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On Becoming a Novelist [Paperback]

John C Gardner
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
Price: 8.93 & FREE Delivery in the UK on orders over 10. Details
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Product details

  • Paperback: 172 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Co.; Reprint edition (10 Feb 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393320030
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393320039
  • Product Dimensions: 21 x 14.2 x 1.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 95,487 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

Picture the poor, young, serious fiction writer. He toils alone at a pace not so different from that of Lincoln Tunnel traffic at rush hour. His spouse has a "real" job, or perhaps he has a trust fund. His college friends are cashing in on their dot-coms and wondering if he's ever going to join the real world. He is not hell-bent on publication: he is trying to write "serious, honest fiction, the kind of novel that readers will find they enjoy reading more than once, the kind of fiction likely to survive." He's likely to have no idea whether he's succeeding. Nobody understands him.

Well, almost nobody. John Gardner understands him. Gardner's sympathetic On Becoming a Novelist is the novelist's ultimate comfort food--better than macaroni and cheese, better than chocolate. Gardner, a fiction writer himself (Grendel), knows in his own bones the desperate questioning of a writer who is not sure whether he's up to the task. He recognises the validation that comes with publishing, just as much as he believes that "for a true novel there is generally no substitute for slow, slow baking." Gardner also has strong feelings about what kind of workshops help (and who they help), and what kind hinders. But a full half of Gardner's book is devoted to an exploration of the writer's nature. The storyteller's intelligence, he says, "is composed of several qualities, most of which, in normal people, are signs of either immaturity or incivility." In addition, a writer needs to have "verbal sensitivity, accuracy of eye" and "an almost demonic compulsiveness." But wait--there's more. A writer needs be driven, and to be driven, he says, well, "a psychological wound is helpful". --Jane Steinberg


Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
Nearly every beginning writer sooner or later asks (or wishes he dared ask) his creative writing teacher, or someone else he thinks might know, whether or not he really has what it takes to be a writer. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
4.2 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent 3 Nov 2004
By doublegone TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
I have just taken a creative writing class and four books were suggested as support reading. This is the best of them. Its not a blow by blow technical manual or anthing like that. Its more of an essay that provokes you to think about your writing, people real and fictional, and your own self. I find it quite inspirational, and I would highly recommend it. Its also an enjoyable and entertaining read in itself, which ironically, is not often the case in books about writing. Anyone considering writing a novel should read this before they start. They should probaby read it again when they are half way through, and once more for luck when they think they are nearly finished.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The man knows 22 Feb 2013
By Singwah
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Raymond Carver respected him as a first rate teacher. After a few pages you may see why. (3 more words required to submit this review? Bleh!)
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best book on writing I've read in ages. 16 Nov 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I've read many how to writing books over the years. This one seems to be very clear and concise. I have read the first three chapters only so far. There is such a mine of information that I have had to reread those three chapters four times already. Every time I find a little nugget of pure gold that I overlooked the first time around. I hope to finish the book in about four years time. It certainly won't be resold any time soon. Ten stars**********.
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8 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars not bad... 16 Nov 2008
Format:Paperback
Although this book is extremely insightful and very well written, I am not entirely sure that the view a writer would be helped by "a psychological wound" is a healthy one. By all means read it, but read it alongside other writing books that don't suggest depression or psychological torment as a form of writing tool. You can be impassioned without being unhappy.
Apart from that, I would recommend it.
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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  47 reviews
127 of 130 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not The Typical Book On Writing 19 Dec 2000
By Jason Baer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Before discovering a dusty old hardcover copy of John Gardner's 'On Becoming A Novelist' in an infamous New York City bookstore (Gotham Book Mart), I was under the impression that every book related to the art of writing fit into one of three catagories. Either it focused on technique (Robert McKee's 'Story'), it offered encouragement (Anne Lamott's 'Bird By Bird'), or it took memoir form (Annie Dillard's 'The Writing Life'). I was wrong.
This book is a portrait of the writer as a young man (or woman). After years of teaching creative writing courses and wallowing around the publishing industry, Gardner acquired an opinion or two (major understatement). He correctly believed that writing novels is not a profession or a pasttime for the timid, and so he outlines the prototypical writer's 'character'. The purpose, of course, is to get the young writer to ask himself if he is really cut out for this. In the course of telling you what traits a talented writer must have (verbal accuity, a discerning eye, faith, etc.), Gardner offers up some brilliant insights into the craft. His discussion ranges from writer's block to writers' conferences, and while you may not always agree with him, his views are always thought provoking and perceptive.
In the end, this book may be mildly discouraging for the would-be writer who is currently on the fence. Gardner does not sugar coat his opinions, but I am glad for that. He has no qualms in informing his readers that worthwhile writing takes a great deal of talent, and not everyone has that talent. As he says, the worst that can happen after reading this book is that you will realize you don't have the right stuff, and you will move on to something else.
In reading this book, you get the impression that he was a brilliant writing teacher, as is evidenced by perhaps his greatest student, Raymond Carver. Carver wrote the brilliant introduction to this book, which familiarizes the reader with Gardner's personality and makes it easier to put the rest of the book in perspective. I, for one, would have loved to have Gardner as a teacher. As that is no longer possible (he died in a motorcycle accident years ago), this book is no small consolation.
62 of 63 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Intense but also funny! 20 May 2005
By Dave Schwinghammer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
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."
38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Book for Aspiring Novelists 20 Jun 2000
By Thomas Fasano - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I can't think of a better book to put in the hands of a young writer: it inspires, teaches, comforts, and offers endless hope. I first read this book in hardback in 1983 -- still saddened by the author's death in a motorcycle accident the year before -- and I've enjoyed reading it many times since. In a beautiful and touching foreword Raymond Carver, a student of Gardner's in the '50s, writes that Gardner gave to the teaching of fiction the same energy and devotion to craft and moral concerns that he gave to his novels. Gardner's main objective in this book, as he states early on, is "to deal with, and if possible get rid of, the beginning novelist's worries." Does he do that? Well, he certainly helps the young writer answer a crucial question: Am I talented enough to write novels? Gardner explores the indicators -- sensitivity to language, an eye for significant detail, the knack of sustaining a narrative ("a vivid and continuous dream"), self-awareness, curiosity, nerve, empathy, a huge curiosity about people. (Gardner believes that lousy people will necessarily write lousy books.) Gardner also addresses some of the darker aspects of the writing life: writer's block, rejection, depression, suicide. And through it all he draws upon beliefs and practices that sustained him through the ups and downs of his controversial career, thus providing beginning novelists with a faith that can sustain them in the years to come.
51 of 55 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not quite as enthused as everyone else 12 Mar 2006
By S. M. Weathers - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I cannot speak to the book's strengths without repeating the other excellent reviews already posted.

