he really has what it takes to be a writer. The honest answer is almost always, "God only knows." Occasionally the answer is, "Definitely yes, if you don't get sidetracked," and now and then the answer is, or should be, "I don't think so." No one who's taught writing for very long, or has known many beginning writers, is likely to offer an answer more definite than one of these, though the question becomes easier to answer if the would-be writer means not just "someone who can get published" but "a serious novelist," that is, a dedicated, uncompromising artist, and not just someone who can publish a story now and then—in other words, if the beginning writer is the kind of person this book is mainly written for.

The truth is that there are so many magazines in the United States—not to speak of all those elsewhere—that almost anyone, if he's stubborn enough, can sooner or later get a story published; and once the beginning writer has been published in one magazine (some obscure quarterly, let us say), so that he can say in his covering letter to other editors, "Previous fiction of mine has appeared in such and such a journal," the better his chances are of reaching publication in other magazines. Success breeds success. For one thing, publication in five or six obscure magazines virtually guarantees eventual success in some not so obscure magazine, because editors, when in doubt, tend to be swayed by a record of publication elsewhere. And for another thing, the more the beginning writer writes and publishes (especially when he publishes after an exchange of letters with an intelligent editor willing to give advice), the more confident and proficient the beginning writer becomes. As for getting a not very good novel published, the possibilities are richer than one might think—though the pay may not be good. There are always publishers looking for new talent and willing to take risks, including a good number of publishers actively seeking bad fiction (pornography, horror novels, and so forth). Some young writers, by a quirk of their nature, cannot feel they are really writers until they have published somewhere, any where. Such writers are probably wise to do it and get it over with, though they'd be wiser yet to improve their skills and publish somewhere better, for the future's sake. It's hard to live down one's shoddy publications, and it's hard to scrap cheap techniques once they've worked. It's like trying to stop cheating at marriage or golf.

To answer the serious young writer's question responsibly, the writing teacher, or whoever, needs to consider a variety of indicators, none of them sure but each of them offering a useful hint. Some of these have to do with visible or potential ability, some with character. The reason none of the indicators is foolproof is partly that they're relative, and partly that the writer can improve—changing old habits of technique or personality, getting better by stubborn determination—or simply grow at a later stage from a probable nonwriter to a probable success.


One might begin the list anywhere; for convenience, let me begin with verbal sensitivity.

Good grades in English may or may not go with verbal sensitivity, that is, with the writer's gift for, and interest in, understanding how language works. Good grades in English may have more to do with the relative competence, sensitivity, and sophistication of the teacher than with the student writer's ability. It is not quite true to say that every good writer has a keen feeling for sentence rhythms—the music of language—or for the connotations and diction levels (domains) of words. Some great writers are great in spite of occasional lapses—clunky sentences, feeble metaphors, even foolish word choices. Theodore Dreiser can write: "He found her extremely intellectually interesting"— language so cacophonous and dull most good writers would run from it; yet few readers would deny that Dreiser's Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy are works of art. The writer with a tin ear, if he's good enough at other things, may in the end write deeper, finer novels than the most eloquent verbal musician.

And it must be added that the true artist's verbal sensitivity may be something the ordinary English teacher, or even the most sophisticated user of language, may fail to recognize at first glance. Many people who care a good deal about language are horrified, for instance, to hear "hopefully" used in the sense "it is hoped," or to hear politicians say "forthcoming" when they mean "forthright," or businesspeople say "feedback" when they mean "reaction" or "response"; and given this distaste for linguistic change, or perhaps distaste for certain classes of humanity, the sophisticated stickler may dismiss without thought an ingenious and sensitive use of the suspect word or phrase. The true artist's verbal sensitivity may well be different, in other words, from that of the usual "writer of good English." Black street kids playing "The Dozens"— piling up ingenious metaphorical insults of one another's mothers, not all of the metaphors grammatical or unmixed—may in fact be showing more verbal sensitivity than the speechwriters who helped create the image of John Kennedy. Moreover, as the example of Dreiser perhaps suggests, not every kind of writer requires the same measure of verbal sensitivity. A poet, to practice his art with success, must have an ear for language so finely tuned and persnickety as to seem to the ordinary novelist almost diseased. The short story writer, since the emotional charge of his fiction must reveal itself quickly, has a similar need for lyrical compression, though a need less desperate than the poet's. In the novelist, a hypersensitive ear may occasionally prove a handicap.

