My rating: 5 of 5 stars
On Becoming a Novelist (1983) by John Gardner is a book every novelist, amateur or professional, should read (at least three times) to better understand the complete dynamics and responsibility required to become a true novelist who pursues the craft as an art form.
The great short story writer Raymond Carver, who was a former pupil of Gardner, remembers his teacher telling him at Chico State to “read all the Faulkner you can get your hands on, and then read all of Hemingway to clean the Faulkner out of your system” (p xv).
Carver goes on to explain in the book’s Foreword that Gardner represented something deeper than literature when Gardner instructed his university students in creative writing. Carver explains:
“It was his conviction that if the words in the story were blurred because of the author’s insensitivity, carelessness, or sentimentality, then the story suffered from a tremendous handicap. But there was something even worse and something that must be avoided at all costs: if the words and the sentiments were dishonest, the author was faking it, writing about things he didn’t care about or believe in, then nobody could ever care anything about it.
“A writer’s values and craft. This is what the man taught and what he stood for, and this is what I’ve kept by me in the years since that brief but all-important time” (p xvii).
After reading On Becoming a Novelist for the third time, one begins to see Carver’s point in how Gardner, a true mentor, believed in a novelist having a certain set of values, constitution, and character to undertake a lifetime of writing stories and novels.
In the Preface, Gardner pulls no punches as he elaborates why he wrote this book (which he used as part of his creative writing courses) and to illustrate which kind of writer the book was meant to inspire and instruct.
“On some subjects—for instance, writers’ workshops—one is tempted to pull punches or rest satisfied with oversimplified answers; but I’m assuming, as the primary reader of this book, an intensely serious beginning novelist who wants the strict truth (as I perceive it) for his life’s sake, so that he can plan his days of technique, theory, and attitude; and become as quickly and efficiently as possible a master of his craft” (p xxii).
What does Gardner mean, then, when he writes that this book is for the “serious beginning novelist”?
“The question becomes easier to answer if the would-be writer means not just ‘someone who can get published’ but ‘a serious novelist,’ that is, a dedicated, uncompromising artist,’” Gardner elaborates, “and not just someone who can publish a story now and then—in other words, if the beginning writer is the kind of person this book is mainly written for” (p 1).
The book, therefore, is not for the weak hearted and indolent of spirit. The book is for serious novelists who have written each day in the calming shade of obscurity for twenty years in order to improve himself, or herself, in the creation of literature as art. The book is not for those who easily win awards on account of their ideological and political content (judges and editors often feel sympathetic for such writers and, as a result, these judges and editors desire to show their empathy for these writers who vomit onto the page “sob stories” about their identities and troubled past when in fact these writers have barely lived and have not fully experienced life and have done nothing of significance nor importance to warrant a book or even a single essay of non-fiction) and then to have these writers do nothing with their writing careers later on in life is all too familiar. This book is for the true novelist who does not seek acceptance from others nor awards from organizations nor acclaim from the masses but seeks in the lonely, personal struggle the perfection of his, or her, own craft as a higher form of art to add to the overwhelming ocean of literature.
“I write for those who desire, not publication at any cost, but publication one can be proud of—serious, honest fiction,” explains Gardner in the Preface, “the kind of novel that readers will find they enjoy reading more than once, the kind of fiction likely to survive. Fine workmanship—art that avoids cheap and easy effects, takes no shortcuts, struggles never to lie even about the most trifling matters (such as which object, precisely, an angry man might pick up to throw at his kitchen wall, or whether a given character would in fact say ‘you aren’t’ or the faintly more assertive ‘you’re not’)—workmanship, in short, that impresses us partly by its painstaking care, gives pleasure and a sense of life’s worth and dignity not only to the reader but to the writer as well. This book is for the beginning novelist who has already figured out that it is far more satisfying to write well than simply to write well enough to get published” (p xxiii).
Gardner does seem to echo his own life as a writer before being published, which took him longer than most other writers of his generation (Gardner published his first book The Resurrection in 1966 at the age of 33). He understands the frustrations and barriers many novelists live under as they set upon the long, arduous journey of setting words to page to form a story into a worthy book that readers will one day cherish as much as the writer.
Even Cormac McCarthy wrote and published books (much beloved by critics but not so much by the populous) for three decades before becoming a national sensation with All the Pretty Horses in 1992, and it would take McCarthy another fifteen years to win the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction with his 2006 novel, The Road. (McCarthy’s first book The Orchard Keeper was published in 1965 and won the 1966 William Faulkner Foundation Award for notable first novel.)
“Spending a lifetime writing novels is hard enough to justify in any case,” writes Gardner, “but spending a lifetime writing novels nobody wants is much harder. If ten or twelve critics praise one’s work and the rest of the world ignores it, it is hard to keep up one’s conviction that the friendly critics are not crackpots. This is not to say that the serious writer should try to write for everyone—try to win the audience both of Saul Bellow and of Stephen King. But if one tries to write for nobody, only for some pure and unearthly ideal of aesthetic perfection, one is apt to lose heart” (p 9).
Certainly being an aesthete must be a part of being a novelist but Gardner also knows that there is something else a novelist must do, must become if he, or she, wishes to create literature which aspires to the heavenly heights of art and for the novelist to have a successful career writing books and stories people long to read more than once.
“For another kind of novelist the accuracy required is, I think, of a higher order, infinitely more difficult to achieve. This is the novelist who moves like a daemon from one body—one character—to another. Rather than master the tics and oddities of his own being and learn how to present them in an appealing way—and rather than capture other people in the manner of a cunning epigrammist or malicious gossip—he must learn to step outside himself, see and feel things from every human—and inhuman—point of view. He must be able to report, with convincing precision, how the world looks to a child, a young woman, an elderly murderer, or the governor of Utah. He must learn, by staring intently into the dream he dreams over his typewriter, to distinguish the subtlest differences between the speech and feeling of his various characters, himself as impartial and detached as God, giving all human beings their due and acknowledging their frailties. Insofar as he pretends not to private vision but to omniscience, he cannot as a rule, love some of his characters and despise others…
“The beginning novelist who has the gift for inhabiting other lives has perhaps the best chance for success” (p 30).
Gardner’s advice on the process of becoming a true novelist and on most aspects of the writing process, especially the fundamentals to understanding the Elements of Story (see the chapter: “The Writer’s Nature”) and his thoughts on publication in the chapter “Publication and Survival” lays the absolute, undeniable truth out for the reader to better understand the choices required for someone to give his or her time, energy and life to the sacred calling of being a novelist. No easy task by any means.
[You might also like to try reading John Gardner’s other books on writing called: On Moral Fiction (1979); The Art of Fiction (1983); and, On Writers and Writing (1994). All are superb and worth several readings.]
On Becoming a Novelist is neatly and precisely packed with tons of advice, suggestions and some warnings onto every page of this rather short book of only 145 pages, which ends in a chapter titled “Faith,” because all true novelists need to have a little faith.
Keep reading and smiling…
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), and a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU. He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can also follow the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 390,000+ followers