It must be said, however, that Gardner is not just a writing teacher of high standards and noble ambitions. He's also a cranky elitist perched in his ivory tower bemoaning that which makes popular fiction... well, popular.

If one is trying to write any type of genre fiction, this book is terribly discouraging. Gardner says in many ways that it is better to be poor and unknown with two published books than to be well-known and well-compensated with dozens of less than perfect titles to one's credit.

This is, of course, complete bull dookey unless your goal is to be an Artist above the mortal fray. There is writing as an art form, and then there is writing as a viable career. Art is worth pursuing, but the artist is not a superior creature through his pursuit. Genre fiction (sci fi, romance, western, mystery) is not intrinsicly less valuable because people enjoy reading it, and creating art within the confines of the genres is not impossible. Gardner repeatedly asserts the falseness of these obvious truths, but fortunately I'm only following his own advice by evaluating his opinions against the context of my own understanding.

"Novelist" is an excellent book to encourage we writers in striving for Art, and for greatness. A writer, seeking to make a living in the real world through his writing without having to take a side job as Gardner did, would do well to take this book with a grain of salt.

(As a final note - this book does serve as a filter of sorts. If a genre writer can read this book without weeping into his bourbon or shriveling up with shame, he is truly ready to be a professional genre writer.)
21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Buy this book 19 Oct 2003
By Steven Reynolds - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
If you want to start writing fiction, or improve what you're already writing, then buy this book. There's really nothing more to say. Gardner's slim volume is worth twenty tomes on archetypes and story structures and channeling your inner child. Those things are important, but for the most part they can take care of themselves. The strength of Gardner's approach is that he gets straight down to the serious business of putting words on the page and figuring out if you're the kind of person who's good at it. Drawing examples from his own writing and experience as a teacher, he describes what he sees as the "writer's nature" (verbal facility, accuracy of vision, a particular kind of intelligence, and a daemonic compulsiveness), gives some blunt observations on the usefulness (or otherwise) of creative writing workshops, some helpful pointers on editors and publishing, and a nice final chapter on creative faith. My only reservation is that he comes down quite heavily on the side of realism. "Good writers may 'tell' almost anything in fiction except the characters' feelings," he maintains (p.33). Certainly, a lot of bad writing is bad because it "tells" rather than "shows", but I think one of the great beauties and values of prose fiction is precisely that it can take us inside the minds characters and make legible what they are REFUSING to show. Ironically, this often provides a much greater fidelity to 'real life' than the strikingly un-lifelike practice of levering arcane metaphors into place to represent, externally, a character's mental or emotional experience. If prose fiction isn't allowed to recount a character's inner life, then what value does it have over film and television - two forms which Gardner seems to decry? Still, Gardner's advice is generous and convincing, yet never totalizing. You get the distinct impression that if you totally disagreed with everything he said, and yet still wrote good fiction, he'd be nothing less than delighted for you. Now that's a good teacher.
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