The Art of Fiction – A Review

The book: The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner is not prescriptive in the same way as is Jon Franklin’s book: Writing for Story. Gardner surveys contemporary literature in general, pointing out its structure, methods, and morality. Morality in literature, for Gardner, is whether a story portrays what is real and eternally true about human life, as opposed to what is false or philosophically trendy.

His New York Times obituary quoted him writing:

“The value of great fiction is not just that it entertains or distracts us from our troubles, not just that it broadens our knowledge of people and places, but also that it helps us know what we believe, reinforces those qualities that are noblest in in us, leads us to feel uneasy about our failures and limitations.”

This quote is from The Art of Fiction. Though he won the 1976 National Book Critic’s Circle Award for October Light, he deeply offended the literary powers-that-be at the time, especially with his book: On Moral Fiction.

In The Art of Fiction, Gardner describes — the work of fiction:

In any piece of fiction, the writer’s first job is to convince the reader that the events he recounts really happened…This kind of documentation, moment by moment authenticating detail, is the mainstay not only of realistic fiction but of all fiction…It’s physical detail that pulls us into the story, makes us believe…The importance of physical detail is that it creates for us a kind of dream, a rich and vivid play in the mind.

Its value:

The value of great fiction, 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.

In great fiction, 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…All fiction treats, directly or indirectly, the same thing: our love for people and the world, our aspirations and fears.

The overall method to create it:

The writer works out plot in one of three ways: by borrowing some traditional plot or an action from real life (the method of the Greek tragedians, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and many other writers, ancient and modern); by working his way back from his story’s climax; or by groping his way forward from an initial situation.

It’s by the whole process of first planning the fiction and then writing it—elaborating characters and details of setting, finding the style that seems appropriate to the feeling, discovering unanticipated requirements of the plot—that the writer finds out and communicates the story’s significance, intuited at the start.

Pitfalls in its creation:

The most obvious forms of clumsiness, really failures in the basic skills, include such mistakes as inappropriate or excessive use of the passive voice, inappropriate use of introductory phrases containing infinite verbs [e.g., Slapping him silly, she proceeded to…] , shifts in diction level or the regular use of distracting diction, lack of sentence variety, lack of sentence focus, faulty rhythm, accidental rhyme, needless explanation, and careless shifts in psychic distance [i.e., the reader’s nearness to the character].

And, finally, the real work that the fiction writer does:

The true writer has a great advantage over most other people: He knows the great tradition of literature, which has always been the cutting edge of morality, religion, and politics, to say nothing of social reform.

To write with taste, in the highest sense, is to write with the assumption that one out of a hundred people who read one’s work may be dying, or have some loved one dying; to write so that no one commits suicide, no one despairs; to write, as Shakespeare wrote, so that people understand, sympathize, see the universality of pain, and feel strengthened, if not directly encouraged to live on.

John Gardner describes, in far more detail, these things, the state of fiction writing up to the early nineteen eighties, and his thoughts on it all in his book. A worthy read, especially after studying a process for creating works of fiction. The Art of Fiction is highly motivational and recommended.

The Art of Fiction - Gardner

The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, John Gardner

All the world’s a stage…

The following intriguing argument comes from Dorothy L. Sayers’ essay: Creative Mind in the collection “Letters to a Diminished Church”. I’ve condensed the passage to its essence.

Suppose a novelist with a completely consistent imagination created characters, yea, an entire world with a comprehensive history. If one of the characters, an archeologist, were examining the fossil record then she couldn’t leave the book to ask the novelist for the meaning of the fossils. She is trapped between the covers of the book.

Her situation is identical to that of a scientist in our universe. The scientist can only check evidence that the universe reveals of its own past and he is trapped, as it were, within the universe. As a result of the fossils, the self consistency with other data and the impact of it on herself and her fellow characters, our archeologist would be forced to think, speak and act as if the past had taken place (whether it did in actuality or not). Is this situation somehow less than the truth?

In what sense is the past (perhaps mostly unwritten) of characters in a novel any less true than their thought, speech and actions in that novel? Or, if a prehistory has effects (through the agency of an author) on history as if it did happen, what matter is it if that prehistory never occurred?

If the world came into being yesterday (or at some other time), then, if the world were the result of an author’s consistent imagination, there would be no perceptible difference of any kind to anything in the universe.  In this regard, a physicist might refer to “fully defined” Dirichlet boundaries, kind of like the covers of a book. Where consistent imagination is involved, the divide between scientific and poetic truth is very hard to discern.

So what does any of this reasoning prove? Nothing, the purpose of imaginative creation is to form self-consistent worlds out of the universe of undifferentiated contemplation and not to prove anything. Every activity (science, poetry, engineering, law, etc.) has its own technique; the mistake we make in the modern period is to apply the technique of one activity for all purposes…  

Shall we then agree with Shakespeare: ” All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players… “?