On Becoming a Novelist contains the wisdom accumulated during John Gardner's distinguished twenty-year career as a fiction writer and creative writing teacher. With elegance, humor, and sophistication, Gardner describes the life of a working novelist; warns what needs to be guarded against, both from within the writer and from without; and predicts what the writer can reasonably expect and what, in general, he or she cannot. "For a certain kind of person," Gardner writes, "nothing is more joyful or satisfying than the life of a novelist." But no other vocation, he is quick to add, is so fraught with professional and spiritual difficulties. Whether discussing the supposed value of writer's workshops, explaining the role of the novelist's agent and editor, or railing against the seductive fruits of literary elitism, On Becoming a Novelist is an indispensable, life-affirming handbook for anyone authentically called to the profession. "A miraculously detailed account of the creative process."--Anne Tyler, Baltimore Sun
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.
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 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.