Book Review: ‘On Becoming a Novelist’ by John Gardner



“One has to be just a little crazy to write a great novel.”


This is book is not for you.  

This is not another craft book from a good teacher or writer.  This is not another craft book from a published writer of various forms or even a famous author from one genre in particular.  This is a serious craft book from a serious literary writer talking to every young novelist who is just as serious as he was.  So if you’re just curious, there’s a good chance you won’t be ready to read this book.  Issac Newton deliberately wrote his famous Principia in a dense and complicated language so that he could avoid the ‘mathematical smatterers’, as he called them: whoever could understand his work were serious and therefore ready to understand its importance.  Even though Gardner’s book is written in a much more compatible language, his intent is just as challenging as Newton’s—only the serious novelist need read on.

When I graduated from college in 2001, I had a head filled to the brim with various critical theories, tools of creative abstraction such as theme, irony, symbolism, and subtext, and finally, the cultural fantasies of what a novelist represents—packed auditoriums of clapping fans, tweed jackets and smoking pipes, writing the latest Great American Novel in the den of some small mansion in the woods, answering questions on favorite foods on talk shows, and accepting, once again, another award for my literary masterpiece.  In other words, I wasn’t ready for the truth, I wasn’t ready for Gardner.  Maybe you are.  Yes, I believe you can be, and so, I take back my original statement at the beginning of this review (and now admit, quite unabashedly, that it was a simple ploy to keep you reading).  But then, it’s the same kind of ploy that Gardner perhaps meant himself when he wrote this book.  After all, he was just playing the odds—most writers aren’t novelists, and most novelists aren’t serious about creating something beautiful and provoking.  When I first began reading ‘On Becoming a Novelist’, I wasn’t aware of what I’d wanted, only what I knew and, deep down, what I loved.  I loved novels so much I wanted to write them.  What I was shown was the single and solitary fate of every serious novelist, past and present—a life of hard work.  It would be the first of many key moments in my writer’s life, transforming not only how I saw the world around me but also how I saw myself as a writer.  I wasn’t ready.  But then, one never is.

I read.  Through the first couple chapters, I slumped lower and lower in my seat, and the closer I got to the end of the week, as the week went on, I felt more and more worried.  It seemed as if Gardner himself were piling on comments, trends, theories, and rules like twenty-pound books onto my head.  I don’t like being told that I can’t do something, especially if I am passionate about it.  So it was too much.  It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the hard work, it was just that there was so much.  And let’s be honest, he was a downer.  What about going on book tours?  What about making websites?  What was his advice about hand cramping during book signings?  Would I get laid all the time or would it be just after I got published?  So I quit, promptly throwing the book into the corner of my room and going to get coffee to ease my pain.  I went on with my writing daydreams, telling myself that, once again, another so called professional didn’t understand what I felt and what I was going through.  I took my notebook with me, scribbling brooding poetry about sabotage and mistrust and rebellion.

“Nothing is harder than being a true novelist, unless that is all one wants to be, in which case, though becoming a true novelist is hard, everything else is harder.”

The weeks went on, and I scribbled and brooded.  But all the while, I kept returning to it in my mind.  As it lay page-splayed in the corner, wasting away its library time, I recalled passages.  His voice was authoritative, I recalled.  Though I had not read a single word of his fiction, I instantly felt I knew them to be great stories, honest stories.  And then there were the other craft books I’d read instead, all filled with so many rules or too much sugar-coated optimism (“You can do anything!”).  Gardner was a teacher, yes, but not like the rest as I had originally prescribed him to be.  And then it hit me about him—he gave a damn.  Maybe not about me personally, but what I was representing in my own participation in his profession.  I walked to the book, picked it up, and read its title again: On Becoming a Novelist.  Becoming a novelist.  This word spoke of a process; and one has to not be something in order to become something.  And so, two days before the book was due back at the Oak Lawn library, I sat in my reading chair and started reading at the beginning again.

Gardner only gives about four or five actual ideas about how to writing successfully.  His first and most important tool is the idea that what novelists do is create a dream for their readers, and that they must do everything they can to preserve this dream.  He then goes on to name the characteristics of the successful novelist—their humility toward the human condition represented in their imaginary characters and readers; their constant learning, mastery, and employment of succinct and unobtrusive grammar and language; their identification and acceptance of their own unique and sometimes odd psychology as an artist; their knowledge of the use of writer’s groups and the publishing business; and their trust in hard, diligent, continuous revision work to produce stories worthy of a higher standard of literature—all written in his prescriptive and rock-solid demonstrative voice which allows for very few exceptions. Near the middle of the last chapter titled ‘Faith’, I read this:

“What is the writer to do?  I think the answer is, given the writer’s linguistic competence: Have faith.  First, recognize that the art of writing is immensely more difficult than the beginning writer may at first believe but in the end can be mastered by anyone willing to do the work.”

Suddenly, it wasn’t a skills competition anymore.  It wasn’t just about the tools and ideas and theories, but about perseverance.  It wasn’t about some ‘it’ quality, but about working harder than I’ve ever had to work for something.  It was, just like Gardner himself, giving a damn.  It was something involving talent, surely, but it also involved who you were as a person, your work ethic, and most importantly, the reason you’re writing in the first place.  I finished the book and looked up, blinking my tired eyes.  The room was clothed in a halo of golden light from my reading lamp (I hadn’t even realized I clicked it on). I recalled his once-damning words, and saw them now transformed.  The next day, I walked into a Borders and bought the book.  I read it again. The rest is history.

None of us are ready to read Gardner when we first start out because Gardner is asking us a simple question that many young novelists and writers may not know the answer to or even want to know: Why?  From the way he lists specific characteristics of a novelist, to the way he describes his regimen for writing when he was younger, to finally the facts about writers groups, the publishing industry, and about the painstaking years of the shaping of true art, he’s testing our resolve.  In effect, with this book, he’s telling us, ‘This is not for you’.  What we do in consequence to this statement makes us who we are for the rest of our writing lives.  Reading it again for this review, I see nowhere the demons of exclusion or doubt I’d first seen before.  His ideas and tools of practice have become so ingrained in my mind that I don them as my own.  What changed?  I have a theory on this: When you are not ready for it, the natural, honest, true, and hard working writing life seems like hell.  But as you mature, as you learn to be humble and shut up, and as you see the reality of your fate, you sacrifice everything you know and love for your passion, and it is then that you see it as not only an inevitable path but heaven itself on earth.

“Finally, the true novelist is the one who doesn’t quit.  Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or “way”, an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world.  Its benefits are quasi-religious—a changed quality of mind and heart, satisfactions no non-novelist can understand—and its rigors generally bring no profit except to the spirit.  For those who are authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits are enough.”


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