Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Breaking and Entering in the House of John Gardner

Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Breaking and Entering in the House of John Gardner

Here’s a classic set piece: a young writer of genre fiction arrives at college and finagles his way into a creative writing seminar, only to get stonewalled by the professor and most of his classmates because they’re allergic to genre fiction.

Any of several things can happen next. The student may find three likeminded young writers and a folding card table to meet at, and start her own seminar. The student may drop out of college, get a series of fascinating dead end jobs, and write his way to a workshop like Clarion or Odyssey. Maybe she gives up writing altogether. Maybe he stops showing his writing to others. Maybe she goes pro eventually despite it all, and has a chip on her shoulder about that confounded creative writing class for the rest of her days.

I was…what is the genre equivalent of ambidextrous? Ambigenrous will have to do for now. I snuck back into the creative writing seminars as a poet, and most people forgot I had wanted to write fantasy. For a while, I forgot it myself.

A fantasist can find useful tools in a creative writing classroom, even an inhospitable one. But since nobody wants to do time in an inhospitable classroom, and really nobody should have to, I’m going to write a few posts over the next few weeks about books on writing that I’ve found helpful in re-reinventing myself as a fantasy writer.

Back in 2005, when I was just starting my personal blog, Ask Dr. Pretentious, and had maybe six readers in the whole world, I wrote an essay on The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner that has held up so well, I’m giving it another chance at life here. Gardner was surprisingly hostile to fantastic fiction, considering that he was the guy who wrote that first-person retelling of Beowulf from the point of view of the monster. Why would I urge writers of genre fiction to devote many hours to learning from Gardner when he regards genre fiction as trash? Read on.


I’ve been renewing my acquaintance with a troublesome old friend–my yellowing, dog-eared copy of John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. The last time I read it straight through, I was an innocent undergrad in a creative writing seminar, and this was the standard teaching text for fiction. I remember loving this book, despite its curmudgeonly attitude, and despite the fact that it was one of the main means by which my creative writing teacher was browbeating me into abandoning genre fiction. Oh, Gardner makes exceptions for luminaries like Asimov, Delaney, Zelazny, Le Carre, and the creators of Howard the Duck, but this is what he has to say about the rest of the field:

The instruction here is not for every kind of writer–not for the writer of nurse books or thrillers or porno or the cheaper sort of sci fi–though it is true that what holds for the most serious kind of fiction will generally hold for junk fiction as well. (Not everyone is capable of writing junk fiction: It requires an authentic junk mind. Most creative-writing teachers have had the experience of occasionally helping to produce, by accident, a pornographer. The most elegant techniques in the world, filtered through a junk mind, become elegant junk techniques.) What is said here, whatever use it may be to others, is said for the elite; that is, for serious literary artists.

Why, you might ask, would I subject myself to this kind of snobbery? Gardner’s only on the second page of the preface, and he’s already told me I have a junk mind, that probably the best I can hope for is that my junk will be elegant.

Why, you might ask, would I urge an audience of militant genre fiction writers to subject themselves to Gardner’s attitude? Do I not remember my companions at Writer’s Weekend, who will surely recognize themselves in the catalog of offending types?

If I have accomplished anything in my efforts to improve my craft, it is because I have been willing to go to school on absolutely anybody who seemed to know something I didn’t. Even snobs. Especially curmudgeons.

John Gardner isn’t just another writer of how-to-write books; he’s the teacher Raymond Carver and John Edgar Wideman, among others, credited with laying the foundations of their success. For my purposes, that’s more important than his considerable accomplishments as Gardner-the-writer, including his novel Grendel. Gardner-the-teacher turned out students who actually made lives for themselves writing and publishing books. Whatever it was that worked for him, he was able to pass it on to those he taught in a way that worked for them.

Whatever he had, it’s worth stealing. Are we unwelcome in his house? I’ve got the lockpicks. Did you bring the crowbar?

Here’s what’s inside:

The heart of his theory of fiction is an ideal of story as continuous waking dream. The fiction that works best, he says, is fiction that envelops the reader utterly and sustains the dream to its organic conclusion. Now, does that sound so alien? When Gardner wrote The Art of Fiction, that ideal was already unfashionable in some high literary circles, so that he felt compelled to write a chapter on “Metafiction, Deconstruction, and Jazzing Around.” Nonetheless, the thing he loves in a story is what we love. All the particulars of the book, all the examples and exercises, all the what-ifs, point the way to that ideal.

At every turn in his movement from principles to techniques, Gardner’s humor shows. It’s a curmudgeonly sense of humor, of course, but it is genuinely witty and often surprising. Any time you think things are getting a bit dry, Gardner leads you right into a sentence like, “Mark Twain, saddled with a cast of characters selected by Henry James, would be quick to maneuver them all into wells.” Very occasionally, his storytelling imagination seems to get the better of him, and in the middle of a technical discussion, a tiny little tale springs up:

Thus plot not only changes but creates character. By our actions we discover what we really believe and, simultaneously, reveal ourselves to others. And setting influences both character and plot: One cannot do in a thunderstorm what one does on a hot day in Jordan. (One’s camel slips, or, from homesickness, refuses to budge; so the assassin goes uncaught, the President is shot, the world is again plunged into war.)

