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Showing results by John Gardner only

What the beginning writer ordinarily wants is a set of rules on what to do and what not to do in writing fiction. As we’ll see, some general principles can be set down (Things to Think About When Writing Fiction) and some very general warnings can be offered (Things to Watch Out For); but on the whole the search for aesthetic absolutes is a misapplication of the writer’s energy. When one begins to be persuaded that certain things must never be done in fiction and certain other things must always be done, one has entered the first stage of aesthetic arthritis, the disease that ends up in pedantic rigidity and the atrophy of intuition. Every true work of art—and thus every attempt at art (since things meant to be similar must submit to one standard)—must be judged primarily, though not exclusively, by its own laws. If it has no laws, or if its laws are incoherent, it fails—usually—on that basis.

Trustworthy aesthetic universals do exist, but they exist at such a high level of abstraction as to offer almost no guidance to the writer. Most supposed aesthetic absolutes prove relative under pressure. They’re laws, but they slip. [...]

—p.3 Aesthetic Law and Artistic Mystery (3) by John Gardner 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Art depends heavily on feeling, intuition, taste. It is feeling, not some rule, that tells the abstract painter to put his yellow here and there, not there, and may later tell him that it should have been brown or purple or pea-green. It’s feeling that makes the composer break surprisingly from his key, feeling that gives the writer the rhythms of his sentences, the pattern of rise and fall in his episodes, the proportions of alternating elements, so that dialogue goes on only so long before a shift to description or narrative summary or some physical action. The great writer has an instinct for these things. He has, like a great comedian, an infallible sense of timing. And his instinct touches every thread of his fabric, even the murkiest fringes of symbolic structure. He knows when and where to think up and spring surprises, those startling leaps of the imagination that characterize all of the very greatest writing.

—p.7 Aesthetic Law and Artistic Mystery (3) by John Gardner 5 months, 2 weeks ago

This is not to say that no one really knows what fiction is or what its limits are; it is simply to recognize that the value or “staying power” of any piece of literature has to do, finally, with the character and personality of the artist who created it—his instincts, his knowledge of art and the world, his mastery. Mastery holds fast. What the beginning writer needs, discouraging as it may be to hear, is not a set of rules but mastery—among other things, mastery of the art of breaking so-called rules. When an artist of true authority speaks—someone like Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Racine, Dostoevsky, or Melville—we listen, all attention, even if what he says seems at first a little queer. (At any rate we listen if we’re old enough, experienced enough, so that we know what kinds of things are boring, juvenile, simple-minded, and what things are not. To read well, one also needs a certain kind of mastery.)

—p.8 Aesthetic Law and Artistic Mystery (3) by John Gardner 5 months, 2 weeks ago

No ignoramus—no writer who has kept himself innocent of education—has ever produced great art. One trouble with having read nothing worth reading is that one never fully understands the other side of one’s argument, never understands that the argument is an old one (all great arguments are), never understands the dignity and worth of the people one has cast as enemies. Witness John Steinbeck’s failure in The Grapes of Wrath. It should have been one of America’s great books. But while Steinbeck knew all there was to know about Okies and the countless sorrows of their move to California to find work, he knew nothing about the California ranchers who employed and exploited them; he had no clue to, or interest in, their reasons for behaving as they did; and the result is that Steinbeck wrote not a great and firm novel but a disappointing melodrama in which complex good is pitted against unmitigated, unbelievable evil. [...]

hmm i haven't read this yet so idk if i agree w his assessment but it's worth considering

—p.10 Aesthetic Law and Artistic Mystery (3) by John Gardner 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Admittedly the man who has educated himself is in a better position than the man not educated at all. But his work is sure to bear the mark of his limitation. If one studies the work of the self-educated—and we do not mean here the man who starts out with limited but rigorous and classical education, like Herman Melville—what one notices at once is the spottiness and therefore awkwardness of their knowledge. One forgives the fault, but the fact remains that it distracts and makes the work less than it might have been. One finds, for instance, naively excited and lengthy discussions of ideas that are commonplace or have long been discredited, or one finds curious, quirky interpretations of old myths—interpretations that, though interesting in themselves, suffer by comparison with what the myths really say and mean. [...]

as a general point this is useful

—p.12 Aesthetic Law and Artistic Mystery (3) by John Gardner 5 months, 2 weeks ago

The argument that what the writer really needs is experience in the world, not training in literature—both reading and writing—has been so endlessly repeated that for many it has come to sound like gospel. We cannot take time for a full answer here—how wide experience, from Zanzibar to the Yukon, is more likely to lead to cluttered texture than to deep and moving fiction, how the first-hand knowledge of a dozen trades is likely to be of less value to the writer than twenty good informants, the kind one gets talking to in bars, on Greyhound buses, at parties, or on sagging park benches. The primary subject of fiction is and has always been human emotion, values, and beliefs. The novelist Nicholas Delbanco has remarked that by the age of four one has experienced nearly everything one needs as a writer of fiction: love, pain, loss, boredom, rage, guilt, fear of death. The writer’s business is to make up convincing human beings and create for them basic situations and actions by means of which they come to know themselves and reveal themselves to the reader. For that one needs no schooling. But it’s by training—by studying great books and by writing—that one learns to present one’s fictions, giving them their due. Through the study of technique—not canoeing or logging or slinging hash—one learns the best, most efficient ways of making characters come alive, learns to know the difference between emotion and sentimentality, learns to discern, in the planning stages, the difference between the better dramatic action and the worse. It is this kind of knowledge—to return to our earlier subject—that leads to mastery.

