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3

Aesthetic Law and Artistic Mystery

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notes

Gardner, J. (1991). Aesthetic Law and Artistic Mystery. In Gardner, J. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. Vintage, pp. 3-8

3

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 by John Gardner 5 months, 2 weeks ago

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 by John Gardner 5 months, 2 weeks ago
7

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 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 by John Gardner 5 months, 2 weeks ago
8

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 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 by John Gardner 5 months, 2 weeks ago
10

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 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 by John Gardner 5 months, 2 weeks ago
12

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 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 by John Gardner 5 months, 2 weeks ago
14

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 by John Gardner 5 months, 1 week 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 by John Gardner 5 months, 1 week ago