The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers

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The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers

THE NOTESONCRAF FORYOTING\TRITER ALMOST JOHN GARDNER\TAS as he was for his as famous as-arcacherof creativewriting b

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THE

NOTESONCRAF FORYOTING\TRITER

ALMOST JOHN GARDNER\TAS as he was for his

as famous as-arcacherof creativewriting based own works. In this Practical'instructive handbook' he explains' he gave, on the coursesand seminarsthat of ;i-piy and cogently, the principles and techniques good wrltlng.

gets "It will fascinate anyone interested in how fictiur a bacome will it writer put ogether For the young '.r...rri'ru encouraging an tttttt handbook, a iudge, invesfriend...in che first half of the book, Gardner treats he half' second In the is. rigatesiust what fiction with filled is Fioion Art of The sJecific'technicalmatters. licrure, counsel,wise encouragement'" -John lJHeureux, The New YorkTinet BooAReaiew not iust "A denselypackedbook of adviceto all writers, and young onar...It is serious'Provocativ€and.funny' lirerature"' about cares who anyorre to it i ...5--*a -Margaret Manning, The BoslonGlobe "He lap out virtually everything a Persor-lmight want to k ro* ltbout] how to sayit, with good and bad examin a ple, and iudgments falling like autumn leaves Ncrvemberstorrn." Post -William McPherson,The Washington "The next best thing to a graduate workshop i" T' tionwriting. Dra*iig on examplesfrom Homer to Kafka of to Joyce Caiol Oat.t,-Gardner unravels the-mpteries view'" of point and diction plJt, se.tterrcestructute, -Book-of-the Month Club News

Inc' C-overdcsign by Keith Sheridan Associates,

JheART-

,fFICTION Notes on Gaft for YoungWriters

JOHNGARDNER

VintageBooks A Divisionof RandomHouse New York

CoPytight Fim VintageBooksEdition,Jrnuary 1985. @ rcSrby th6 Estateof JohnGardner.All rightsreserved undei InternationelandPan-AmericanCopyright Publishedin the United StatesbyRandom Conventions. in Cenadaby House,Inc, New York, andsimultaneously RandomHouseof CenadaLimited,Toronto. Origindly publishedby Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. in tp8+ is madeto the following for Gratefulacknowledgment permissionto repri-ntpreviouslypublishedmaterid: Farar, SrrausandGiroux, lnc.: Excerptfrom'Views of Mv FatherWeepins" from Ciry Life,'copyright@ 1969, Reprintedby permision of r6loby Donald'Barthelme. Farrar,StrausandGiroux,Inc' This pieie first appeared inThe New Yorker.Excerptfrom "i'he FancyWoman' fromThe CollectedStoriisof PeterTaylor,copyright r94r,1969,renewed1968by PeterTaylor. Reprintedby permissionof Farrar,StrausandGiroux,Inc. RandomFfouse,Inc.: Excerptfrom SettmGotbic Toles, by IsakDinesen,copyrightiqr+ by HarrisonSmithanil 'Robert Haas,Inc.,cofyright renewedI96ub-yIsak Dinesen.Reprintedbv peimilsionof RandomHouse,Inc. From the Iirtroductiorito Superfictionor tbe Ameicert StoryTmnsformed:An Anthology,by JoeD*id Bellamy,copyright@ 1975by JoeDavidBellamy. of RandomHouse,Inc. Repriited b! permission Simon& Schuster:ExcerptfromThe Gentlemanftom SanFrrnciscoby IvanBunin,translatedby OlgaSharae' by WashingtonSquarePres,Inc. copyright @'1963 'Rcpiinted by peimissionof Simon& Schuster. Library of Congres Catalogingin PublicationDrtr Gardner,John,1933The en of ficdon. Includesindex. t. Fiction-Technique.I. Tide. PN3355.G341985 8o8.1 %-+ooo6 (Pbk.) ISBN o-39a-7zs++-r Manufacturedlinthe United Statesof America

To allmy aedive+riting nde*s, ml m allny fellau urcbertof cteaivewitkg

Contents

Preface [trl PART I

Theory Notc onLitemry-Acsthetic t Aexhaic Lmt rnd Aninic Mlnery |ll Drern ItZJ z BuicSkilb,GnrqcndFictionas bgl 1 lnnest ndTnnb q MetafiertoarDeconsttaetion, anillwing Aroand [8:] PART N

