On Becoming a Novelist

by John Gardner

Paperback, 1999




W. W. Norton & Company (1999), Edition: Reprint, 172 pages


Contains advice to young writers organized around three main questions: Am I talented enough? How should I educate myself? Can I make a living from writing fiction?

User reviews

LibraryThing member poetontheone
The most appealing thing about this book is that, unlike many others of its ilk, this is not a book about how to write, rather it is a book about what it means to be a writer. It is a balanced analysis of the writing life and all that is required of an aspirant to embrace it fully. Gardner doesn't
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bother with niceties, and tells the reader up front that to be a writer is to take on a most challenging commitment that may guarantee no reward besides personal fulfillment, with even that being sometimes elusive.

Gardner covers all of the basics, such as how a writer must be sensitive to college, the advantages and disadvantages of a college education, and the trials of the publishing world. However, The most interesting moments in the book are those that focus on those aspects of the writing life that almost defy description. One of the most striking passages deals with how a writer views the world with a sort of detachment, searching for raw material in every experience, even those that are gruesome and horrifying.

This book is essential reading for aspiring novelists, if not aspiring writers in general, so they may see the life that awaits them and decide if they really are cut out for it.
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LibraryThing member clothingoptional
I've been writing daily for 15 years and I love this book. Not because I agree with everything Gardner says, but because he tells you up front that writing is hard work...
LibraryThing member heinous-eli
This book is what made me decide to become an English teacher and an editor instead of a full-time writer. Every aspiring writer in the world ought to read this brutally honest tract.
LibraryThing member devilwrites
No writer should go without reading this book. It focuses on the kinds of things that makes good writing actual literary writing, and it makes you think about your craft.
LibraryThing member LaurieRKing
Sensible yet subtle, one could only wish his novels were as readable. (You have to wonder what his first drafts looked like, before the wrtiting teacher's heavy editorial hand descended.)
LibraryThing member louis.arata
About 15-20 years ago, I read other Gardner works: Grendel, Freddie’s Book, and Nickel Mountain, as well as The Art of Fiction.

I confess I’m intimidated by Gardner. I want to like his work more than I do. It’s kind of like my view on The Beatles, Elvis Presley, cilantro, and hoppy beer – I
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can respect the craft but they’re never going to be my favorites.

The first section of On Becoming a Novelist focuses on “The Writer’s Nature.” Gardner writes about his own experience:

“I worked more hours at my fiction than anyone else I knew, and I was lavishly praised by friends and teachers, even published a little, but I was dissatisfied, and I knew my dissatisfaction was not just churlishness. . . . I had by this time already faced the painful truth every committed young writer must eventually face, that he’s on his own. Teachers and editors may give bits of good advice, but they usually do not care as much as does the writer himself about his future, and they are far from infallible; … But now nothing was clearer than that I must figure out on my own what was wrong with my fiction.”

I can relate. Gardner articulates my own struggles as a writer, and how I have to learn to trust my abilities to develop my craft.

Yet my chief complaint against Gardner is his passionately superior world view about what constitutes true literature. Even as he describes how a writer must figure out her craft on her own, I get the sense of Gardner hanging in the background, ready to point out where her mistakes are. Even when he compliments the work of other writers, nothing ever quite measures up. There’s an ideal that cannot be reached.

Still, I appreciated On Becoming a Novelist, and I’m keeping myself open to its lessons. The trick is to take what is useful for me and to disregard Gardner’s critical edge.
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LibraryThing member whatsmacksaid
This had the *longest* sentences. It's a rolling, conversational read from one of the greats. The book is ostensibly geared toward newer writers, but frankly I think it would have been a bit much if I'd read it at that stage. As it is, I enjoyed the reading quite a bit--particularly the last
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chapter, titled "Faith"--and recommend it to writers at pretty much any stage of their abilities or career.

It's a shame Gardner is no longer with us. He's vastly opinionated in this book, and I kept wondering what he'd have to say about the pandemic.
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