The Craft of Art

Conspiracy theory of the day: There is no Moon!

I found another worthwhile writing book, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner (the author of Grendel). Though the book starts out appropriately artsy for something written by a Real Serious Writer, he does get down to useful advice eventually, and without ever wallowing in the mud of commas and contractions.

Early on he mentions that Real Artists don’t do things just for practice: Everything’s for keeps, nothing’s just for exercise. Even Robert Frost agrees: “I never write exercises, but sometimes I write poems which fail and then I call them exercises.” But then the last chapter is filled with exercises - consistency being the hobgoblin of small minds, I suppose.

Gardner has some interesting things to say about literature beyond his writing advice - for example, that great literature comes about mainly through genre-busting (as we call it these days), or in his words, the crossing of literary conventions. To give a genre example (not his), The Lord of the Rings came about through, say, the crossing of the English fantastical novel and the Norse epic tradition. Tolkien’s imitators don’t rise to his level because you need to cross a new pair (or group) of genres to get a new masterpiece.

He also talks about the primacy of plot - that you cannot write a great story unless you write a story, and an enjoyable one at that. Though he makes allowances for allegory and other metafiction, his heart doesn’t seem to be in it, and he’s back to plotting in no time.

Gardner also spends some time on prose rhythm and the dangers of unintentional rhyme. I suppose that advice might come in handy, though you’re far better off if you can play it by ear. He also warns against frigidity in fiction, when:

…the author reveals by some slip or self-regarding intrusion that he is less concerned about his characters than he ought to be - less concerned, that is, than any decent human being observing the situation would naturally be. […] The writer lacks the kind of passion all true artists possess. He lacks the nobility of spirit that enables a real writer to enter deeply into the feelings of imaginary characters (as he enters deeply into the feelings of real people). In a word, the writer is frigid.
Strictly speaking, frigidity characterizes the writer who presents serious material, then fails to carry through - fails to treat it with the attention and seriousness it deserves. I would extend the term to mean a further cold-heartedness as well, the given writer’s inability to recognize the seriousness of things in the first place, the writer who turns away from real feeling, or sees only the superficialities in a conflict of wills, or knows no more about love, beauty, or sorrow than one might learn from a Hallmark card. With the meaning thus extended, frigidity seems one of the salient faults in contemporary literature and art.

That’s also a good sample of Gardner’s tone, which can get in the way of the underlying message unless you enjoy that sort of thing. But it’s a good book nonetheless.

2 Responses to “The Craft of Art”

  1. mike hollihan Says:

    I have that book too. Have you read any of Lawrence Block’s writing books? “Telling Lies for Fun and Profit” and “Spider Spin Me a Web?” He’s much more down to earth and plot/narrative in focus. Pretty funny as well.

  2. Jemima Says:

    Thanks for the recs. I picked Telling Lies up in the library today, and the table of contents looks very promising.