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on December 9, 2003
I bought this book about ten years ago; it was the text book in an undergrad Creative Writing class. It wasn't until last year that I really read it. I have just finished reading it again for the second time.
I think that all of Gardner's advice for beginning writers is valid. I was shocked at the negative reviews that some other readers have posted. They find fault with Gardner because he makes reference to classic works of literature. First off, one does not have to have read EVERY book that Gardner makes reference to in order to understand his point.
What shocks me is that people seem genuinely offended that Gardner thinks that aspiring writers should read! EVERY creative writing teacher expects his students to read as much good literature as possible. Why is this? Because IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO BE A GOOD WRITER UNLESS ONE IS WELL READ. You don't believe me - just ask Stephen King. If you are offended that Gardner expects you to be familiar with names like Hemmingway and Faulkner, you should be ashamed of yourself.
The elitism argument isn't even supported by the text. Sure he talks about Homer and Shakespeare, but he also comments that great writing can also be found in Spider-Man comic books and other unlikely sources. (I am comforted because the negative reviews themselves are not very well-written.)
These are dangerous times we live in. People no longer want to hear that they can't just pick up a pen and be the next Fitzgerald. And who's to say that Fitzgerald is any better than James Paterson, say? It's all relative, is it not?
It is not.
This is a book for the serious writer - for ANY writer who wishes to write better. In order to do that, one must do the work. If this book makes writing sound like a hard thing to do, that is because WRITING IS A HARD THING TO DO. If it is not, you are doing it wrong.
Gardner covers all aspects of fiction techniques: plot, style, genres, voice - everything a beginning writer NEEDS TO AT LEAST CONSIDER. If you don't like this book, find another book on the art of fiction...but I fear you will have the same reaction. Any creative writing book worth its salt will offer the same advice.
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on December 23, 2003
This writer goes beyond mere technique and talks about what fiction really is and how it works its magic. Any writer wants to use fiction should have this understanding of the fiction tool.
Get it. It might be slow going at first because you have been dumbed down. Stay with it and something will happen deep in your brain. It will be good.
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on April 9, 2010
I haven't much to add to the five-star reviews already posted. Yes, to everything. This is just to say that I have had the Gardner book since its first printing and have read it probably ten times cover-to-cover, and each time I open it there's something new to think about.

The young sprogs (this is an assumption) who cannot see the value of this book are of an impatient generation; I suspect that they feel it isn't necessary to read much before they start writing, or to dig into the subject of creative writing before they begin to create. On the contrary, writing a novel is one of the most daunting activities known, and the deeper the writer's preparation, the more significant his/her output. If the preparation has no depth, the product will be shallow.

This is a book about words, using words, imagining words, how important authors have used words, the philoosophy of words and yes, much about writing. It is not a 1,2,3, list of how to write. Writing fiction is not a matter of bashing out words. There is a deep philosophy in creative writing, and every sensitive writer of fiction develops his own philosophy which leads to style. John Gardner approaches the subject from this aspect. Read it, read it again, and expand your mind.
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on January 2, 2010
The basic idea for The Art Of Fiction by John Gardner seems to be that writers should not do "things that distract the reader's mind from the fictional dream."

Gardner does not believe in a secret formula to writing a good work of fiction, thus he explains common errors, technique, and plotting. He also explains different forms of fiction writing: the novel, novella, and short story; and discusses a few different types of stories one can write: the energeic novel, lyrical novel, and architectonic novel. He examines the limitations to different points of view, such as the first-person, third-person, and third-person limited point of view. There were also several group and individual exercises at the back. I fount that what was stated was quite helpful, much more than what many other writing books offer.

