Saturday, November 18, 2017
The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
I just started teaching Creative Writing this year, and it's been a real mixed bag. I decided to start with poetry, and for some students, the results were terrific. Many were already accomplished poets, but the best moments are when mediocre or unpracticed young writers stumble through experiment and practice into arresting lines or stanzas. Others have such a disinterest in poetry I think I may have lost them, though I hope that our upcoming unit writing short fiction will help them reengage with writing.
To that end, I've been reading some books on writing like John Gardner's The Art of Fiction and Ann Lamott's Bird by Bird. Lamott's book is mostly inspirational, an encouragement to writing in the face of all the things that discourage it. Gardner's is more of a survey of the nature of fiction, and neither are exactly practical. These books all struggle, I think, because of how difficult it is to speak to each writer at their particular moment; a lot of Gardner's advice seemed obvious to me, and much of it seemed very strange.
The Art of Fiction has a whiff of mothballs to it: For one, Gardner is pretty devoted to the most traditional notion of fiction as an imitation of life and dismissive, even as he claims he isn't, of the kind of "metafiction" that has preoccupied the postmodernists of the past seventy-odd years. He claims, perhaps rightly, that only those who have mastered fiction are able to write self-conscious metafiction effectively, but you get the sense that he thinks it's probably a mistake, and has little notion of why those writers find metafiction the only possible mode in their particular historical moment. Elsewhere, there's the unfortunate patina of chauvinism, as when he throws up his hands at the sad fact that the English language prioritizes male pronouns. He describes as brilliant a treatment of a student's novel he had heard, in which a Native American scholar unwittingly takes a position in an "Indian Studies" department--as in, East Indian--and has to muddle through pretending to be from Delhi, or something. In a more general way, his insistence that fiction relies most importantly on the accumulation of details that make you feel as if you were really somewhere else seems shortsighted and of another time.
But it's worth embracing, to an extent, the tradition articulated by Gardner here, and not forgetting why those narratives have been so powerful in the first place. His chapters on crafting individual sentences are exceedingly useful, and would probably help a lot of today's writers whose popular blandness seems like a flaw on the most fundamental level. Most useful to me were the series of exercises in the back of the book, many of which I'm definitely going to use: "Describe a lake as seen by a young man who has just committed murder. Do not mention the murder." Now, that's fun, and I have an inkling it will be a satisfying exercise for a bunch of high schoolers whose idea of fiction always operates at the highest pitch of drama. But we'll see.