If he were alive today, John Gardner might be surprised to find that he's more well-known for THE ART OF FICTION and ON BECOMING A NOVELIST than he is for GRENDEL, MICKELSSON'S GHOSTS, etc. Gardner is probably the most influential writing guru alive or dead, despite the hundred of "self help" tomes turned out by Writer's Digest and others.
ON BECOMING A NOVELIST begins with a forward written by Raymond Carver, a former student of Gardner's at Chico State College in California. Carver, one of the leaders of the minimalist movement, went on to a successful career as a short story writer. Gardner gave Carver his first line edit, showing the importance of a good teacher for the beginning novelist.
This book is divided into four sections, the first entitled "The Writer's Nature." In it Gardner describes the highest class of novelist as one who is fascinated by people different from himself. He talks about writers poring over astrology books and psychological case studies in order to find authentic characters.
The second section is entitled "The Writers Training and Education." Gardner begins this section by discussing bad workshops. He likes workshops because they give the beginning writer a chance to meet others like himself, providing some moral support. A bad workshop leader would allow vicious criticism, leading to writer's block for both parties. A bad workshop would have no standard for good fiction. Gardner includes "creation of a vivid and continuous dream, authorial generosity, intellectual and emotional significance, elegance and efficiency, and strangeness" as an example of standards for good fiction.
The third section deals with "Publication and Survival." Gardner begins to show his crankiness here. "One should fight like the devil the temptation to think well of editors," he says. He thinks they are, at least some of the time, all incompetent or crazy. They read too much and, as a result, become jaded, not recognizing a talented writer when they see one. He also makes some concrete suggestions, such as to avoid using third-person limited as a sole approach. Apparently, editors look on that point of view as cliched.
The fourth section is called "Faith." Gardner discusses discouragement and recommends some ways to deal with writer's block. One way is to read good writers. He suggests typing several pages of, say, "The Dead" by James Joyce to acclimate oneself to the rhythms of a great writer. He also recommends keeping a journal: "The best way in the world for breaking a writer's block is to write a lot." He extolls the process of writing as well, reminding the beginning writer that most first drafts are flawed. It is only in the process of revision that one "discovers" what he wants to say.
Certainly Gardner is one strange breed of cat. For instance, when working on a novel he would write for fifteen hours at a stretch. (I can't even see after writing for three hours.) In another passage he suggests using autohypnosis to give yourself suggestions such as, "Tonight I will write with ease" Also, in an effort to boost the spirits of the beginning writer receiving a lot of rejections, he maintains, "It's the law of the universe that 87 percent of all people in all professions are incompetent." He doesn't say how he arrived at that percentage.
This is not to say Gardner isn't funny at times. Childishness in a writer, he says, can be a helpful personality trait. His lack of seriousness about life, "his mischievousness, and his tendency to cry, especially when drunk, a trick that makes persecutors quit."