David M. Brown's Blog

April 25, 2010

On the alleged “big flaw” of John Gardner’s Art of Fiction

Filed under: Literature — davidmbrowndotcom @ 2:52 pm
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A reviewer at Amazon.com of John Gardner’s very fine book, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, points to what she regards as “the biggest flaw” in the book:

The biggest flaw in this book, and one which might drive some readers away, is Gardner’s personal biases. His intense interest in myth and classics drove his fiction, and it weighs heavily in the examples he provides. Also, he favors examples from his contemporaries–Barthleme, Coover, Barth–who might not interest younger writers who read a different set of cutting edge authors.

Not a valid complaint, or even an intelligible one. Gardner may be right or wrong in his critical understanding on any particular contemporary of his, just as he may be right or wrong in his critical understanding of Dickens, Thackeray or Austen, or any writer in 2010 had Gardner lived long enough to witness our modern age of iPads and flying cars. But what is there in the work of a novel from thirty or forty years ago whose appeal can be understood by John Gardner but which must render it inaccessible to the discerning appreciation of a younger reader with comparable standards, intelligence and ambitions to literarily consumer or literarily produce?

Gardner looked for and sought to craft fiction that could endure, that told truth, as opposed to “mere fiction” (although he acknowledged that “mere fiction” that essayed only to an unpretentious escapism or entertainment could be successful in its own terms). The notion that contemporary writers of any ambition are inclined to read only whatever is coming out lately is sad if true; but I doubt that it is true, and I especially doubt that it is true of the kind of reader who can appreciate Gardner’s principles and insight about craft, about what can make fiction lasting, i.e., not bound to whatever is deemed hip or cutting-edge this month. His whole approach and ambition runs counter to the notion that the only fiction that is “relevant” is whatever is today’s “cutting edge.” (Of course, Gardner sometimes laid waste to writers thought to be “cutting edge” in his own day; see “An Invective Against Mere Fiction” in Gardner’s On Writers and Writing.)

The aspiring fictioneer who understands the value of what Gardner is counseling may be curious about his examples and want to assess for himself to what extent he is right. Gardner’s judgments and preferences are surely personal (they were not produced by a computer), but that does not consign them to the status of mere “biases.” That tastes and judgments differ even among men who share comparably worthy aesthetic standards cannot be gainsaid; but this is just as true of contemporaries discussing the latest thing as it is of contemporaries discussing John Gardner, Erle Stanley Gardner, or Homer. A critic’s personal perspective on any literary work can be informed or uninformed, mal-formed or well-formed, biased or objective. Gardner hardly gives the impression of a critic either dismissing or endorsing a work based on some extraneous prejudice rather than on an application of his own critical standards to the actual content and approach of the work.

What is the alternative to committing this “big ‘flaw’ ” of illustrating principles of craft with examples that the teacher is himself engaged by and himself finds to be actually illustrative of the positive or negative points about craft and artistic integrity that he is trying to make? Providing no examples of what one personally finds artistically worthy and effective. Or: Providing only those examples that can be set forth by someone with (presumably superior) critical standards and interests contrary to one’s own. But if an honest critic determines that another critic’s standards are superior in whole or in part to his own, he will adopt or at least be significantly influenced by those superior standards. Yet the Amazon reviewer herself acknowledges that because Gardner “strives for ‘higher art,’ his musings and instructions for the beginner go much deeper than ordinary how-to books.”

A careful reader’s own critical wisdom will be sharpened by Gardner’s, and that reader can bring what he has gained in the way of critical acumen to his own independent assessments of classics that Garder might not have preferred or contemporary work that Gardner knew not of.

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