NotesontheFictionalProces Enors tgZl 5 Cormnon 6 Teclmirye Uztl 7 Plotting b6tl Ex*cises bgfl Inder

lzolJ

Preface

Thi$ is r book designedto teachthc seriousbeginnirg wrircc dre art of fiction I esunrefrom the ouset that the would-bc writer rsing this book cen becomer succesful vniter if hc wents m, sinqemostof the peopleI've known who rranted to bccomewriterg knowing what h meent,rlid becomewriters About dl that b requiredis that thc would-be writc understandclearly what it is that he wrrts ro becomeaud whet hs must do to becomeit If no mener how hard hc tries he simply qurnot do whet he mus do, thb book wi[ h.lp hir understrod why he \rns not sent into the world to bc r writer but for sorneotlrr noble purpooa Books on midqg tend to mstc much of how dilficult it is o becomer succesful writer, but the truth is draq though thc ability to vnite well b pertryrr giftJike the ability to ple)'basketballwe[ or to outgues thc stoct mark*-writing ability b mainly a product of good teachingsupponedby a deepdown love of writing. Thoogh learningo write tekestime md r grert deal of pnaicc, writiog op to the rrcrldb ordinary sundardsis frirly eeqy.As r metterof fect, mostof the bools onefindsin drugstores,supcfmarLets,end evensmall-townpublic librariesrrc nor welt wrhm rt ell; I snart chinp with e good creetire-vriting tc.ctrcs

ir

Preface md r recl lovc of sining rround bangingI typcwriter oould hlvc wrincn bools vasdy morc intcrestingrnd clcgane Moct grown-up bchavior,when you comcright down to it' is decidcdly second-clas.Peopledon't drivc their czrsaswell, or wash their ccn aswell, or eat eswcll, or cvenplay thc harmonicaas well asthcy would if thcy had sensc.This is not to $ry poplc rrc tcrriblc rnd should be replaccdby machincs;peoplc arc cxccllent rnd admirablccreaturesieffciency isn't cverything. But for the scriorsyoung writer who wantsto get publishc4 it is encouragingto know that most of thc profasional writers out thcreareptsh-overs The insuuctionhereis not for cvery kind of writer-not for the writer of nurscbooksor thrillen or Porno or thc cheapcr sort of sci-fi-though it is mrc that what holds for the most scriouskind of fiction will gcncrally hold for iunk fiction as wcll. (Not cveryoneis caprblc of writing iunk fiction: It re' quira an ruthentic iunk mind. Most oeativc-wrfuingteachgn hevchad thc cxpcrienceof occasiondlyhelpingto produce,by rccidcntnr pornographer.The most eleganttechniqucsin the world, filtcredthrougha iunk mind,becomcelegantiunk techniqua.) What fosaidhcrrc,whatcvcruseit may bc to others,is saidfor thc clite; that is, for seriousliterary artiss. Thc instruction is presentedin nvo somcwhatoverlapping pans.In Part One, I prcsentr generalthcory of fiction" r much closcrlook at what 6cdon is-what it does,how it works-than is usual in bool$ on craft. Undcrstandingvery clcarly what 6cdon "go€sfor," how it worls asr modeof thought, in short what thc ert of fiction is, is the first steptoward writing well. In Pan Two, I dealwith specifictechnicalmattersand ofrer writing orcrcises. Needlessto sey' neithersectionof this book is exhaustive.I havc includcd here everything that, over the ycars, I have found it necesseryto sty es a crcativc-writing teacher.Some thingr ultimetely of great imPoftanceI have found it not ncccsaly to &ly; so thcy are not in this book. Let me give rn

?reface

d

cmmpla Thc skillful writcr mey play gameewith narativc *yles and poina of view. Hc man for instencc uscthc tonc of thc old Germentalc-tcller ("At thc nrn of thc ccntury, in thc provincc of D--, tkrc lived . . J'), and hc mxy usc that tong which suggestsgreat ruthority, in r story wherc in thc end wc discoverthc narrator to bc unrcliablc.For the writer who has thoroughly digcsted rhe principlc offered in thit boolq it should bc unnecesaryto call rnention to whet thc weirdly ironic usc of tonc and stylc mrst do to the narretivc. Seizcthe trunk of rny scicncesecurelnrnd you haveconuol of its branches. I may aswcll edd that I do not givc much emphasishcrc to thc variors forms of unconventionalfiction now popular in universitics Sincc mctafction b by nemre r fiaion-like critique of conventionalf,ction, and sinceso-caltcddcconstructivc fction (think of Roben Coover'sstory "Noah's Brother") uscsconventionalmethods,it scemsto mc more important that young writcrs undcrstandconvendonalfiction in dl is conr plcxity than that thcy bc roo much distractcdfrom the fundamcntal. This book rnd thc cxerciscsar rhe cnd of it havcbccn uscd for many ycars in thc various univcnitic wherc I've taught creativcwriting, most recently SUNY-Bingh:rmtor\and rt thc Brcad Loaf Writers' C-onferencgand at universitic whert friends of mine havc aught crcativc writing. In is underground designationas "Thc Black Boolq" it has had e wide circulation emongwriters and tcachers,most of them not people I knoq friendsof friends.I've gonenperiodiccommentson thc book's effectivencss, and et the edviceof othcrs who havc usedit I've rcviscd both the main text and thc exercisesagain and again.I do not publish it now becauseit seemsto me to haveat lasrreachedpcrfection-for all I know, all the changes may havcmadeit a hymn to confusion-but becauscI'm convinccd that in its prescntstageit's good enoughand, so far rs I'm amrc, the mosthelpfulbookof its kind.

