Week forty: A book of our own

It’s week forty of 2019. How was the writing this week? It’s October now – the true heart of Fuck It Fall – and now is the time to push yourself creatively just a bit. What can you begin or accomplish in the handful of weeks left in the year? Set a stop date for yourself (December 13 is mine) and then start sprinting. Knowing that the sprint won’t last forever can help you stick with it when it gets hard.

It took all my resolve to push myself to the end of this week’s book, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. I carted around a paperback copy of this book for many years (far past the time I would generally be accounted “young”), always intending to read it but never getting past the first chapter or so. Until this week, I had never thought about why; I just attributed it to the same failure of will and persistence that led me to abandon novel manuscripts after a few chapters.

This time through, I immediately realized why I kept drifting away from this book. Gardner’s imagined writer, in addition to being young, is also male. The first words of the book tell us that “this is a book designed to teach the serious beginning writer the art of fiction. I assume from the outset that the would-be writer using this book can become a successful writer if he wants to, since most of the people I’ve known who wanted to become writers, knowing what it meant, did become writers. About all that is required is that the would-be writer understand clearly what it is that he wants to become and what he must do to become it. If no matter how hard he tries he simply cannot do what he must do, this book will help him understand why he was not sent into the world to be a writer but for some other noble purpose.”

This is the so-called “universal he,” of course, which was ubiquitous in 1983, when the book was first published, but the steady drumbeat of “he,” “he,” “he” required by Gardner’s frequent references to an unspecified, generic writer are difficult to ignore, especially for a twenty-first-century reader for whom this usage is (thankfully!) no longer familiar. Gardner reassures us, though not until almost halfway through the book, that “this book speaks of the writer as ‘he,’ though many of the best writers I have read or have taught in writing classes are female” but doesn’t feel compelled to change his pronouns, breezily dismissing the problem by remarking that “English, like most languages, is covertly male chauvinist.” In another passage he tells us that “art produces the most important progress civilization knows,” noting in wonderment that “the age-old idea of human dignity comes to apply even to the indigent, even to slaves, even to immigrants, now recently even to women.”

The problem is compounded by Gardner’s almost complete inability to see women as creators as well as subjects of fiction. In a book packed with references to authors, only a tiny handful are women, none of whom receive more than a bare mention. His fictional examples are full of problematic portrayals of figures like “some intelligent middle-aged housewife, for example, who has read about women’s liberation in her magazines and feels an increasingly anxious inclination . . . to take a nightschool course—one in flower-arranging, or ceramics, or self-awareness” or an aging but “well-preserved” stripper of thirty-six whose highly choreographed act (“She has, let us say, trained white doves who fly away with each article of clothing she takes off.”) loses its top billing, replaced by younger strippers who “take off their clothes as indifferently as trees drop leaves,” leading her to fly into a rage and run over a flagman. The writer might, Gardner muses, center the story on the theme of nakedness; hence, “he finds himself bringing in black strippers, perhaps an Indian stripper, supported by imagery that recalls primitive nakedness.” (My notes on this book are littered with WTFs.)

Gardner also has the off-putting tendency to see failures in technique as evidence of moral or intellectual weakness. Writing is often described with anthropomorphic adjectives like “cloddish,” “clumsy,” “awkward.” “Diction problems,” Gardner tells us, with a sad shake of the head, “are usually symptomatic of defects in the character or education of the writer. Both diction shifts and the steady use of inappropriate diction suggest either deep-down bad taste or the awkwardness that comes of inexperience and timidity. There seems little or no hope for the adult writer who produces sentences like these.” Even worse are what Gardner terms “faults of soul”: sentimentality, frigidity, and mannerism. A frigid writer “lacks the kind of passion all true artists possess. He lacks the nobility of spirit that enables a real writer to enter deeply into the feelings of imaginary characters.”

Gardner makes it clear that his book is “not for the writer of nurse books or thrillers or porno or the cheaper sort of sci-fi” but “for serious literary artists,” though he concedes that “most creative-writing teachers have had the experience of occasionally helping to produce, by accident, a pornographer. The most elegant techniques in the world, filtered through a junk mind, become elegant junk techniques.”

Now, for those elect readers still left, the “true artists,” Gardner provides a rather terrifying analogy: “Circus knife-throwers know that it is indeed possible to be perfect, and one had better be. Perfection means hitting exactly what you are aiming at and not touching by a hair what you are not.” The Art of Fiction provides some “warnings” and “hints” about how to avoid killing one’s subject by a knife in the forehead and then closes with suggested exercises that range from the hopelessly general (“18. Plot a novel”) to the ridiculously specific (“24. Without an instant’s lapse of taste, describe a person [a] going to the bathroom, [b] vomiting, [c] murdering a child”). WTAF. (Oh, sorry, was that not tasteful?)

I can, however, point to four nuggets of wisdom that might be valuable to any writer – even you fucking pornographers.

First is Gardner’s deservedly well-known description of fiction as a “vivid and continuous dream” for readers. The writer’s goal is to avoid disrupting the dream by any false note (unless that happens to be your intent, you amoral metafictionist). This is a good metaphor to keep in mind when you feel stuck in an endless loop of revision and editing. You are doing this hard labor so that your eventual reader remains enchanted in the fictional dream you have conjured for them.

Second, Gardner makes the point that the novel, like a symphony, can make good use of repetition to enhance meaning and, especially, to achieve a “resonant close.” He advises writers to read their work over again and again, “watching for subtle meanings, connections, accidental repetitions, psychological significance” and then nudging these elements closer to the surface to catch the reader’s attention. (But be tasteful about it! I'm looking at you, writers of porno nurse thrillers.)

Third, Gardner notes that writers should be wary of “filter words” that put the veil of the character’s consciousness between the reader and the thing described. Compare these two examples:

  • “Turning, she noticed two snakes fighting in among the rocks.”

  • “She turned. In among the rocks, two snakes were fighting.”

Unless the fact of the character noticing or seeing is important (and sometimes it is), give us an unmediated description of your subject. (Especially if it is a dove carrying away an item of a "well-preserved" stripper's clothing.)

Lastly, Gardner provides a very useful example of the range of effects you can achieve through altering “the distance the reader feels between himself and the events in the story.” The following passage gradually reduces the psychic distance until, in the final sentence, the reader gets subsumed in the narratorial “you”: “It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms. Henry hated snowstorms. God how he hated these damn snowstorms. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul.” (Methinks poor Henry needs to go back inside and curl up with a nice nurse porno thriller, no?)

Gardner would likely scorn the comparison, but it strikes me that writing craft books have a great deal in common with the larger category of self-help books. Self-help writers know that they must immediately establish a rapport with their readers – show them that they are seen and understood and welcomed with all of their flaws. I ended up with The Art of Fiction on my bookshelf in part because there weren’t very many writing craft books available in the early nineties, and this was likely the one I found on the shelf and bought. This year of reading has shown me – and you, dear readers – that there are books out there for all of us (even you nurse porno thriller writers!). Find your way to the books that are congenial to you because those are the ones you will learn from.

Here’s to finding a book of your own, y’all,

Next week’s book: Meredith Maran, editor, Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
What kind of word nerd are you?