—p.14 Aesthetic Law and Artistic Mystery (3) by John Gardner 5 months, 1 week ago

None of these writers, ancient or modern, sat down to write “to express himself.” They sat down to write this kind of story or that, or to mix this form with that form, producing some new effect. Self-expression, whatever its pleasures, comes about incidentally. It also comes about inevitably. The realistic writer may set out to conjure up the personality of his aunt, creating for her, or copying from life, some story through which her character is revealed, and thus he reveals his strong feelings about his aunt; that is, he expresses himself. The fabulist—the writer of nonrealistic yarns, tales, or fables—may seem at first glance to be doing something quite different; but he is not. Dragons, like bankers and candy-store owners, must have firm and predictable characters. A talking tree, a talking refrigerator, a talking clock must speak in a way we learn to recognize, must influence events in ways we can identify as flowing from some definite motivation; and since character can come only from one of two places, books or life, the writer’s aunt is as likely to show up in a fable as in a realistic story. Thus the process by which one writes a fable, on one hand, or a realistic story, on the other, is not much different. Let us look more closely at the similarities and differences.

—p.21 Basic Skills, Genre, and Fiction as Dream (17) by John Gardner 5 months, 1 week ago

If we carefully inspect our experience as we read, we discover that the importance of physical detail is that it creates for us a kind of dream, a rich and vivid play in the mind. We read a few words at the beginning of the book or the particular story, and suddenly we find ourselves seeing not words on a page but a train moving through Russia, an old Italian crying, or a farmhouse battered by rain. We read on—dream on—not passively but actively, worrying about the choices the characters have to make, listening in panic for some sound behind the fictional door, exulting in characters’ successes, bemoaning their failures. In great fiction, the dream engages us heart and soul; we not only respond to imaginary things—sights, sounds, smells—as though they were real, we respond to fictional problems as though they were real: We sympathize, think, and judge. We act out, vicariously, the trials of the characters and learn from the failures and successes of particular modes of action, particular attitudes, opinions, assertions, and beliefs exactly as we learn from life. Thus the value of great fiction, we begin to suspect, is not just that it entertains us or distracts us from our troubles, not just that it broadens our knowledge of people and places, but also that it helps us to know what we believe, reinforces those qualities that are noblest in us, leads us to feel uneasy about our faults and limitations.

—p.30 Basic Skills, Genre, and Fiction as Dream (17) by John Gardner 5 months, 1 week ago

Some writers—John Barth, for instance—make a point of interrupting the fictional dream from time to time, or even denying the reader the chance to enter the fictional dream that his experience of fiction has led him to expect. We will briefly examine the purpose and value of such fiction later. For now, it is enough to say that such writers are not writing fiction at all, but something else, metafiction. They give the reader an experience that assumes the usual experience of fiction as its point of departure, and whatever effect their work may have depends on their conscious violation of the usual fictional effect. What interests us in their novels is that they are not novels but, instead, artistic comments on art.

—p.32 Basic Skills, Genre, and Fiction as Dream (17) by John Gardner 5 months, 1 week ago

The reason the approach seems to me not ideal is that, except in the extraordinary case, it wastes the writer’s time. It instructs him to do something he cannot realistically be expected to do well—and here I mean “well” in the always urgent artist’s sense, not the more casual, more gentlemanly way in which we do things badly or well in other university programs. Let me explain. True artists, whatever smiling faces they may show you, are obsessive, driven people—whether driven by some mania or driven by some high, noble vision need not presently concern us. Anyone who has worked both as artist and as professor can tell you, I think, that he works very differently in his two styles. No one is more careful, more scrupulously honest, more devoted to his personal vision of the ideal, than a good professor trying to write a book about the Gilgamesh. He may write far into the night, he may avoid parties, he may feel pangs of guilt about having spent too little time with his family. Nevertheless, his work is no more like an artist’s work than the work of a first-class accountant is like that of an athlete contending for a championship. He uses faculties of the mind more easily available to us; he has, on all sides of him, stays, checks, safeties, rules of procedure that guide and secure him. He’s a man sure of where he stands in the world. He belongs on sunlit walkways, in ivied halls. With the artist, not so. No critical study, however brilliant, is the fierce psychological battle a novel is. The qualities that make a true artist—nearly the same qualities that make a true athlete—make it important that the student writer never be prevented from working as seriously as he knows how to. In university courses we do exercises. Term papers, quizzes, final examinations are not meant for publication. We move through a course on Dostoevsky or Poe as we move through a mildly good cocktail party, picking up the good bits of food or conversation, bearing with the rest, going home when it comes to seem the reasonable thing to do. Art, at those moments when it feels most like art—when we feel most alive, most alert, most triumphant—is less like a cocktail party than a tank full of sharks. Everything’s for keeps, nothing’s just for exercise. (Robert Frost said, “I never write exercises, but sometimes I write poems which fail and then I call them exercises.”) A course in creative writing should be like writing itself; everything required should be, at least potentially, usable, publishable: for keeps. “A mighty will,” Henry James said, “that’s all there is!” Let no one discourage or undermine that mighty will.

—p.34 Basic Skills, Genre, and Fiction as Dream (17) by John Gardner 5 months, 1 week ago

Showing results by John Gardner only