Guide to the Guides: The Art of Fiction

Anyone who’s taken a writing course, browsed a bookstore, or talked to a writer knows there are piles of writing guides in the world, books of advice on everything from technique to style to subject, usually by writers and for writers. I’ve heard some say that they religiously shun these books, but personally I buy nearly every one I can find. Really, I think it’s just because I’m a weirdo who likes to collect information that may or may not be relevant, but Janet Burroway suggests that there may be a deeper reason: writers are fascinated with the thoughts and habits of other writers because deep down we’re really looking for a secret to make our jobs less awful.

But, as I said, there are lots of these guides out there in the world, and not everyone cares to own them all. For that reason, I’ve decided to do a short series called Guide to the Guides, where I discuss some of the pros and cons of some famous fiction-writing how-tos. Up first is John Gardner’s classic, The Art of Fiction.

The Great Parts

  • Book CoverIt’s more than just technique—Most of the guides I’ve come across stick to the nuts and bolts of writing, like how to introduce physical descriptions, format dialogue, and plot a story, probably because these technical issues are the most objective and teachable aspects of the craft. But there’s more to being a writer than knowing when to insert a flashback, and Gardner touches on that theme; he talks about the role of education in the writer’s life, the purpose of fiction and its relation to the world, and gives his own opinions on literary-aesthetic issues. You might not always agree with him (I don’t), but the fact that he talks about the Big Questions of writing sets his tome apart and makes it more than just a manual.
  • Still, there’s a lot of technique—The broader issues are covered in the first half of the guide, and the other half gives equal treatment to issues of more immediate concern to writers. Here, he runs the gamut from the minute to the broad, again offering a wider perspective than many books. He offers tips and reminders on stylistic nuances such as gerunds and sentence variety—things often overlooked in the daunting face of writing fiction—but also on more fundamental elements of literature like voice and distance. Together, they form a sort of checklist for revision: the writer can take a piece and make sure all the areas Gardner cites are on point, and if they aren’t he offers practical, specific advice on how to fix the story.

The Not-So-Great Parts

  • Gardner wanders a lot—This is mainly a problem in the first portion of the book. He gets going on some interesting topic only stumble on some tangential point and bloat it beyond need. For example, he talks about what sort of things the writer ought to learn and the necessity of education, but along the way he stumbles with an analysis of self-taught authors and a three-page diatribe about English professors. These digressions are slightly interesting, but they crop up so often that the broader point is buried in the sluggish pace, and you get the impression that Gardner is just pontificating to hear his own genius.
  • He’s also a perfectionist—While Gardner’s goal of covering all that goes into composition, including the teeny details, is admirable, his microscope is at times too precise and his standards too high. He believes that fiction writers should scan their prose (yes, with the little metrical marks and everything); prose should have rhythm akin to poetry, and that rhythm should never, ever, falter. Homer never nods. The goal of all true art, and thus all true artists, is perfection, with no awkward lines, clumsy descriptions, or off dialogue. His theory has the same problems as Matthew Arnold’s touchstone theory: next to Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare, most writers seem inadequate, but a work can be very good, or even great, without living up to their standards. And it begs the obvious question, “What the hell have you written that’s so wonderful, John?” as well as the less snarky questions: what is perfection? who sets the standard? what about the role of power and privilege in shaping the cannon? There’s nothing wrong with aiming for flawless prose or emulating the classics, but only with the understanding that great authors are great in part because they do what very few writers can.
  • And he’s a colossal jerk—It sounds blunt, but I can’t think of any other way to phrase it. I also think it’s pretty obvious when you look at the other faults of the book. His rant about English profs is not only unnecessary, but unnecessarily mean: there’s no reason for a blanket smear against people who provide a necessary role for readers, writers, and culture. It only supports the rift between critics and writers, a rift that needs to close. In his pursuit of perfection, he’s driven to make sweeping claims about who is “allowed” to become a writer; for instance, he insists that all writers should begin by mastering grammar and that anyone who has difficulty with this will never cut it. I’ll agree that anyone whose final draft is a sea of red underlines is unlikely to see his magnum opus in print, but what I won’t agree to is another one of Gardner’s sweeping proclamations, especially one based on such a reductive premise. A prospective writer ought to get the chance to write something before being turned away from the house of fiction.

All in all, I recommend any interested writer look into Gardner’s book, with the caveat that skimming and skipping is perfectly acceptable. I found the first half of the book interesting, but if you get tired of his digressions or just don’t care about the theory of fiction and want to get to the technical parts, you don’t miss much by jumping ahead. And once you get to the second half, you can get the gist of his notes without reading all of his obsessive rants.

If anyone has a different view of The Art of Fiction, I’d love to hear what you have to say. And check back later in the week, when I continue this series with a look at Aspects of the Novel.

Ian McCaul has spent his whole life in Kalamazoo, MI, except for a brief detour at Grand Valley State University, where he recently graduated with a degree in English and writing. He is currently blogging, volunteering, writing, and applying to graduate schools.