On Becoming a Novelist

ISBN: 0844671207
ISBN 13: 9780844671208
By: John Gardner

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Reader's Thoughts

Jason Carlin

There's little point in expounding on what's written about in this book. It would only be a less than convincing repeat of what Gardner does himself. All I can say is that if you care at all about writing - and not exclusively novels, as the title suggests, but any writing at all - then read it. At times the writing can be quite awkward. Its meaning is still there, but parenthesis and vile amounts of commas can occasionally disrupt the overall flow. Despite this, the scope of what's inside can't be overvalued. You don't feel for a second that here's a man who wrote all this to simply make some money. He feels passionately about writing, and therefore when you read the book he transfers that passion to you. And let me say that it is in no way just a pep talk for writing - he's not afraid to list out the possible signs which will suggest writing isn't for you. He's wholly serious about the craft, and proves as much throughout the slim 150 pages, which contain zero bullshit. I'd give it a five only for Gardner holds strongly to the belief that situation can never be the initial source of a novel's creation(and perhaps that literary writing is the kind one should pursue). I respect that it's an admirable standpoint to have, and that he fully believes it, but I've read too many good novels to be able to believe it myself. All the same, incredibly insightful.


While it is entertaining indeed to watch Gardner work himself into a snooty lather over pretty much anyone, aside from a chosen few, with the *gall* to publish a book, this text focuses far too much on the beginning writer and "art" to be of much practical or psychological use to those with more writing experience and/or ambitions of a lower altitude. The man can write a sentence, though, which ultimately makes this book a worthwhile read.


This slim volume is an easy read with a lot of insightful commentary by a well-respected writer. I've never read any of Gardner's novels, but I may have to try one just to see how what he said about the writing process played out in practice. The book is a mix of "How to write" fundamentals that go deeper than just "Don't overuse adverbs" and personal reflections on how the writing process works for him. It's aimed quite explicitly at those who really want to make a career as a novelist, not just those who think they want to write a novel, and it's also heavily biased towards literary fiction; he tries to acknowledge sci-fi/fantasy and mysteries and other genres without sounding dismissive, but somewhat reluctantly.Some of the most useful bits are when Gardner analyzes snippets from authors like Melville and Hemingway and himself, and shows why a particular piece of writing does or does not show the author's best work, and how you can see even the masters developing their craft over time.Besides the writing process, he also talks about the writing career, including what you can do with an MFA besides be a novelist (answer: teach), day jobs that are good for writers (there's a bit of naivete in his suggestion that any would-be writer can go get a job like fire watcher that allows lots of unsupervised writing time), and writing workshops. Some of the nuts and bolts stuff is dated now: Gardner died in 1982, so there is no mention of word processors or the internet, both of which have obviously had a major impact on the writing profession. But most of it is still relevant, and will always be relevant as long as there are novelists.

Емануил Томов

Прекрасна книга - и за напъпващите писатели, по-конкретно романисти, и за по-обща ориентация що е то "достоен" роман и към какво следва да се стреми младият романист, "that saint among men", както се изразява шеговито Гарднър. Разбира се, леко спорна е тезата, че съществуват обективни критерии за достоен роман, но пък аз лично изпитвам дълбоко недоверие към обратната: че всичко е въпрос на вкус и всичко е субективизъм, че всяка художествено-морална(не дидактично-морализаторстваща) система, да не говорим за техническа реализация, е тъждествена на всяка друга. Тази, последната теза, всъщност е толкова широко и безкритично разпространявана, че си струва човек от време на време да чуе интелигентна аргументация в другата посока. Книгата е кратка, много ясно структурирана и ярко вдъхновяваща.

Ken Beck

This short primer, very confessional and personal in nature, spoke directly to me. Gardner speaks of conjuring the fictive dream and getting it down on paper. I've done that myself twice in this year. My two novels began, as Gardner describes, as visions, as dreams, that would not let me alone until a draft was complete. I did not experience the agony Gardner experienced with a draft, but that is likely because I am becoming and not there. On the other side of the drafting is where everything Gardner tells of is vitally welcome. I ate this up, reading it in this one day. It will stand over me as I revise.It is meant for just this situation.The least useful is the material on publishing. The self-published ebook was nowhere to be seen in Gardner's time. The story about barging into an editor's office and demanding a reading and having this result in an on-the-spot sale would nowadays not even work in the most preposterous of fictions. But this makes what Gardner has to say all the more important: write it right. Take the time. Don't put out an inferior product. Hire the editor, if necessary. Go find the workshops. His advice on this is good. He tells it like it is. He knows what he's talking about. He's pessimistic about rewards. (The better it is, the pay is worse.) I'll read it again and again, because I care about good writing.


A book that is somehow simultaneously enlightening and depressing. Gardner offers up advice that ends up being a bit less about HOW to write a novel than WHAT it takes to be a novelist. And what it takes, it turns out, is desire, a strong work ethic, high artistic standards and low monetary expectations. It was interesting to see that a lifelong professional like Gardner encountered the same day-to-day hangups that I do. So the book is an eye opener to some degree, though a beginning writer may find it less despairing to toil under the happy veil of self-delusion they could maintain previous to reading it. Recommended to anyone who is trying to buckle down and really write that novel they always wanted to. It'll give you a good idea as to what to expect.