Gardner’s manual illustrates just what he says about detail in fiction: He knows your trust in him depends upon a constant stream of vivid sensory detail. He never keeps you waiting long.

Some of what Gardner has to say will sound familiar if you’ve read a pile of the garden variety how-to books and done time in a few creative writing seminars, but even where he is closest to common, there is something deeper about his explanations than you will find elsewhere. No doubt you have read and heard plenty of advice on making your characters’ motives believable, but it is unlikely that you have ever seen as painstaking a meditation on motive as Gardner’s in his chapter on “Interest and Truth,” in which he walks us through dozens of variations on a possible story about Helen of Troy. By the end of the chapter, you will be itching to sit down and write at least ten of them. I have never seen, anywhere else, as thorough a treatment of rhythm in prose as he lays out in his chapter on “Common Errors.” Gardner’s explanations skip no steps and assume no prior experience. In this book he is, above all, a teacher, and he does not mean to leave anyone behind who has the will to follow him. His exercises for group work in classrooms reveal a certain pedagogical fearlessness (Exercise 20: Plot an architectonic novel). His exercises for individuals’ mastery of technique invite you to match the same relentless quality of attention that Gardner’s explanations offer, and it is not hard to see how working through the whole sequence could vastly expand your repertoire. Consider this one:

Write three effective long sentences: at least one full page (or 250 words), each involving a different emotion (for example, anger, pensiveness, sorrow, joy). Purpose: control of tone in a complex sentence.

Gardner’s exercises are not for the faint of heart. But then, writing fiction of any sort is not for the faint of heart. Writing fiction for publication, even less so.

We are not faint of heart, or we would not be here. In pursuit of what Gardner can teach us about craft, we can brave a few moments of categorical rejection that we know to be unjust. Well, hell, we’re writers. We eat rejection for breakfast. Want to prove him wrong about that authentic-junk-mind business? He’s left you detailed instructions on how to beat him at our shared game.

Sarah Avery’s short story “The War of the Wheat Berry Year” appeared in the last print issue of Black Gate. A related novella, “The Imlen Bastard,” is slated to appear in BG‘s new online incarnation. Her contemporary fantasy novella collection, Tales from Rugosa Coven, follows the adventures of some very modern Pagans in a supernatural version of New Jersey even weirder than the one you think you know. You can keep up with her at her website, sarahavery.com, and follow her on Twitter.

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C.S.E. Cooney

Another frikkin great one, Sarah. Thank you!


John Gardner’s ART OF FICTION is by far the best, STILL, of the many “how to write” books cluttering the shelves. In fact, it’s so good that the shelf, by rights, should be empty but for his. He was a curmudgeon because he couldn’t help himself; he was depressive and drank far too much (check out the apparently autobiographical “John Napper Sailing Through the Universe”). When he taught at Oberlin, his soon to be ex-wife hired an airplane and dropped leaflets on the campus decrying his dastardly behavior. And yes, he tended to pan genre fiction, but let’s face it, most fiction of ANY stripe is bad, and he’d been trained as a classisist: it was in his blood to value Chaucer and Homer ahead of Bradbury and Lem (both of whom he liked and promoted). His review of LORD OF THE RINGS is fascinating reading, as is extolling the virtues of cartoons. He was an elitist only to the degree that he wanted others’ work to be bold enough to matter. To read Gardner’s books on craft is to be reminded of standards, and to discover, again, how high they damn well ought to be.

Thanks for sharing and posting. Well done.


Well I had to read Grendel in high school and at that time i was looking for anything fantasy related and i hated that book. I think its trash.


This post takes me back to my undergraduate days taking a short story writing class. My output was, almost without exception, genre fiction. The instructor, providing feedback near the end of the course, wrote that I reminded him of a talented young chef, kidnapped by McDonald’s managers and forced to re-create the Big Mac; that from time-to-time we all enjoy junk food but it shouldn’t be a staple. Well, I’ve served up a few burgers and people seem to enjoy them.

[…] last week’s post on John Gardner’s curmudgeonly classic The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, […]

[…] a student, because goodness knows I don’t have the chops to teach that form. On the model of John Gardner’s wacky assignments in The Art of Fiction, anytime I wanted to take a newly-acquired skill like writing a treatment and then challenge it to […]

[…] read for pleasure want to experience what I think of as the continuous waking dream of fiction. That’s what John Gardner calls it in his classic handbook, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft …, so that’s how I’ve been naming it in my head since I was, well, a young writer. […]

[…] other writing book on your shelves. While it may not have the universality of John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, it will help a great many new writers already know how they want to […]

[…] my capacity as Dr. Pretentious, I would prescribe all the exercises in John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction that address word choice, sentence construction, voice, and […]

[…] Faulkner out of your system. I haven’t followed that one in the specific (Thanks anyway, John Gardner), but I have embraced then general principle that our writing voices change, whether we want them […]

[…] will have a different description of what success looks like. I’m a fan of John Gardner’s notion that a storyteller must deliver the experience of a continuous waking dream. Anything which interrupts that dream signifies a failure, although there are […]

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