The Art of Fiction, Part 2

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.

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8 responses to “The Art of Fiction, Part 2

  1. Rohan

    Oh, I really like that quotation too — though I suppose there is a place for such a pretty teacup of a novel too. I always end up thinking there’s not much point in trying to be prescriptive about fiction!

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  2. A subject of much discussion at the moment here in the UK, the difference between a novel and a novella following the shortlisting of Colm Toibin’s ‘The Testament of Mary’ for the Booker. I think it comes in at 101 pages. When I finally get a round to reading it I might have something useful to add to the discussion:)

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    • I’ve heard debates about those categories too. It seems like something that will never get resolved, and I would say that it doesn’t matter much, except that it does make a difference for prizes, and also I suppose for what gets published in the first place, if it’s harder to publish a novella than a novel.

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  3. It’s been a few years since I read this, but I remember enjoying it. (I like the teacup simile in that quote.)I’m reading Janet Burroway’s book right now (quite different in format and style but the same subject of course).

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  4. I like a good teacup novel now and then but I have to agree the best novels definitely not pretty teacups. He makes and interesting contrast between the novel and the novella, will have to ponder on whether I agree with him about the differences.

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    • I think it’s impossible to define terms like novella or novel perfectly, so think his definition is probably as good as any other. But the problem comes in trying to apply the definition to specific examples. That can get tricky!

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