John Gardner (American writer)

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John Gardner in 1979

John Champlin Gardner Jr. (July 21, 1933 – September 14, 1982) was an American novelist, essayist, literary critic and university professor.
He published ten volumes of criticism, five books for children, two works of poetry, two collections of short stories, and eight novels. He died in a motorcycle accident at age 49.

See also: Grendel


  • [John Gardner would] take one of my early efforts at a story and go over it with me. I remember him as being very patient, wanting me to understand what he was trying to show me, telling me over and over how important it was to have the right words saying what I wanted them to say. Nothing vague or blurred, no smoked-glass prose. And he kept drumming at me the importance of using—I don't know how else to say it—common language, the language of normal discourse, the language we speak to each other in.
    [...] All I know is that the advice he was handing out in those days was just what I needed at that time. He was a wonderful teacher. It was a great thing to have happen to me at that period of my life, to have someone who took me seriously enough to sit down and go over a manuscript with me. I knew something crucial was happening to me, something that mattered. He helped me to see how important it was to say exactly what I wanted to say and nothing else; not to use "literary" words or "pseudo-poetic" language.
    He taught me to use contractions in my writing. He helped show me how to say what I wanted to say and to use the minimum number of words to do so. He made me see that absolutely everything was important in a short story. It was of consequence where the commas and periods went.
  • I don't know how Gardner might have been with other students when it came time to have conferences with them about their work. I suspect he gave everybody a good amount of attention. But it was and still is my impression that during that period he took my stories more seriously, read them closer and more carefully, than I had any right to expect. I was completely unprepared for the kind of criticism I received from him. Before our conference he would have marked up my story, crossing out unacceptable sentences, phrases, individual words, even some of the punctuation; and he gave me to understand that these deletions were not negotiable. In other cases he would bracket sentences, phrases, or individual words, and these were items we'd talk about, these cases were negotiable. And he wouldn't hesitate to add something to what I'd written—a word here and there, or else a few words, maybe a sentence that would make clear what I was trying to say. We'd discuss commas in my story as if nothing else in the world mattered more at that moment—and, indeed, it did not. He was always looking to find something to praise. When there was a sentence, a line of dialogue, or a narrative passage that he liked, something that he thought "worked" and moved the story along in some pleasant or unexpected way, he'd write "Nice" in the margin, or else "Good!" And seeing these comments, my heart would lift.
    It was close, line-by-line criticism he was giving me, and the reasons behind the criticism, why something ought to be this way instead of that; and it was invaluable to me in my development as a writer. After this kind of detailed talk about the text, we'd talk about the larger concerns of the story, the "problem" it was trying to throw light on, the conflict it was trying to grapple with, and how the story might or might not fit into the grand scheme of story writing. It was his conviction that if the words in the story were blurred because of the author's insensitivity, carelessness, or sentimentality, then the story suffered a tremendous handicap. But there was something even worse and something that must be avoided at all costs: if the words and the sentiment were dishonest, the author was faking it, writing about things he didn't care about or believe in, then nobody could ever care anything about it.
    A writer's value and craft. This is what the man taught and what he stood for, and this is what I've kept by me in the years since that brief but all-important time.
    • Raymond Carver. "John Gardner: The Writer as Teacher". (Raymond Carver's Foreword to John Gardner's book "On Becoming a Novelist" (1983), published shortly after John Gardner's death.]


On Moral Fiction (1977)[edit]

  • Technically our novelists (for instance) are shrewd enough, and publishers and reviewers seem, as never before, eager to be of use. Nevertheless, wherever we look it's the same: commercial slickness, misplaced cleverness, posturing, wild floundering -- dullness. Though not widely advertised, this is general knowledge. When one talks with editors of serious fiction, they all sound the same: they speak of their pleasure and satisfaction in their work, but more often than not the editor cannot think, under the moment's pressure, of a single contemporary writer he really enjoys reading. Some deny, even publicly, that any first-rate American novelists now exist. The ordinary reader has been saying that for years...
    • pp. 56-57 (in the HarperCollins BasicBooks edition), "Premises on Art and Morality"
  • True art is by its nature moral. We recognize true art by its careful, thoroughly honest search for and analysis of values.
    • p. 19 (in the HarperCollins BasicBooks edition), "Premises on Art and Morality"

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