Wednesday, September 15, 2004

The Art of Living

Matthew Cheney has an interesting blog entry on John Gardner, on the anniversary of Garner's death.

The first time I read Gardner's The Art of Fiction, my reaction was "You've got to be kidding". I had just begun to write, and Gardner's book was so daunting and relentless it could have completely discouraged me from trying my hand at writing. There's a haughtiness to his ideas that spurns mediocrity (but without it, how would we know what is good?)

On second read, after I'd read other books on writing like Jack Hodgkins's A Passion for Narrative, I could extract from it the essence of the message: you have no right, as a writer, not to be as good as you should be. That means work at it, you schmuck.

Three years ago, I was lucky to happen onto one of Gardner's short story collections, The Art of Living and Other Stories, with wonderful woodcuts my Mary Azarian, in a used bookstore. The stories are strange and beautiful, and fill you with awe. Here's one of my favorite starter lines, in his story Redemption:

"One day in April--a clear, blue day when there were crocuses in bloom--Jack Hawthorne ran over and killed his brother."

The image of a beautiful Spring day (yellow and blue, so bright and cheerful) makes the accident seem even more horrific. Twenty-two words, and he's set the tone for the entire story. Elegant, efficient, fascinating.

Even though John Gardner's Art of Fiction can be ruthless, I recommend it to any writer, even if only as a foray into the extreme, in the same way you might visit a contemporary museum when your favorite art is medieval painting. Regardless of whether you come out of it convinced or shaking your head with perplexity, you'll have been exposed to something that makes you stop and think. Gardner cannot but elicit a reaction from his reader. Isn't that the sign of success?

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