Monday, September 19, 2011

A Dose of John Gardner

“Really good fiction has a staying power that comes from its ability to jar, turn on, move the whole intellectual and emotional history of the reader.  If the reader is a house, the really good book is a jubilant party that spreads through every room of it, or else a fire.”


“Subtle details change characters’ lives in ways too complex for the conscious mind to grasp, though we nevertheless grasp them.  Thus plot not only changes but creates character: By our actions we discover what we really believe and, simultaneously, reveal ourselves to others. And setting influences both character and plot:  One cannot do in a thunderstorm what one does on a hot day in Jordan.  (One’s camel slips, or, from homesickness, refuses to budge; so the assassin goes uncaught, the President is shot, the world again is plunged into war.)  As in the universe every atom has an effect, however minuscule, on every other atom, so that to pinch the fabric of Time and Space at any point is to shake the whole length and breadth of it, so in fiction every element has effect on every other , so that to change a character’s name from Jane to Cynthia is to make the fictional ground shudder under her feet.”


“…too much neatness in a novel kills the novel’s fundamental effect.  When all of a novel’s strings are too neatly tied together at the end, as sometimes happens in Dickens and almost always happens in the popular mystery thriller, we feel the novel to be unlifelike.  The novel is by definition, to some extent at least, a ‘loose, baggy monster’—as Henry James said irritably, disparaging the novels of Tolstoy.  It cannot be too loose, too baggy or monstrous; but a novel built as prettily as a teacup is not much use.”


“…every writer should be aware that he might be read by the desperate, by people who might be persuaded toward life or death….If there is good to be said, the writer should remember to say it. If there is bad to be said, he should say it in a way that reflects the truth that, though we see the evil, we choose to continue among the living.”

The last three of these quotations are from The Art of Fiction, and it’s likely that the first one is too, though it’s also possible that it might be from On Becoming a Novelist—both books by John Gardner, both books still impossibly good and relevant all these years later.  I wish I had met him, that he hadn't died too soon.  The beginning of this video includes memories of Gardner as a father, as related by Gardner’s daughter and son:


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.