John Gardner, an author and a creative writing teacher and also a professor of medieval literature, shows in On Writers and Writing his facet as an advocate for higher artistic and moral standards in fiction.
Writers work out in words their intuitions—their private certainties—of how things are. Good writers have right and significant intuitions, and they present their intuitions intact by means of masterful technique.Great writers deal with problems which confront a healthy, intelligent man, however grotesque the fictional representative; small writers deal with social or physiological traps.
The novel is bleak, full of danger and ofense, like a poisoned apple in the playpen. Good an evil are real, but are effects of mindless chance—or heartless grace.
Bullet Park is a novel to pore over, move around in, live with. The image repetitions, the stark and subtle correspondances that create the book’s ambiguous meaning, its uneasy courage and compassion, sink in and in, like a curative spell.
American novelists, even Americans by choice like Vladimir Nabokov or Jerzy Kosinski, can never get rid of the qualifying effect of American literary and cultural tradition—that is, the American character—as long as they write to or about Americans.
Everything we write is an experiment. Only if the experiment fails do we call the work experimental. We do not call Proust’s enormous novel experimental, or Joyce’s Ulysses, or Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, though all these were brand-new forms in their days.
Almost to a man, those who claim they write ‘innovative’, ‘experimental’ or ‘post-modern’ fiction are desperately attempting to emulate the Old Europeans—who as far as I can make out, are doing everything in their power to imitate the silly Europeans.
Any writer who’s worked in various forms can tell you from experience that it all feels like writing. Some people may feel that they’re ‘really’ writing when they work on their novels and just fooling around when they write bedtime stories for their children; but that can mean only one of two things, I think: either that the writer has a talent for writing novels and not so much talent for writing children’s stories, or else that the writer is a self-important donzel who writes both miserable novels and miserable children’s stories.
The odds against a writer’s achieving a real work of art are astronomical. Most obviously the ‘they’ of our ‘They write fiction’ formula—in other words, the writer’s personality—may go wrong. Every good writer is many things—a symbolist, a careful student of character, a person of strong opinions, a lover of pure tale or adventure.
In a bad or just ordinary novel, the writer’s various selves war with one another. We feel, as we read, not one commanding voice but a series of jarringly different voices, even voices in sharp and confusing disagreement.