Sunday, April 1, 2012
A: The Art of Fiction
I have a history with this book. I've been writing since I was a kid, and my father bought me this book in a fit of ambitiousness on my behalf (he does that) when I was far too young to fully understand it. Middle school, maybe (it's copyrighted '83; I could have been twelve when this was handed to me.) I tried to read it, dutifully, but couldn't.
Picked it up again, read some more, put it down. I did that several times, through high school, each time getting a little further, starting to grasp what Gardner was saying a little more. My brain finally blossomed a few years after college (which was a weird thing in itself, maybe I'll blog about it sometime) and I tore through The Art of Fiction wondering how I'd failed to understand any of this before. Maybe because it already had its roots in me, the book easily slipped into the role of gospel.
Over on Goodreads, reviews of this book point out that it's pompous, haughty, maybe snobby about what "literature" is... true. The man not only isn't afraid of long, complex sentences, he embraces them with gusto and will easily pummel the unprepared reader into the ground with long strings of clauses; dreaded semicolons; asides nearly as complex as the original sentence that probably deserved a paragraph of their own; and then slip back to his original point assuming that you've had the focus to follow all of this with the same clarity and level of interest.
But if you can machete your way through the language and assume that these rules apply equally to all fiction (which he does say, it's just buried in the semicolons) then you can carry away some thought-provoking things from this book. If you only read one chapter of this book, read "Common Errors" in Part II. Part I is the densest of the "snobby" stuff. Part II is concrete advice on sentence-building, word choice, plotting, etc. Gardner gets right down into the cadence of words in a sentence and those parts intimidate me to this day -- some people have a natural ear for that sort of thing (we call them "poets," IIRC) but I don't.
This book and Gardner's On Becoming a Novelist (the single most encouraging thing to happen to my writing before Viable Paradise) constitute everything I know about him, strangely enough. I did try to read Grendel at one point, but it was as awkward as meeting your teacher at the grocery store. Or, worse, at a strip club. That's probably just me, though.