On Becoming A Novelist by John Gardner

32532Title: On Becoming a Novelist
Author: John Gardner
Pages: 145
Year: 1999 (first edition: 1983)
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Time taken to read: 3 weeks, 4 days
Rating: 4/5

Goodreads synopsis: On Becoming a Novelist contains the wisdom accumulated during John Gardner’s distinguished twenty-year career as a fiction writer and creative writing teacher. With elegance, humor, and sophistication, Gardner describes the life of a working novelist; warns what needs to be guarded against, both from within the writer and from without; and predicts what the writer can reasonably expect and what, in general, he or she cannot. “For a certain kind of person,” Gardner writes, “nothing is more joyful or satisfying than the life of a novelist.” But no other vocation, he is quick to add, is so fraught with professional and spiritual difficulties. Whether discussing the supposed value of writer’s workshops, explaining the role of the novelist’s agent and editor, or railing against the seductive fruits of literary elitism, On Becoming a Novelist is an indispensable, life-affirming handbook for anyone authentically called to the profession.

Okay, I know I said I was going to be gone for a while after my last review, but sometimes the rate at which I finish books surprises even me. Well, actually, you’ll see that this book kinda took me a long time to finish, but it’s very necessary that you know that I only got through about the first 20 pages during the first three weeks of reading this book, and the rest I finished over the last couple of days. I actually finished it off this morning at the UPenn hospital after getting an EKG and then discovering that their lobby has rather comfortable couches.

Anyway, as I said, the very beginning of this book took me weeks to get through because it was rather dull, and that is the only reason I’m not giving it five stars. The rest of the book was really great and rather inspirational. I will say that if you’re looking for concrete advice on how to write a novel, this is not the book you’re looking for. This contains more abstract advice. You know, it’s not even that, most of the time. It’s maybe 1% concrete advice (like one paragraph on how to get a literary agent), 9% abstract advice (go to college, or don’t), and 90% inspiration. But not the cat poster type of inspiration. Gardner is more saying, hey, you might not succeed no matter what you do, but don’t you just want to try anyway because fiction is the most magical thing there is? And then you’re like, dang, yeah, it is magical, and now I gotta go write and who cares if it sucks because I’m doing what I’m meant to do. It’s like he wants to say cat poster-like things, but he also wants to be cool and mysterious and indifferent like old professors tend to do, so he masks it by reminding you every so often that none of this really matters anyway because everything, especially in the world of writing and publishing, is all up to chance, and there’s nothing he can say to you that you can follow that will guarantee your success.

And you know, that kind of inspiration works well for me. Gardner kind of reminded me that if I never get published, maybe it’s because I suck, maybe it’s because I’m lazy, but maybe it’s just chance. Maybe I wrote a great story, but the agent who would have liked it was in a bad mood the day she read it, or the editor who would have liked it just picked up something too similar. And maybe that’s just me trying to make excuses or push the blame somewhere else, but maybe because I really believe in my story, and for my own peace of mind, I have to also believe in bad luck. It’s not like it’s hurting anyone else if I don’t hate myself for being a failure, right?

Gardner says that if you are to be a writer, specifically a novelist, you should probably have the following:

“[…] a refusal to believe what all sensible people know is true […] an apparent lack of mental focus and serious life purpose, a fondness for daydreaming and telling pointless lies, a lack of proper respect, mischievousness, an unseemly propensity for crying over nothing […] a strange admixture of shameless playfulness and embarrassing earnestness…patience like a cat’s […] psychological instability […] and finally, an inexplicable and incurable addiction to stories, written or oral, bad or good.” (34)

This really made me feel hopeful because I strongly identify with the person he seems to be describing. (Although, you have surely noticed that I was picking and choosing which parts of the quote to write down. Shh.) Of course this is just one man’s rather poetic opinion, and it is certainly not a rule that you must be like that to be able to publish books, but, if only for a moment, it silenced the voice of self doubt in my head, and a moment is all it takes to start writing. Now, I am well beyond starting writing (click here to read the premise of my current novel-in-progress), but I tend to work viciously on my story for day or a week or a semester and then put it away for a while, while I’m busy with starting a new job or adjusting to new living arrangements. This fact has always embarrassed me, but as it turns out, that’s exactly what Gardner recommends when it comes to writing a novel (as does Stephen King, although according to my boyfriend, Stephen King also recommends doing a lot of cocaine). So, hats off to him for not only excusing but applauding what I thought was laziness but is actually professional technique.

Unless I manage to finish another book in the next 24 hours, I will see you all next month with reviews of all the books I’m bringing to residential with me, those being

  • Psychology: Adventures in Perception and Personality by Christian Jarrett and Joannah Ginsburg
  • The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner
  • The Everything Box by Richard Kadrey
  • Hope and Help for Your Nerves by Claire Weekes
  • A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman

TTFN, ta ta for now!

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1 comment
  1. there are too many books about how to be a writer, and few of them have any real advice that you can’t already get from people you likely know. i suspect that there are people who are intentionally preying upon prospective writers, who are rather gullible at times and will buy almost anything they think might help them get published. it’s a sad idea, but it’s what i believe is true. if we spend the time it takes to read such a book and apply that to sitting down and writing, that will get us closer to published than some of these books.

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