But though some great writers may at times write awkwardly, it is nevertheless the case that one sign of the born writer is his gift for finding or (sometimes) inventing authentically interesting language. His sentence rhythms fit what he is saying, rushing along when the story rushes, turning somewhat ponderous to deal with a ponderous character, echoing the thunder of which the story tells, or capturing aurally the wobble of the drunk, the slow, dull pace of the tired old man, the touching silliness of the forty-year-old woman who flirts. The writer sensitive to language finds his own metaphors, not simply because he has been taught to avoid clichés but because he enjoys finding an exact and vivid metaphor, one never before thought of, so far as he knows. If he uses an odd word, it is never the fashionable odd word of his time and place—for instance (as of this writing), "ubiquitous," or "detritus," or "serendipitous"— he uses his own odd word, not solely because he wants to be noticed as original (though that is likely to be part of it) but also because he's fascinated by words. He's interested in discovering the secrets words carry, whether or not he ever puts them in his fiction—for instance, how "discover" means "to take the cover off." He's interested in playing with sentence formation, seeing how long he can make a sentence go, or how many short sentences he can use without the reader's noticing. In short, one sign of a writer's potential is his especially sharp ear—and eye—for language.

If once in a while the beginning writer does something interesting with language—shows that he's actually listening to himself and looking closely at words, spying out their secrets—that is sign enough of the writer's promise. Only a talent that doesn't exist at all can't be improved. Usually. On the other hand, if as readers we begin to suspect that the writer cares about nothing but language, we begin to worry that he may be in for trouble. Normal people, people who haven't been misled by a faulty college education, do not read novels for words alone. They open a novel with the expectation of finding a story, hopefully with interesting characters in it, possibly an interesting landscape here and there, and, with any luck at all, an idea or two—with real luck a large and interesting cargo of ideas. Though there are exceptions, as a rule the good novelist does not worry primarily about linguistic brilliance—at least not brilliance of the showy, immediately obvious kind—but instead worries about telling his story in a moving way, making the reader laugh or cry or endure suspense, whatever it is that this particular story, told at its best, will incline the reader to do.

We read five words on the first page of a really good novel and we begin to forget that we are reading printed words on a page; we begin to see images—a dog hunting through garbage cans, a plane circling above Alaskan mountains, an old lady furtively licking her napkin at a party. We slip into a dream, forgetting the room we're sitting in, forgetting it's lunchtime or time to go to work. We recreate, with minor and for the most part unimportant changes, the vivid and continuous dream the writer worked out in his mind (revising and revising until he got it right) and captured in language so that other human beings, whenever they feel like it, may open his book and dream that dream again. If the dream is to be vivid, the writer's "language signals"— his words, rhythms, metaphors, and so on—must be sharp and sufficient: if they're vague, careless, blurry, or if there aren't enough of them to let us see clearly what is being presented, then the dream as we dream it will be cloudy, confusing, ultimately annoying and boring. And if the dream is to be continuous, we must not be roughly jerked from the dream back to the words on the page by language that's distracting. Thus, for example, if the writer makes some grammatical mistake, the reader stops thinking about the old lady at the party and looks, instead, at the words on the page, seeing if the sentence really is, as it seems, ungrammatical. If it is, the reader thinks about the writer, or possibly about the editor —"How come they let him get away with a thing like ungrammatical. If it is, the reader thinks about the writer, or possibly about the editor —"How come they let him get away with a thing like that?"— not about the old lady whose story has been interrupted.

The writer who cares more about words than about story (characters, action, setting, atmosphere) is unlikely to create a vivid and continuous dream; he gets in his own way too much; in his poetic drunkenness, he can't tell the cart—and its cargo—from the horse. So in judging the young writer's verbal sensitivity one does not ask only, "Has he got any?" but also, "Has he got too much?" If he has none, he's in for trouble, though as I've said, he may succeed anyway, either because he has something else that compensates for the weakness, or because, once the weakness has been pointed out, he's able to learn. If the writer has too much verbal sensitivity, his success—if he means to write novels, not poems—will depend (1) on his learning to care about other elements of fiction, so that, for their sake, he holds himself back a little, like a compulsive punster at a funeral, or (2) on his finding an editor and a body of readers who love, beyond all else, the same thing he loves, fine language. Such editors and readers do appear from time to time, refined spirits devoted to an exquisitely classy game we call fiction only by stretching the term to the breaking point.

The writer who cares chiefly or exclusively about language is poorly equipped for novel-writing in the usual sense because his character and personality are wrong for writing novels. By "character" I mean here what is sometimes called the individual's "inscribed" nature, his innate self; by "personality" I mean the sum of his typical and habitual ways of relating to those around him. I mean to distinguish, in other words, between the inner and outer selves. Those who inordinately love words as words are of a character type distinct enough, at least in broad outline, to be recognizable almost at a glance. Words seem inevitably to distance us from the brute existents (real trees, stones, yawling babies) that words symbolize and, in our thought processes, tend to replace. At any rate, so philosophers like Hobbes, Nietzsche, and Heidegger have maintained, and our experience with punsters seems to confirm the opinion. When a man makes a pun in a social situation, no one present can doubt—however we may admire the punster and the pun—that the punster has momentarily drawn back, disengaging himself, making connections he could not think of if he were fully involved in the social moment. For example, if we are admiring the art treasures of a family named Cheuse and the punster remarks, "Beggars can't be Cheuses!" we know at once that the punster is not peering deeply and admiringly into the Turner landscape at hand. The person profoundly in love with words may make an excellent poet, composer of crossword puzzles, or Scrabble player; he may write novel-like things which a select group admires; but he will probably not in the end prove a first-rate novelist.

