John Gardner

The Art of Fiction

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The Art of Fiction Summary

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John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction (1991) is a guide to help aspiring writers achieve their literary goals. A renowned writer in his own right, Gardner is also very well known in his role as a professor of creative writing, helping to transform fledgling writers into masters of their craft. The Art of Fiction is meant to be used as a practical instructional handbook that effectively explains the techniques of good writing. Written with obvious passion and a deep respect for the art of writing, the book is considered essential reading for anyone looking to make the leap from reader to writer.

Throughout the book, Gardner notes common problems with writing and errors that beginners typically make. He offers his own advice on the matters, providing examples and exercises to illustrate his points on a variety of topics, from sentence structure to vocabulary building to the construction of a compelling plot. Gardner goes to great lengths to ensure that the text is informative as well as encouraging for young writers, which sometimes results in advice that could appear over-simplified to more seasoned wordsmiths.

Gardner writes that character is the core of all great literature. He defines great literary works as being true art, the kind that creates a continuous dream-like state in the reader’s mind which acts not just as a distraction or entertainment but as a way for the reader to better understand his or her own mind. This high art reinforces the finest qualities in a human being and calls into question all that makes the reader feel uneasy about his or her own moral shortcomings.

The task of great literature is to reveal some eternal truth to be pondered by the reader. Certain texts are timeless in nature, as their themes, deeply ingrained in human nature, are repeated throughout history, never losing their relevance. The act of writing itself, and especially revising, encourages the writer to consider his own thought process and what truth he is trying to reveal through the narrative.

Gardner states that Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle applies just as much to fiction as it does to physics. The principle states that the mere fact that the physicist is observing the behavior of certain particles inherently influences that behavior. On the same note, Gardner believes that the writer’s personal style influences the matter he seeks to write about, affecting the truth he seeks to uncover.

According to Gardner, a novel is like a symphony, in that its final chapters will revisit all that has come before, recalling previous characters and incidences and echoing the themes that have resounded throughout the book. The skilled writer crafts an ending that creates order and meaning in an otherwise chaotic world, and for a moment, everything makes sense. Unlike real life, high literature demonstrates the cause and effect of every occurrence, leading up to some final truth that the reader can take away, feeling satisfied that it has all been neatly wrapped up for them. This incites the reader to believe in a universe that is at least momentarily morally sound, where the good are rewarded and the bad are punished.

This principle informs most of Gardner’s own work. He claims that the novel has a built-in metaphysic, such that the structure of the moral novel reveals the world not as it is, but as the writer would like it to be. This is a very optimistic view of literature, one that seems anachronistic with more modern-day abstract literature that does not necessarily offer the reader an easy out in the end, or a satisfying conclusion, but rather resolves in ambiguity, leaving the reader to decide for themselves the moral implications of it all.

Gardner defines the serious writer as someone who can strike a balance between this metaphysic and the darkness that threatens to override it. The best writers combine intuition and intellect, working with the inspired madness of the frenzied artist in bouts of creative inspiration while also tempering it with the discipline and persistence of a craftsman.

The true artist, in the eyes of Gardner, is a deeply divided human being, causing him or her endless strife in their personal life but making them great at what they do. The writer needs to be able to observe life from multiple angles, never allowing his or her own biases to derail the truth he or she is attempting to convey. Throughout The Art of Fiction, Gardner continually emphasizes the responsibility of the writer to his readers, while outlining the specific techniques that one must master in order to produce work of high quality, and be considered adept in the mysterious art of literary fiction.