On Becoming a Novelist

ISBN: 0844671207
ISBN 13: 9780844671208
By: John Gardner

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Reader's Thoughts

Edward ONeill

Gardner writes clearly and elegantly. I've never read his novels, but as I teach screenwriting, I wanted his take on how writers develop. Much of what he says jibes with my own experiences, and he has a wider view. He treats different literary styles, and he can describe the skills and career path of the short story writer vs. the novelist.Many small chunks of the book are worth the price of admission. Gardner has a wonderful characterization of what makes a first-rate novelist: one type is an SOB who is interesting to hear rant but who is a terrible human being, and who may be the narrator or the main character. So, yes, Nabokov, among others. In short, this brief book is the product of thought and care, and it shows wonderful insights.


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.

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.

Kressel Housman

Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird has just fallen to the #3 position in my list of favorite writing books. I don't think she'd mind, though, as she herself sings the praises of John Gardner in her book with, "What he says about plot is so succinct it will make you want to sit up and howl." What he says about plot is this: all stories boil down to protagonist wants something, goes after it, and ends up with either a win, a lose, or a draw. That's pretty good, but what makes me want to sit up and howl is what he had to say about writer's block. It's a form of perfectionism, of course, but really, there's no reason to get it. The writer simply must bear in mind that writing is like any other human activity. There's no reason to feel guilty for not doing it, and there's no reason to feel enormously proud for having done it.Anyone who's tried to be a serious and professional writer will find nuggets of wisdom just like that throughout this book. Unlike his The Art of Fiction, which is more about craft, this book takes on the question that so many writers ask themselves, "Do I really have what it takes?" Talent is part of the equation, of course, but so is persistence and patience. But not only does Gardner address these psychological issues, he goes into practical ones, like earning a living and finding the right support group.Has this book solved my writer's block? It may have, a little. I don't know if I'll start working on my fiction again tonight, but at least I have a few ideas about how to slowly work writing back into my life again. More importantly, I think I learned a little to lower my expectations of success.

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."


"Finally, the true novelist is the one who doesn't quit. Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or "way," an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world. Its benefits are quasi-religious--a changed quality of mind and heart, satisfactions no non-novelist can understand--and its rigors generally bring no profit except to the spirit. For those who are authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits are enough."My third (fourth?) reread of this book, and definitely not the last. I understand and appreciate Gardner's advice more each time. His tastes (heavy realism) are to be taken with a grain of salt, but he is a grand authority on what this kind of life is, and what to look forward to and look out for.

Rosina Lippi

If our furniture was as poorly made as our fiction, we would always be falling onto the floor. -- John Gardner I have, and appreciate, Gardner's books on writing. By all accounts he was a fantastic teacher, and the exercises in On Becoming a Novelist bear that out. Anyone confused about POV will benefit especially from many of the short writing prompts. What worries me about his approach - and the current fashion in the literary genre specifically -- is this kind of quote. General condemnations always set my teeth on edge. Gardner's exercises are very good, but what does a statement like this mean? Who is behind "our fiction?" I'm guessing he doesn't include himself in that crowd. So my take on this book is this: read it for the excellent exercises, but otherwise, be wary of Gardner's exclusionary and narrow mindset.

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!


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.


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/...)


While there are some great bits of advice here, they're lost amid too many opinions and an overdose of rigidity.

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.


The first half of this book really made me get my ass in gear when it came to sitting down at the chair and writing. I wish Gardner were still alive to today so that he could comment on the evolving (devolving?) literary landscape. Some of the later sections are dated, but he succeeds in illuminating the writer life and the mindset necessary to pursuing it.

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.


Gardner has the humor and intelligence of Strunk and White with the conversational narrative of a stern, yet friendly teacher.I'm surprised that I have never heard of this book at school. I find it to be text-book worthy for any English or Creative Writing Course. I only happened upon this because it was a gift from my parents from a used book store, and it is absolute gold.This book gives you the basic principles of writing a novel; even if the novel isn't your goal, it will help with writing too. I recommend it to anyone who wants to write well.

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