On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner, Part I

On Becoming a Novelist

This little classic has quite a bit to offer a novelist or would-be novelist.  I’m looking at my notes and highlighting, and remembering things I liked about it and things I didn’t.  I’ll break this down into several posts.  This first post will concern his comments about writers and the language.

Some good stuff:

The Writer’s Nature – Indicators of Success: 

Part 1 – Verbal Sensitivity – Gardner says one sign of the born writer is his gift for finding or (sometimes) inventing authentically interesting language.”  A writer who is sensitive to language “finds his own metaphors…is interested in discovering the secrets words carry.”  His words make us forget we are reading printed words on a page, and instead, make us see the images associated with the words. 

Gardner also mentions the writer who cares about nothing BUT language, how he gets in his own way when telling the story, how he “can’t tell the cart – and its cargo – from the horse.”  There must be a balance where language brings us to the story, but does not interrupt it. 

He recommends the writer avoid the use of linguistic rhetoric (labeled masks) such as:

The Pollyanna mask:  bland optimisms and dead expressions that prevent the writer from “seeing accurately and communicating with any but those who see and feel in the same benevolently distorted way.”  Some examples:  “with a merry twinkle in her eye”; “she stifled a sob”; “a faint smile curving her lips”; “his broad shoulders”; “friendly lopsided smiles.”   He calls this “the cranked-up zombie emotion of a writer who feels nothing in his daily life or nothing he trusts to find his own words for…”  If the Pollyanna mask cannot be torn off, he says, it will spell ruin for the novelist.

The disPollyanna mask:  ill-founded cynicisms, the use of crude jokes and images, slang phrases borrowed from foreign languages, all intended to shock and all creating the same stock depersonalization of human beings.  Some (mild) examples:  “Broad shoulders” (from above) give way to “gut-level things;” instead of people giving “friendly lopsided smiles, people “play cozy with you.”  Most are not shocked by the use of this rhetoric, Gardner says, but only annoyed, because “the whole thing is phony, an imitation of things too often imitated before.”   

He states, “If a writer cares more for his language than for any other element of fiction, if he continually calls our attention away from the story to himself, we call him “mannered” and eventually we tire of him.  If the writer seems to have less feeling for his characters than we feel they deserve, insofar as they reflect actual humanity, we call the writer “frigid.”  If he fakes feeling, or appears to do so – especially if he tries to achieve sentiment by cheap, dishonest means (for instance, by substituting language, “rhetoric,” for authentically moving events) – we call him “sentimental.””

Gardner says that, though language inevitably carries values with it (we associate certain words with certain meanings based on, among other things, our culture and beliefs),  and though, to some extent, we are all “tricked” by our language through these associated values, the writer who is excessively tricked by language, that is, “stuck” in the norms and prejudices of some narrow community, will never be a writer of the first rank because he will never be able to see clearly for himself.

One way to address potential problems with verbal sensitivity?  Gardner recommends paying careful attention to the language as you read.  “Underline or highlight words and phrases that annoy you by their triteness, cuteness, sentimentality, or whatever, anything that would distract an intelligent, sensitive reader from the vivid and continuous dream” of the story.  Read different styles of writing.  Check out the dictionary for those short, relatively common words you would not ordinarily think to use, with definitions, if necessary, and and make an effort to use them as if they’d come to you naturally.

Next time, The Writer’s Nature – Indicators of Success:  Part 2 – “The Writer’s Eye.”

This entry was posted in Books/Reviews, Writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner, Part I

  1. xxhawkeyexx says:

    thanks for the advice!
    I’ll keep an eye on the next one!



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