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Amber Paulen

John Gardner

Note #1: The Art of Fiction

Notes on Craft for Young Writers

14 February 2012


It’s a good time for me to pick up The Art of Fiction, considered to be among the best writing on writing fiction since its publication in 1983.

Chapter 1: Aesthetic Law and Artistic Mystery

Gardner considers writing to be an art with a capital “A.” Likewise, he writes of literature with a capital “L.” He writes as if Literature were a locked up secret, tucked in some dusty cabinets in some university, where standing guard are the purveyors of Literature, those lucky few initiated into its secret rites.

This seems to me a gentle form of insanity. Because I learned of writing first from Henry Miller, who agrees with Gardner that there are no aesthetic rules and so everything is open to be broken, but who disagrees with his solemnity and exclusivity. Gardner’s ideal of Literature requires a formal education to enable penetration into that lofty sphere.

He puts out arguments against his opposition, those in favor of experience outside of the classroom, saying that without formal education, one never fully understands the other side of one’s argument, never understands that the argument is an old one (all great arguments are), never understands the dignity and worth of the people one has cast as enemies. That without a formal education one’s information is spotty, as it never had chance to air and grow among peers.

Gardner’s stance has less weight in our “information age,” where one can air out all sorts of arguments online and receive points and counterpoints until the wee hours of the morning. And as for spotty information, that seems like more a fault of youth or lack of reflection in the individual than something that can be blamed on not attending classes. The main benefit of a university, to me, would be the possibility of a mentor, which Gardner mentions not at all.

But after that, there’s lots of good suggestions and directions and food for thought.

Chapter 2: Basic Skills, Genre and Fiction as Dream

Grammar and composition skills should be fluent. (This is something I’ve ignored and wish I hadn’t.) No writer should ever have to hesitate for an instant over what the rule to be kept or suspended is.

New forms in literature come from crossing genres or elevating trash. This is something I haven’t thought much about, but gives good fodder for examining potential writing projects.

And finally, fiction as dream. A writer mimics dream by description. In all major genres, the inner strategy is the same: the reader is regularly presented with proofs—in the form of closely observed details—that what we said to be happening is really happening. Description should be vivid and continuous. Vivid to keep the reader clear on content; continuity to maintain the strength or force of the work.

Good description is a writer’s mean of reaching down into his subconscious mind, finding clues to what questions his fiction must ask, and, with luck, hints about the answers.

Description is a writer’s magic wand. It unearths buried symbols from the mind and puts them onto paper and into workable form. By writing and writing description, the story often unveils itself, the characters and their motives become clear. That is also why great description moves us. As descriptions and symbols come out of ourselves, sometimes powerfully, so they survive in others with similar intensity.



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