I’m about halfway through John Gardner’s how-to book The Art of Fiction. I like reading these kinds of books even though I’m completely uninterested in writing any fiction of my own. But these books seem equally useful (if not more so) to readers of fiction than to writers of it. They offer theories of reading that are interesting to think about, as well as concepts of craft that help readers appreciate what authors are doing, or where they might be failing. As a teacher of literature, I appreciate the ideas about craft these books give me to bring to the classroom.
As I understand it, Gardner’s book is a classic of the genre, and so far I’m enjoying it very much. It’s incredibly clearly written — he makes it seem so easy — with great examples and illustrations and a nice use of humor. I like particularly the balance he strikes between the need for rules in fiction writing and the more complicated truth that the rules exist for writers to break and possibly to transform:
However he may get it, mastery — not a full mental catalogue of the rules — must be the writer’s goal. He must get the art of fiction, in all its complexity — the whole tradition and all its technical options — down through the wrinkles and tricky wiring of his brain into his blood … Mastery is not something that strikes in an instant, like a thunderbolt, but a gathering power that moves steadily through time, like weather.
In other words, art has no universal rules because each true artist melts down and reforges all past aesthetic law.
He argues that good fiction creates the feeling of a dream: “what counts in conventional fiction must be the vividness and continuity of the fictional dream the words set off in the reader’s mind.” This strikes me as absolutely true of, as he puts it, conventional fiction. We want to believe in the world the fiction creates and not get knocked out of that dream by details that seem false or by sentences that seem awkward or characters that don’t convince.
I find myself less convinced by the way he treats unconventional fiction. He acknowledges that the kind of fiction that doesn’t aspire to be a dream has its pleasures and its interest, but he seems biased toward the conventional anyway. I’m not seeing in his discussion of unconventional fiction the range of experiment that I’ve found in such books. Perhaps this has something to do with the book’s 1983 publication date? I keep thinking, what would Gardner make of something like Nicholson Baker’s 1988 book The Mezzanine? It doesn’t have a conventional narrative arc and as far as creating the feeling of a dream goes, it doesn’t seem interested in it, unless you consider getting lost in someone else’s thoughts as like inhabiting a dream.
But disagreeing with this kind of book is part of the pleasure of reading it. The book’s first half is about fiction generally and the second half gets into the nitty-gritty of technique. I’m looking forward to what he has to say next.