Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Let Them Eat Cake

In the prefaces of both books on writing, On Becoming a Novelist and The Art of Fiction, John Gardener states that he has written his books for a specific group of writers. “I write for those who desire, not publication at any cost, but publication one can be proud of—serious, honest fiction, the kind of novel that readers will enjoy reading more than once, the kind of fiction that will survive.” (p xxiii, Becoming) He aims, not to provide insight for “…the writer of nurse books or thrillers or porno or the cheaper sort of sci-fi…” but “for the elite; that is, for serious literary artists.” (p x, Art) Throughout both books he makes clear his disdain for works produced by the non-elite, what he calls “junk fiction” (p x, Art); the type of books “one finds in drugstores, supermarkets, and even small-town public libraries.” Gardner states that these books are, “…not well written at all; a smart chimp with a good creative–writing teacher and a real love of sitting around banging a typewriter could have written books vastly more interesting and elegant.” (p ix, Art) Given his constant declarations that intelligent worthwhile people read and write intelligent and worthwhile fiction, fiction that is art and not “junk”, is it difficult to reconcile the creation of many of his characters. One possibility for reconciliation is that his characters such as Henry Soames and Callie Wells of Nickel Mountain, the roadside vendor, Pigtoe, and the stripper, Fanny, Gardner uses in his plotting examples (p 172, 175, Art)—characters who are apt to acquire their books, which in all likelihood would be “junk” fiction, at drugstores, supermarkets, or even small public libraries—are worth writing about but not worth writing for.

Gardner devotes time to in both books to addressing the importance of reader satisfaction; he clearly values the fictive dream and its ability to move the emotions of the reader. He makes a point of reminding the writer that, “The writer who does not accept the metaphysic can never write a novel; he can only play off it…We are not profoundly moved by Homer, Shakespeare, or Melville because we would like to believe the metaphysical assumptions their fictions embody…but because we do believe those assumptions.” (pps 184-185, Art) Furthermore, he reminds the writer of the responsibility to carry the reader completely through the story. Novels, he explains, must offer symphonic-like endings in which the “…closing movement echoes and resounds with all that has gone before.” If this goal is not met, the reader will, “…shut the book with feelings of dissatisfaction, as if cheated.” (p184, Art) It cannot be doubted that Gardner values and respects readers of fiction he would classify as art; it does not appear, though, despite the fact that in his own fictive work he embraces, accepts, and uses characters who—if they were in fact actual people—would not be likely to read literary art, that he values readers of what he would classify as non-art. In short, he writes about characters who he would not truly value or respect were they to be actual, living humans.

For me, writing fiction is much like making a dish to take to a potluck dinner. I create the best possible product, using all the skills I’ve acquired to date, with the intent of bringing pleasure and satisfaction—from start to finish—to whoever wants what I’ve produced. My potluck dish is usually a cake because cakes are what I make best. Chocolate cakes with homemade chocolate cream cheese frosting are what I get asked for most, so I often make those. I bake mine in a simple, disposable foil pan. I know that there will be other cakes at the potluck, maybe a fancy one with fresh fruit across the top or a delicate five layer torte served on a glass plate. That doesn’t matter to me. At the potluck, I set my cake on the table alongside the others and leave it unattended. Not everyone will reach for mine; some will take a piece of the one covered in fruit or a slice of the torte. Their preferences are okay with me; different people like different things. When it comes to mine, I don’t care who eats it; I only care that they enjoy it, that it satisfies, that it is what they wanted it to be. It seems to me that Gardner has a similar approach—making the best product and delivering it—only he adds additional steps. He determines what should and should not be made, and once the product is on the table he stands close at hand, ensuring that only the right people take a slice.


  1. Melissa,

    This is brilliant. Your metaphor of the cakes at the potluck dinner is spot-on. It's all I can do to concentrate on Gardner, however, after the description of your delicious chocolate cake. (How can I get a piece?) Thank you for your observations about Gardner's artistic elitism. Your perspective is as original as you are and your comments make a lot of sense.

    I just read Rust Hills' book, "Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular." He was a peer of Gardner's and he, too, references "slick fiction" as anathema. (page 49) His points, however, are not made at the expense of less than sterling characters.

    Hills contends that the problem with "slick fiction" vs. "quality fiction" (page 49) is an issue of writing characters that are "moving, not fixed" (page 53), of recognizing that the most interesting characters in the TV equivalent of "slick fiction" are the guest stars NOT the series regulars (page 56). He grounds his comment in a discussion of craft and, while quite a character himself, he seems to take an admirable view of readers and of individuals in all walks of life.

    I submit the most revered idea of Gardner's in "The Art of Fiction" is his "fictional dream." I appreciate how you've enlightened me about his debatable declarations.

    Melissa, please know how delightful your blog is. Congratulations on your efforts to start a conversation about art, artists, artistry AND chocolate cake!

    Carol Owens Campbell

  2. I'll look for Hill's book to add to my stack.

    My thing about Gardner was that he seemed to look for opportunities to "cut down" what he referred to as junk fiction; this seem odd to me, why not just say what you have to say without talking trash?