I have now finished John Gardner’s book The Art of Fiction and enjoyed it very much. As I wrote in my earlier post, the first half of the book deals with Gardner’s ideas about fiction generally, and the second half gets into more technical details about how fiction works. At the end of the book are a series of exercises for beginning (or, for that matter, more advanced) writers to practice on. He believes that new writers can improve by taking one small fictional element and working on that, at the same time as they are working on stories as a whole. So the exercises are things like writing opening paragraphs, or a couple paragraphs of suspense, or a paragraph of description. These exercises will help the writer figure out how to put all the pieces together into a complete work.
I wrote last time that I wasn’t satisfied with how Gardner dealt with unconventional fiction, but the book’s second half does more justice to the subject. He describes various types of experimental writing and the challenges each type holds, as well as the new things it can do. I still think he’s biased towards conventional fiction, and his focus on metafiction seems a little dated, but the book is better on the subject than I’d originally thought.
I’ll close with a passage I particularly liked in which he contrasts the novel and the novella. I don’t have a strong opinion on his views of the novella, but I liked his description of the novel very much:
Through the sparest means possible — not through the amassing of the numerous forces that operate in a novel but by following out a single line of thought — the novella reaches an end wherein the world is, at least for the central character, radically changed…. Nothing can be more perfect or complete than a good novella. When a novel achieves the same glassy perfection — as does Flaubert’s Madame Bovary — we may tend to find it dissatisfying, untrue. The “perfect” novel lacks the richness and raggedness of the best long fiction. We need not go into the reasons for this except to notice that the novella normally treats one character and one important action in his life, a focus that lends itself to neat cut-offs, framing. The novel, on the other hand, at least makes some pretense of imitating the world in all its complexity…. As a result, too much neatness in a novel kills the novel’s fundamental effect…. The novel is by definition, to some extent at least, a “loose, baggy monster” — as Henry James said irritably, disparaging the novels of Tolstoy. It cannot be too loose, too baggy or monstrous; but a novel built as prettily as a teacup is not of much use.