For several reasons (first, because of his personality, which keeps the world of brute existence at arm's length), he is not likely to feel passionate attachment to the ordinary, mainstream novel. The novel's unashamed engagement with the world—the myriad details that make character come alive, the sustained fascination with the gossip surrounding the lives of imaginary beings, the naive emphasis on what happened next and what, precisely, the weather was that day—all these are likely to seem, to the word fanatic, silly and tedious; he feels himself buried in litter. And no one is much inclined to spend days, weeks, years, imitating an existence he does not really like in the first place. The word fanatic may love certain very special, highly intellectual novelists (Stendhal, Flaubert, Robbe-Grillet, the Joyce of Finnegans Wake, possibly Nabokov), but he is likely to admire only for their secondary qualities novelists whose chief strength is the hurly-burly of vividly imitated reality (Dickens, Stevenson, Tolstoy, Melville, Bellow). I do not mean that the person primarily interested in linguistic artifice is blocked from all appreciation of good books whose main appeal comes from character and action; nor do I mean that, because by nature he distances himself from actuality, he is too icy of heart to love his wife and children. I mean only that his admiration of the mainstream novel is not likely to be sufficient to drive him to extend the tradition. If he's lucky enough to live in an aristocratic age, or if he can find the sanctuary of an aesthetic coterie—a walled enclave from which the great, fly-switching herd of humanity is excluded—the artificer may be able to work his quirky wonders. In a democratic age served largely by commercial publishers, only extraordinary ego and stubbornness can keep him going. We may all agree (and then again we may not) that the specialized fiction he writes is worthwhile; but to the extent that he suspects that his time and place are unworthy of his genius, to the extent that he feels detached from the concerns of the herd, or feels that his ideal is either meaningless or invisible to most of humanity, his will is undermined. Not caring much about the kind of novel most experienced and well-educated readers like to read, and not deeply in love with his special coterie—since ironic distance is part of his nature, perhaps even deep, misanthropic distrust like Flaubert's—he manages to bring out, in his lifetime, only one or two books. Or none.

By virtue of his personality—in the special sense in which I'm using that word—the brilliant artificer's novel is likely to suffer one of two harsh fates: either it never gets written at all (an excellent way of expressing one's scorn for one's audience and its interests) or it is spoiled by sentimentality, mannerism, or frigidity.


Excerpted from John Gardner's Collection on Writing by John Gardner. Copyright © 1994 Estate of John Gardner. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


On Becoming a Novelist,
I. The Writer's Nature,
II. The Writer's Training and Education,
III. Publication and Survival,
IV. Faith,
On Writers & Writings,
"Bartleby": Art and Social Commitment,
An Invective Against Mere Fiction,
More Smog from the Dark Satanic Mills,
Witchcraft in Bullet Park, by John Cheever,
Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll,
The Breast, by Philip Roth,
The Way We Write Now,
Saint Walt,
The Adventurer, by Paul Zweig,
Beyond the Bedroom Wall, by Larry Woiwode,
Amber (Get) Waves (Your) of (Plastic) Grain (Uncle Sam),
JR, by William Gaddis,
The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, by John Steinbeck,
Lancelot, by Walker Percy,
Falconer, by John Cheever,
The Castle of Crossed Destinies, by Italo Calvino,
Daniel Martin, by John Fowles,
The Silmarillion, by J. R. R. Tolkien,
The Stories of John Cheever,
Dubin's Lives, by Bernard Malamud,
Sophie's Choice, by William Styron,
A Writer's View of Contemporary American Fiction,
Bellefleur, by Joyce Carol Oates,
Italian Folktales, edited by Italo Calvino,
Fiction in MSS,
What Writers Do,
Julius Caesar and the Werewolf,
General Plan for The Sunlight Dialogues,
On Moral Fiction,
Part I Premises on Art and Morality,
Part II Principles of Art and Criticism,
1 Moral Fiction,
2 Moral Criticism,
3 The Artist as Critic,
4 Art and Insanity,
A Biography of John Gardner,

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John Gardner on Writing: On Becoming a Novelist, On Writers & Writing, and On Moral Fiction 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have no need for this book, but i applaud the author's attempt to inspire the writing of more moral books. I have read too much of today's fiction writers - mostly, young women - whose writing is vulgar and obscene and who know little about punctuation. Not just Americans, but the English, as well. Some plots are not well thought out or are confusing. Are there no proofreaders out there any more? On the other hand, young women love the books. That does not speak well of the society we now live in. I suggest that anyone who wishes to write well would purchase this book and study it well. Use your time and talent to contribute something worthwhile to this world. You will be a better person for it.