Monday, February 11, 2013

Visiting with John Gardner

I’m reading a bit of John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction this morning, sort of a mental callisthenic to start the week. A certain section caught my attention, where Gardner is talking about a dual purpose for fiction - reaching the reader on an immediately pleasurable level and at a deeper, more introspective level.

He claims “Anything we read for pleasure we read because it interests us,” and the writer does well to remember the things that interested us from the start, as children. Color, melody, story. It isn’t until we’re grown that we’re schooled to think about the complex, the abstract. But the appeal of the immediate should be retained: “To read or write well, we must steer between two extreme views of aesthetic interest: the overemphasis of things immediately pleasurable (exciting plot, vivid characterization, fascinating atmosphere) and exclusive concern with that which is secondarily but at times more lastingly pleasurable, the fusing artistic vision.”

“But what gives a work of fiction aesthetic interest?” Well, Gardner is the first to concede the old adage about the impossibility of pleasing all of the people all of the time. He writes: “Nothing in the world is inherently interesting—that is, immediately interesting, and interesting in the same degree, to all human beings. And nothing can be made to be of interest to the reader that was not first of vital concern to the writer.”

So he begins to talk about technique, the proper application of which should stimulate the immediate interest of the reader. A good story, good characters, good atmosphere. These things are the lure that will reel a reader into your artistic vision. “Yet all writers, given adequate technique—technique that communicates—can stir our interest in their special subject matter, since at heart all fiction treats, directly or indirectly, the same thing: our love for people and the world, our aspirations and fears. The particular characters, actions, and settings are merely instances, variations on the universal theme.”

Read more about John Gardner, “one of the most important names in 20th century American literature,” here.


  1., he's saying to write well about things that are vitally important to you, the author, and the reader will tune in to it. Right???

  2. Yes, and use your mastery of technique while you're doing it. Pretty easy, right?


"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka