Sunday, April 1, 2012

A: The Art of Fiction

The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner. This book has been a big influence on me. Fitting to begin my A to Z Challenge month. (Note: I don't have a specific theme for this month -- it'll be more of the same.)

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.

16 comments:

Elaine AM Smith said...

It sounds like I might enjoy sections two and three of the Art of Fiction ;)

Huntress said...

Thanks for the tip. There are so many good books about writing sometimes it is impossible to sort them out.

Bluestocking said...

I keep seeing this on craft book lists all the time. I went through a craft book reading phase a year and a half ago, but have been too busy writing to get back into it. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not, since I think it's important to step back sometimes. Maybe this is the book to do so...

Timothy Brannan said...

I am going to have to pick this book up. I don't write fiction myself, but I do write games and helping players build their own fiction is part of that.

Looking forward to seeing what you do!

Tim
The Other Side
The Freedom of Nonbelief

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I'll have to put that one on my reading list.

Kate said...

I laughed so much at paragraph 4, for no other reason than the description of his non sequential writing sounds very much like how I speak - start with one subject, jump to twenty one others, finish up a conversation from the week before and end with the initial subject. Great start to the challenge, looking forward to tomorrows.

L. Blankenship said...

I will definitely check out your blogs, then. I've been guilty of talking that way too :)

L. Blankenship said...

Having been an RPGer myself... this book might help with the background stories and themes, yeah. The players I can't make any predictions about, but a good GM knows this stuff on a gut level, about structuring stories, development, etc.

Erin M. Hartshorn said...

This is one of those books that I have, that I've started to read, and that I've never managed to finish, although I keep promising myself I will. It's deep and thought provoking, and it's definitely not something I can just sit down with and read in a few days, unlike others, like Lawrence Block's books on writing, or Terry Brooks', or even Stephen King's.

The Golden Eagle said...

I've read a couple of John Gardner's books, and they were fascinating. I'll have to check out this non-fiction one.

Great post!


The Golden Eagle
The Eagle's Aerial Perspective

Suze said...

'On Becoming a Novelist' is perhaps my favorite book on the craft of writing.

Just curious, have you actually run into your teacher at a strip club?

Youngman Brown said...

I read this book in college and it definitely helped to mold the writer I have become, at least in regards to writing fiction.

Pa Ul said...

Nice post for A
do check mine to at GAC A-Z

Ellen Brickley said...

Thanks for posting this. I've heard of this book and have always been curious about it. Nice to know some more before deciding to check it out :)

Kayla said...

I have never saw or heard of this book, but now I will have to hunt it down and take a look. Thanks for the informational post!

Margo Kelly said...

I love great books on the craft of writing. I'd not heard of this one - thanks for the info!

I'm a new follower from the A to Z challenge! :)

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