The following are a few points that I found useful:

-Fiction that ends up nowhere, with no win or loss, makes us think we are in a hurry, and later we discover that there was nothing to be in a hurry about.
-Fiction cannot have any real interest "if the central character is not an agent struggling for his or her own goals but a victim, subject to the will of others." (65) This is a common mistake for beginners. It is important for the central character to act because the readers then care about what will happen, the character's desires, and their values.
-To make the character's motives convincing, the origins must be shown throughout the plot. Thus, a lot of what goes into a story is because the writer needs it there to justify a later action, show the source of motivation, or to reveal a character trait.
-Don't use `that' or `which' to stretch out your sentence because it causes the sentence to have an anticlimactic ending.
-"Dig out the fundamental meaning of events by organizing the imitation of reality around some primary question or theme suggested by character's concern." (176)
-"Theme ... is not imposed on the story, but evoked from within it-initially an intuitive but finally and intellectual act on the part of the writer." (177)
-Research the theme to make fiction a serious thought. For example, if nakedness is the theme, then discuss if openness is a virtue or defect, what is said in Christianity and pagan myth about it, and how naked should people be. Search for connections between images.
-Create connections: our minds return to images and events, thus if the hero meets a person in the graveyard, then that "character's next appearance will carry with it some residue of the graveyard setting." (192)

