On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner, Part II

This is the second post for John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist.

The Writer’s Nature – Indicators of Success:  On Becoming a Novelist

Part 2 –  The Writer’s Eye – The second indicator for achieving success as a writer, according to John Gardner, concerns the Writer’s Eye.   

He says, “The good writer sees things sharply, vividly, accurately, and selectively (that is, he chooses what is important), not because his powers of observation are more acute than others, but because he cares about seeing things clearly and getting them down effectively.”   He understands and is fascinated by people who are different from himself.  

Gardner says that sometimes an inexperienced writer may imagine the fictional scene imprecisely, be tricked into developing a situation in some way that is unconvincing.  He may not intend to manipulate; he simply doesn’t know what his characters would do because he hasn’t been watching them closely enough in his mind’s eye – has not been catching the subtle emotional signals that, for the more careful writer, show where the action must go next.  The good writer is willing to stop writing, figure out precisely what some object or gesture looks like, and hunt down exactly the right words to describe it.  He scrutinizes each scene with full concentration.  He chooses a specific detail that subtly suggests others, a detail that tells us more than it says.  Gardner offers the description of Della and Wilson Montgomery from David Rhodes Rock Island Line as an example of writing with a keen novelistic eye.

The writer’s accuracy of eye, Gardner says, has partly to do with his character.  For the novelist who favors first-person narration, the main accuracy required by his art has to do with self-understanding.  He specializes in private vision and needs to see clearly and document well his own feelings, experiences, and prejudices through the characters he writes about.  What counts in this case is not that we believe the private vision to be right, but that we are so convinced by and interested in the person who does the seeing that we are willing to follow him around.  Examples of these novelists:  Beckett, Proust, and Waugh.

For the novelist who moves through many characters – a novelist Gardner deems of a “higher order” – rather than master the tics and oddities of his own being and learn how to present them in an appealing way, he must learn to step outside himself, see and feel things from every human – and inhuman – point of view.   Gardner says, “He must be able to report, with convincing precision, how the world looks to a child, a young woman, an elderly murderer, or the governor of Utah.  Insofar as he pretends not to private vision but to omniscience, he cannot, as a rule, love some of his characters and despise others.”   Examples of these novelists:  Faulkner, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky.

The writer with a truly accurate eye can tell his story in concrete terms, not just feeble abstractions.  Gardner says, “Instead of writing, “She felt terrible,” he can show – by the precise gesture or look or by capturing the character’s exact turn of phrase – subtle nuances of the character’s feeling.  The more abstract a piece of writing is, the less vivid the dream it sets off in the reader’s mind.  One can feel sad or happy or bored or cross in a thousand ways:  the abstract adjective says almost nothing.  The precise gesture nails down the one feeling right for the moment.”   This, he explains, is what is meant by “SHOW DON’T TELL.”  Good writers may “tell” about almost anything in fiction, except the characters’ feelings.  “One may tell the reader that the character went to a private school, or one may tell the reader the character hates spaghetti; but with rare exceptions the characters’ feelings must be demonstrated:  fear, love, excitement, doubt, embarrassment, despair become real only when they take the form of events – action (or gesture), dialogue, or physical reaction to setting.  Detail is the lifeblood of fiction.”

Ways to work on improving your writer’s eye:  Gardner suggests checking out books on human character – psychological case studies, true-life stories, and doing exercises where you think of a person living or dead and list details about that person until you get a very clear sense of who he is.  What one has to get, he says, is insight – not knowledge – into personalities unlike one’s own.  What one needs is not the facts, but the “feel” of the person not oneself.  What one needs is to see one’s characters in the light of their metaphoric (symbolic) equivalencies.

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