If you want to learn something about writing great fiction, this is the book you need: The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner (subtitle: Notes on craft for young writers). This book, which I read several decades ago–and maybe a little out of vogue now–helped me understand the definition of great fiction at a crucial time in my career, as I was floundering about trying to figure out what kind of writer I wanted to be. After I read this, there was no doubt in my mind: I wanted to create the “vivid and continuous” dream, novels that would be little worlds mimicking in an efficient way the odd dream of real life that surrounds us. The novelist Ron Hansen (also a superb novelist worthy of emulation; his book A Stay Against Confusion is a great argument for Catholic fiction) calls him ‘The Wizard’, and that he is, taking the tricky, slippery art of creating a novel or story and helping to make it an accessible skill for the rest of us.
I first heard about John Gardner as a result of his untimely death: It was September of 1982, and I’d been married a year already, working as a women’s magazine editor in New York City and struggling with my fiction on the commuter train home to Jersey. I was taking a fiction-writer’s workshop in Greenwich Village with a semi-well-known poet, a very unpleasant and unsympathetic man who was more than happy to let me know my work was junk without really enlightening me as to why. Then I read Gardner’s obituary in the New York Times—drawn, of course, by the sad strangeness of his death, from a motorcycle accident on a road in Pennsylvania, in Susquehanna county. The obit described his great contribution to fiction and I thought, Why have I not heard of this man? I immediately headed out to the local library and checked out his books. And I stopped attending the bad workshop on Christopher Street. There was no more reason to do so: I understood, after reading Mr. Gardner, what I needed to do.
And of all the books I’ve read since then, I think this is the one that has had the biggest impact on my fiction. I don’t claim to have followed his tenets completely; I’m sure I’m still committing some of the errors he rails against in Chapter 5, and he might be quite disappointed with my style. (“Odd but interesting” according to my latest review, which dropped in over the weekend.) But his greatest value to me is perhaps more inspirational than instructive: That striving to write great fiction is not an exercise in futility or an occupation limited to an elite group, but available to any moderately talented writer willing to put in the thought and effort.