The Art of Fiction

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.

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7 responses to “The Art of Fiction

  1. I don’t remember if it is this book by Gardener or another book he wrote about writing that I have read, but he does seem to take a rather conventional approach to what fiction should be and do. Nothing wrong with that of course but as you note it does leave out writers like Baker and what their work makes possible. Still, I agree, even that even if you have no intention of writing fiction, books like these are good for readers too.

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  2. Funny– I just finished a book about a murder mystery novelist (and killer) whose go to books include Strunk & White and Gardner’s books on writing.

    Also, I would consider Grendel (which I love) unconventional fiction.

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    • I need to read Grendel — I’ve been meaning to for ages. Gardner does go into more detail on unconventional fiction later in the book. I still don’t love his discussion of it, but he does give more detail than I describe here.

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  3. Mention ‘The Art of Fiction’ to a British reader and we will automatically think of a collection of essays by David Lodge which considers different facets of literature and takes a specific title as a means of illustrating his point. If you don’t know it I strongly recommend it. As well as being a great novelist, Lodge is also one of our great literary critics and a brilliant university professor.

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  4. Pingback: The Art of Fiction, Part 2 | Of Books and Bicycles

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