- On Becoming a Novelist, and: Art and Ardor, and: Voices: A Memoir
What makes the extracurricular duties of fiction writers so persuasive is the vested sense of authority carried over from their art. Thus Gardner's presence as a successful and serious novelist insures his advice on how to follow his path. Prokosch, himself a voice from the past, authenticates his role as an artist by asking support from luminaries of the past who also share his metier. Ozick, whose reputation is largely formed from her short story collections, brings to her first book of essays a familiarly impassioned and polemical signature that links the art of the stories with the ardor of her nonfiction. The press of recognized authority, not the modesty of an unknown voice, directs the focus of all three books.
Gardner's book-length essay is not concerned with craft, but with hands-around-the-shoulder reassurance. He wishes to quell the beginning writer's fears "by making plain what the life of the novelist is like; what the novelist needs to guard against, inside himself and outside; what he can reasonably expect, and what, in general, he cannot." To this end, Gardner discusses the writer's nature, his training and education, the chances of publication and survival in the marketplace, and the need to maintain faith and confidence. The general effect is of an older writer addressing a younger self and recollecting the various innate and acquired skills developed, psychologically and creatively, before the mastery of the present moment. The first section, "The Writer's Nature," especially reveals the discriminating mind setting up standards. Here, Gardner discusses the need for verbal sensitivity, the "right ear" that would allow for the best expression of mainstream realism (not the "word fanaticism" of Stendhal, Flaubert, or Nabokov, the vocabulary of "highly intellectual novelists"). Besides authentically original language, the writer's eye needs development and training, and Gardner argues for a "bold idiosyncrasy" that would individualize the writer's vision in such a way as to provide "a vivid and continuous dream in the reader's mind." Inevitably, a psychological wound is helpful, because it creates the "daemonic compulsiveness" in the writer to persevere against the odds.
Gardner's essay moves back and forth from the psychological profile to the harsher facts of life. Often, he discusses the nuts and bolts of the trade in the form of harsh pronouncements. "Most rejected fiction is rejected because it's not good." "Getting a good agent can be almost as hard as getting a good publisher." "The writer who survives by teaching writing may discover that his teaching hurts his art." "The best way a writer can find to keep himself going is to live off his (or her) spouse." These are not pleasant things to contemplate, but they are as nothing compared to writer's block. Gardner tells of a hair-raising time when Mickelsson's Ghost refused to yield a crucial three [End Page 428] chapters. It took a steady year of revision and writing before the scene crystalized in the mind.
Does Gardner finally satisfy the fatal question, what makes a good writer? Probably as far as any guide can hope to. With its combination of practical advice, exploration of the writer's chemistry, and firsthand experience, the book is invaluable for the beginning novelist. And as a repository for Gardner's attitudes and opinions, it will also serve as an essential place to seek out the artist of Grendel and Nickel Mountain.
If Gardner's low-keyed, encouraging voice is located slightly above his material, then Ozick's zealous and domineering voice is right there on the battlefield, arguing for feminism, Orthodox Judaism, and the well-made novel. If Ozick loves to dissent, she does so with courage, taking on opponents, such as Harold Bloom (a Jew who worships the gold calf, Literature); Freud (a man who confused anatomy with selfhood); and E...