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on January 22, 2004
I recently re-read this classic book on writing fiction, and found it as relevant today as it was when it was first published. Because Gardner strives for "higher art", his musings and instructions for the beginner go much deeper than ordinary how-to books. His lengthy chapter titled "Interest and Truth" gets to the heart of what fiction needs to be, whether one is writing literary fiction or a crime novel. His "Common Errors" chapter, although relatively short and sounding as basic as one can get, offers some of the best advice on how to improve one's writing, from suggestions to creating dynamic sentences to how to imbue narrative with emotion. "Technique" covers topics such as paying attention to rhythm and word choice and building narrative suspense. Although I yawned during the chapter on plot - Gardner's diagrams and attempts at describing structure were too mechanical for my tastes, I'm sure some readers will read it voraciously. Likewise, his thorough compilation of writing exercises will have some reaching eagerly for their keyboards. I found that the sections that had interested me on my first reading years ago were not the same ones that intrigued me this time, suggesting that this book can grow with the writer.
The biggest flaw in this book, and one which might drive some readers away, is Gardner's personal biases. His intense interest in myth and classics drove his fiction, and it weighs heavily in the examples he provides. Also, he favors examples from his contemporaries - Barthleme, Coover, Barth - who might not interest younger writers who read a different set of cutting edge authors. Still, you need not be familiar with Gardner's examples to understand his points, as he himself makes few assumptions about the reader/student.
Even professional writers can benefit from Gardner's reminders since a revisiting of ideas can only sharpen one's fiction. Aspiring writers will leave these pages with an eagerness to attack their own work and with a set of wise guidelines to help them achieve their best work.
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on May 27, 2003
John Gardner, I imagine, was a man who buttoned his shirts to the top. If he was a father, he would have been cold, stern, aloof, and a strict disciplinarian. He must have been a fierce little man. His words are as dry as the white page they're printed on. He lectures mainly with reason and abstraction. Writing, he says, should be approached with the "utmost seriousness."
His tone is not encouraging; on the contrary, it is often daunting, threatening the reader with the occasional possibility that he or she may not have what it takes to be a writer.
Still here? Good. Because for all of the forceful rigidity that Gardner impresses upon the reader, he has a reason for it. He has tremendous respect for the art of fiction, and he's taking your interest in the art seriously. That is, he is going to tell you what it takes to be a writer, in the highest sense of the word.
While some of the principles in this book were just too abstract for me to be useful, many of the ideas put forth were helpful and gave me new perspective on what it means to write fiction.
The writing exercises in the back are (as expected) exceedingly challenging; and yet I suspect they may be exceedingly helpful as well, if I'm ever up to pressing through them.
Although Gardner feels comfortable calling his book, "the most helpful of its kind," I don't recommend this as a first book on fiction writing. Something encouraging like Bradbury's "Zen in the Art of Writing," or fundamental like Burroway's "Writing Fiction" will serve that purpose much better.
I do recommend this book as a set of essays that will help you in your continuing struggle to learn what it means to write (and then to write) true literature.
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on September 5, 2002
I am sorry! A previous review had this to say: "...when I've used this text in my college intro to fiction-writing courses, it doesn't fly too well. My students are put off by Gardner's insistence that the young writer is always male, and they usually haven't read many of the works to which he refers...they feel it's impossible to do anything even remotely correctly." My opinion is that a good teacher will show his(or her :->)students the value of great tools that they can learn from, and put away their cheap opinions (bred by current politics and ideas) about very stupid little points in the style of writing. If we can't teach our kids this, then they will head in the direction of spoiled people who want everything on a silver platter. UGH to this reviewer. YEAH to this book
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on January 19, 2002
it's probably because you recognize your own mistakes derailed within its pages. The chapters common errors and technique should be every beginning writers bible.
i've heard some criticism of the book saying john gardner is an egomaniac name dropper, but if you aren't willing to wade through a little ego mania and name dropping to understand gardner's ultimatly correct observations on fiction then you'll never be able to make it as a writer. you'll never make it through an m.f.a. or doctorate program, and you'll certainly never realize you own mistakes.
i found the examples helpful and plentiful, the advice sound, and the humor (though for critics of the book it may have gone over their heads) beautifully crafted. a fabulous and worthy addition to any library.
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on July 6, 2002
I wish this book didn't specify young writers in its subtitle because that's likely to turn away older writers if they haven't heard about Gardner and his books. That would be quite a loss but for Gardner and the readers.
As a published author of many book reviews as well as magazine articles and newspaper pieces, I was at a loss as to where to turn when I needed advice on writing fiction. My solution was to take a course and this book was the required reading. Otherwise I would have overlooked it since I would in no way classify myself as young.
It's simply one of the best books available, especially for those who want to write literary fiction and who care about the quality of his/her writing. Character building, plotting, vocabulary, sentence structure, style and the idea of fiction as a dream are studied in depth here. It is a book to be studied and re-studied, read and re-read, for as the reader practices writing fiction and gains more experience, there's more to be found.
At the back of the book there are exercises. These are best done in a group so that you can get the benefits of others' critiques. The concepts here are deep and often open to more than one interpretation -- those come out in a group setting.
Read carefully. Be sure you understand the subtleties of what he's saying. If you give this one a shallow reading, you're likely to misinterpret. If you do, you'll loose a lot.
I'd put this at the top of my favorites books in a list of books for writers along with Jack Bickham's, Dwight Swain's and Gary Provost's books on the craft.
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on June 5, 2000
This is no easy read (especially for a non-native speaker like me), but it's worth the troubles. As some other reviewer mentioned the language doesn't really flow, but this in part due to the deepness of thought contained in each paragraph. You can't just scan this book in some hours (like other books on creative writing I've skimmed through); only by reading carefully and slowly (as I was obliged to by my lack of English fluency...) you will enjoy Gardner's artistic sensitivity. All right, he is a literary snob as someone wrote - but there are too many others who make art look like something that can easily be described with some simple recipes. Gardner's true love for literature shows in every sentence and it's probably exactly his meaning of literary "truth" that makes him difficult to read sometimes. Other books I've read on the topic left me with a feeling of oversimplification, of missing the point by showing just the surface of the literary process. "The art of fiction" provides what its title promisses: an inspiring introduction to the ART of WRITING. And this means that this is neither another book on the theory of literature nor some Reader's-Digest-like "How to write a novel in ten steps" but a book on the THEORY of WRITING. I do not know of any other book that shows the literary process in such a sensitive way. If you're offended by the word theory, know that the exercices at the end of the book are extremely helpful and intelligent. They shed light on practical AND conceptual problems (and possibilities!) you maybe wouldn't have thought of without doing them. Great book.
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