John Gardner’s ON BECOMING A NOVELIST

John Gardner’s ON BECOMING A NOVELIST (ISBN 0-393-32003-0) was published back in 1983, but its chapter on “The Writer’s Training and Education” is as fresh and relevant today as it was then.  If you know someone who is pondering whether to major in English or Creative Writing as an undergraduate, or wonders if a MFA makes sense, this chapter is what I’d have them read first.  It’s shorter than an entire book on the subject, but goes into greater depth about the benefits and perils of a formal creative writing education than most books on fiction writing.

For example, he discusses in depth the hazards that novelists may face in a workshop geared towards short stories and poetry:

…most creative writing workshops are oriented towards short fiction.  For the young novelist, this can be troublesome.  His talent may go unnoticed: his marathon-runner pace does not stir the same interest as the story writer’s sprinter’s pace; and the kinds of mistakes workshops focus on are not as important in a novel as in a short story….Sometimes it happens that the young novelist distorts his art in an attempt to compete with the short story writers in his class.  He tries to make every chapter zing, tries dense symbolism and staggeringly rich prose; he violates the novelistic pace.

Gardner is part of the “literary fiction” tradition, so he does diss particular fiction genres in a couple of paragraphs (such as science fiction and horror).  However, he spends just as much time ripping into the excesses of literary fiction.  As someone who has written science fiction, fantasy, and horror, I came away amused instead of offended by his commentary.  (Note–he doesn’t say all science fiction and horror are bad, but felt most of it was hackery.)

When I first read his book,  he provided me with an Aha! moment that I was, and still am,  grateful for.   The insight was that the writing needs to trigger a waking dream–vivid and continuous–in the reader.  And how that waking dream is created is as follows:

If the dream is to be vivid, the writer’s “language signals”–his words, rhythms, metaphors, and so on–must be sharp and sufficient….And if the dream is to be continuous, we must not be roughly jerked from the dream back to words on the page by language that’s distracting.

Throughout the book the psychological aspects of being a writer are explored in depth–what are the typical personality traits of a novelist, the problem of severe self-doubt when starting out, the stress of financial uncertainty, the feeling of a lack of support from the typical American community (i.e. the attitude that arts are a waste of time and money), and more.

There is much to be gleaned from reading this book, though I confess I’d hesitate to recommend it to new writers who felt insecure about their choice to write genre fiction.   I’d want them to gain some self-confidence first.

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