Kevin Hickey

An incredibly enjoyable read for anyone interested in writing and the writing process. It’s also a very easy book to read, which is a testament to Mr. Gardner’s crisp, clear writing style. Given the rate of changes within the book industry I would suspect that some of the information may be obsolete at this stage, particularly in relation to agents and publishers, however, this should in no way deter anyone from reading this slender gem of a book. The book addresses a number of topics that a budding writer would be interested in i.e. the nature of the writer, perseverance, dealing with disappointment. It also includes a few healthy doses of reality for the new writer lest they get carried away with the perceived ease of it all, or with romantic notions of the writers life. I have heard it said that this book was a great source of support for new writers, however, it wasn’t really the pep-talk that I had imagined, it was simply a book full of insightful and helpful and interesting information, some supportive, others realistic. A very worthwhile read.

Betty Cross

Controversial novelist, short story writer, and writing teacher John Gardner died in 1982 at the age of 49, shortly before publication of this, his last book. It's a book of advice for the aspiring young writer. I acquired one on publication, when I was in my early thirties, struggling with the science fiction novel that later became "Discarded Faces."I learned a lot from this book, but the most valuable lesson was that -- based on what this book contains -- I did have what it takes to become a successful fiction writer, in the sense of producing publishable material. I know this now because I've published two novels, with more on the way. I recommend it to any aspiring writer, or even to a well-established one who has read and admired Gardner.


Lots of practical advice for writers, specifically novelists, but with plenty of entertainment and comic value along the way. Enjoyable book for anyone interested in writing, even if they have no plans of writing a novel.


Something I really loved about this book was how Gardner encourages honestly - he doesn't glorify the writing life, nor does he make you feel bad if you can't stick it out. Workshops and education are given their own section. I found it refreshing that Gardner didn't hail MFA programs as the answer, despite his background in the academic sector. He's good at showing the pros and cons to everything he brings up, putting information out there for the reader to interpret and decide what is best for themselves. Gardner writes for the "young writer" or "beginning writer," but he also addresses getting published, getting an agent, and interpreting feedback from editors, lumped together in a section appropriately titled Publication and Survival. The section after that? Faith. Gardner takes time to address issues with short stories and even poetry. Doing so didn't make the book feel like it was tackling too much, either - it was all well-balanced and informative regardless of what you're writing. (More in-depth review with quotes: http://www.allisonwrites.com/2012/02/...)

Donavan Dufault

Simply the best book on writing, or at least on writers, I've ever laid my hands on. If you write, read this book!

William Torgerson

It was either in this or in "The Art of Fiction" where Gardner writes something like, "I never knew anyone who really wanted to become a writer who didn't eventually become one."


Gardner understood why he wrote and had experience enough teaching to generalize. He comes off preachy, opinionated, rigid, and on occasion incredibly elitist in what qualifies and "art", but read as one man's opinions about what it takes to be a novelist it was incredibly interesting.I was somewhat disappointed that there weren't more concrete examples of what he considered to be exemplary writing. However, having now read the book, that really wasn't what he was trying to say, it's what I was projecting on the book based on flipping through it at the bookstore. He offers a very clear picture of what, in his opinion, it takes to be a novelist with some tips for those that fit the mold.


This book focuses not on writing technique, but on the writer. It is insightful, funny and informative. I found it a great comfort to read, as if I kept saying 'oh, that's why I am the way I am' all the way through.


He knows what he's talking about--It's a short book (just over 140 pages) and reads elegantly throughout. The book doesn't provide practical advice on fiction writing. It's more a book about what it takes to be a novelist. Some issues he takes up are outdated (e.g. he considers a question he was often asked: typewriter or pen?), but overall, the book is full of useful gems for anyone thinking about becoming a writer.I for one was happy to find in it confirmations of my own beliefs about what a literary fiction should be. My own interpretation: it should be a fictive dream = it should transport the reader to another reality = it should be entertaining. Of course, there is more to it, but to maintain what John Gardner calls a "fictive dream," it's got to be entertaining, or engaging first and foremost because if the story doesn't draw the reader in, dreaming can't begin.John Gardner has also nailed down my exact experience of writing a novel and I just wished that I had read this book and his other, more technical book on writing, The Art of Fiction when I was working on my novel. They could've saved so much time I had to spend as a result of plunging in without much of a plot and getting inevitably confused.So without further ado, I just bought his other book online, and will be savoring every bit of advice he has in it.A word of warning: this book - and I'm guessing his other one - is not for everyone. He is, I think, more of a literary fiction writer than anything else. And as a perennial lover of philosophy, classics, and literature, I appreciate his literary references (Mann, Melville, Faulkner, Flaubert, etc.) and can't agree more on his beliefs about what literature should be. So anyone who isn't literary-minded, his books might prove burdensome and, at times, pretentious.A really good book

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