I’m reading another John R Gardner book on writing, On Becoming a Novelist. The other book, I forget the name off-hand, but the one culled from his writing class notes, is much more tolerant and understanding. This one, he’s right, you know he’s right, but he’s a cantankerous old writing teacher that’s had it with some particular types of crap.
For example, he goes off about genre fiction, especially sci-fi. (He doesn’t call it science fiction; he calls it sci-fi.) As an example of how crappy sci-fi is, he uses…Harlan Ellison.
I’ve read some Harlan Ellison, that looking back, I know completely abrogates (is that the word?) Gardner’s point. But the example Gardner used, from “Over the Edge” (the second Jack the Ripper story), he’s right on:
“It’s not often that people will tell you how they really feel about gut-level things. […] A psycopath, a butcher, a lecher, a hypocrite, a clown. ‘You did this to me! Why did you do this?’ Frenzy cloaked his words.”
“This is not the Pollyanna style favored by hack writers of the twenties and thirties but the hack-writer style that superseded it, disPollyanna. Sunny optimism, with its fondness for italics, gives way to an ill-founded cynicism, also supported by italics […]. One is annoyed because the whole thing is phony, an imitation of things too often imitated before. The problem with such writers, it ought to be mentioned, is not that they are worse people than those who wrote in Pollyanna. They are almost exactly the same people: idealists, people who simple-mindedly long for goodness, justice, and sanity; the difference is one of style.”
I’ve read two Gardner books, aside from his stuff on writing, Grendel and The Wreckage of Agathon. Grendel, is inspired in places. Agathon is genuinely moving in places. Maybe that’s all he was going for. They aren’t immortal books, the way Dumas or Robert Louis Stevenson or Tolkein books are immortal. Gardner, as good as he is (and he’s saying things I need to hear), isn’t everything.
I keep thinking of an old creative writing teacher I had in college. It’s like he took the cantankerousness out of this book and skipped the inspiration, and that’s what he taught.* I rejected everything he said, because he made it into an insult toward pure dreaming, and how to catch that on paper. Going back and reading Gardner now, I can have respect for it.
Anyway, just some thoughts.