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

The Sower

The first 23 verses of the Book of Matthew, chapter 13, record the Lord Jesus’s parable of the sower, His reasoning behind speaking in parables, and His explanation of the sower parable. This is His explanation:

“Hear then the parable of the sower:

When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path.

As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.

As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.

As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

Matthew 13:18-23 English Standard Version (ESV)

John Calvin comments on the parable as a whole:

…He only intended to warn us, that, in many persons, the seed of life is lost on account of various defects, in consequence of which it is either destroyed immediately, or it withers, or it gradually degenerates.

That we may derive the greater advantage from this warning, we ought to bear in mind, that he makes no mention of despisers who openly reject the word of God, but describes those only in whom there is some appearance of docility.

But if the greater part of such men perishes, what shall become of the rest of the world, by whom the doctrine of salvation is openly rejected?

And relative to the good soil:

But he that received the seed into a good soil… None are compared by Christ to a good and fertile soil, but those in whom the word of God not only strikes its roots deep and solid, but overcomes every obstacle that would prevent it from yielding fruit.

Is it objected that it is impossible to find anyone who is pure and free from thorns? It is easy to reply, that Christ does not now speak of the perfection of faith, but only points out those in whom the word of God yields fruit. Though the produce may not be great, yet everyone who does not fall off from the sincere worship of God is reckoned a good and fertile soil

Hence too we learn that we have no right to despise those who occupy a lower degree of excellence; for the master of the house himself, though he gives to one the preference above another on account of more abundant produce, yet bestows the general designation, good, even on inferior soils…

Therefore, please:

…Put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. James 1:21 (ESV)

The Sower - Tissot

The Sower, 1886 – 1894, James Tissot, Brooklyn Museum, PD-Art-US

The Three Languages of Politics – A Review

Arnold Kling is a Cato Institute Adjunct Scholar, a Mercatus Center affiliate, and regularly posts to his askblog site. His book: The Three Languages of Politics is a short essay and analysis of political speech in the United States.

Kling identifies three ideological groups and their dominant dichotomies. Progressives divide issues along an oppressor–oppressed axis. Conservatives use a civilized–barbarous axis. And libertarians, Kling’s camp, use a freedom–coercive axis.

He goes on to say that individuals in each camp use political language divided along these axes to show loyalty, elevate status, and create hostility towards others in opposing camps.

Political debate using these preferred axes is frustrating and endless as each camp talks past the other without communicating.

A debater might either aim to: open minds of those in opposition, open minds of those in their camp, or close the minds of those in their camp. The majority opt for the third option.

Uncharitable discussion focuses on finding an opponent’s weakest argument and denouncing it.

Few participants attempt to be charitable and end up narrowing and reducing their audience’s understanding of the issues at hand.

In the course of argumentation, Kling observes, we suggest we are reasonable and our opponent is not. The only people we are qualified to call unreasonable [or other derogatory terms] are ourselves. Our opponents may be wrong, however, and it is our burden to prove it [which is often hard or impossible].

Kling suggests we treat these ideologies as languages to be understood and not heresies to be stamped out.

Learning the language of other camps enables us to understand how others think about political issues without demonizing their positions or them.

Constructive reasoning weighs the merits of facts and theories to take a stand on an issue. Motivated reasoning filters the facts and theories to legitimate preconceived opinions.

Engaging in motivated reasoning is like arguing a case at law. We present evidence to justify or reinforce already accepted ideas. Openness only extends to those facts and theories that support our views.

Kling concludes that constructive reasoning applies an equal standard to evidence that supports or contradicts our preconceptions. We become open to changing our minds.

Remarkably, we find scripture touches all these axes: oppressoroppressed, civilizedbarbarous, and freedomcoercion. Then again, perhaps it’s not surprising that He plays no favorites.

Newsstands in DC

Newsstands (propaganda) by InSapphoWeTrust (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)