John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist

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I’m generally extremely shy about craft-based books on writing. I have yet to read Stephen King’s On Writing, and ever Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer was picked up rather tentatively. If you are a creative person trying to do anything even remotely literary I cannot recommend Gardner’s book enough. Hell, Raymond Carver not only wrote the introduction, but talked extensively about On Becoming a Novelist when he was interviewed by The Paris Review.

Gardner tells the reader in order to write fiction well, one must be in command of “beautiful, rock-firm sentences,” master “the evocation of a vivid and continuous dream,” and to treat one’s own characters and one’s readers with honesty and respect. The rest of the book is full of advice on how to achieve those qualities, explained in simple and beautiful language, full of surprising metaphors and insights from his own novels, which remain alive and hold their shape in the midst of their dissection.

Unlike many books on writing, Gardner advocates no particular mode of writing. He doesn’t tell you to avoid adverbs or that writing in the second person is trendy and played out. The advice might seem generic, but he gets to the soul of writing. My process and style of prose is as different from Gardner’s own as his student Carver’s, but the greater concepts transcend concerns like style and process completely.

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