!l

hefae

trnsomcadic vcrsion*I hrd m oPafttgsectiono how crcetivcuidng oughtto beuugln-+hc ProP6uscof b- rnd how muchshouldbe rcquiredof otuout-of-clzscxercises, dents,whetthe propertoneof r worbhop shouldbc .od so of the wiilo forth. I thoughtthe dirusion imporambecarse reallybc clnnot writing notion thet ml*rken "creative ryread crcetivewriting by even ooghg" rn opinionofteo exprescd teachersIn drc endI've droppcdthat scctionsinceit liesomcidcthedomainof thisboo\ whichis simplyhowto s'rite fio tio. Anyoneinterestedin hesringmy o,pinions(n m$terl nore angrntiel from how one shouldonduct e wrfuers' worbhopto whetheroneshouldwrite with I P€ncil'I PGILor r typeuniter,can6nd theurin enotherbookof mine(answen ot lcctures)' moctcommonlyrsted afterrcedinSF to questions OaBeconkgaNovelist.

NOTESON LITERARY-AESTHETIC THEORY

AestheticLaw

andArtisticMysrcry

Whrt thc bcginningwriter ordinarily wantslr e sct of nrlc on whet to do and whrt not to do in writing 6ction. As wc'll scc, oomc general principlcs can bc sct down (Thingp to Think About When Writing Fiaion) andsomcvcry gcneralwarnings can bc offercd (Thinp to Watch Out For); but on thc wholc thc searchfor aesthcticabsolutcsis a misapplicationof thc unitcr'r cncrgy. When one beginsto be prsuaded rhrt certain things must nevcr be done in fiction and cenain other things must alweys bc done, one has cntercd the first stegeof aesthctic anhritb" thc diseascthat cnds up in pcdantic rigidiry and thc etrophy of intuition. Evcqy truc work of an-and thus cvcry ettcmpt at art (since things mcant to bc similar must submit to onc standard)-must bc iudgcd primarily, though not exclusively,by its own laws.If it hasno laws,or if its laws arcincoherent, it feils-usually-on thatbasis. Trustwonhy aathetic universalsdo cxist, but they exist at such r high level of absuectionas to offcr almostno guidencc to the writer. Mosr supposedaestheticebeolutesprove relative undcrpressure. They'rc lrws, but thcy slip.Think, for instancc, of the wcll-known dicrum that all cxpectarionsraisedby thc work of fiction mustbc srtisficd,cxplicitly or implicitln within

flTEORI NOTESON LTTEMRY-AESTITETrc

thc fiction-the idea,to Put it anotherw.y' thet all legitimatc questionsmisedin the reader'smind must be answered,howwer nrbtly, insidethe work. Thrs, for examplgif we arc told thn a shirifi in a given story has r Ph.D. in philoaophy'an expecution is raisedthat philosophy will somehowhelp him dohis fob. If philosophyis neveragainmentionedin the story and if the most carefulscrutiny of the story revealsno import $t wey in which philcophy hasbearing'we feel dissetisfie4 annoyed.The story has,we say, Iooeeends The writer hr done his work carelesly, cynically. We may susPcctthc wont of him, that he'sin it for the monen that he scornshis reeder'r intelligencg that his shoddy crafnmanshipb intentional end malicious-in fact that he ought to be deponed.If he preten& to high seriousness-ifhe writes not Nmy$e{f story but sorne thing evidently meantto Pastas ert-we denourrcehim s a faki a pretentious,self-deludeddonzel We're not talking here rbout superficialslips lite-h Absdottt, Absalon!4^tllrnefs descriptionof r houseasbuilt of, in one Passegcwood rn4 in anoth"r place,stone.For mistakesof thi,skind, es for slip of the tongue, the sympatheticrerder makessilent correctios The mistakesthet ofiend in e would-bewort of ert .re seriour slipo in reasoning,as when someider or event is inuoduced that ought to changethe outcomebut then b forgonen' u never recognizedfor what it s, by the writer. And so it hr cometo bJaxiometicthat r work shoulderffiwerwery questirn it raises,that all of r work'e elemensshouldfulfill themselve* Butbittme? No one will deny thlt the principle b useful' especidly abore c when applied in obvious wayq es in the exampleswhen Chikhov showsus the gun ostentatiusly loadedin Act One of Tbe Seagtll.No one will deny that eachtimc a writer believeshe'scompleted. new work, he ought to loot it over in the light of this generalprinciple.But the fact remainsthat thc luppfu aestheticlaw is far from absolutg since from tlrc bqgl""l"g of time greet unfuershavechovmimprtiencewith i:

Aenhaic ltu ard Ardtt c Mlnery

t

E"ery rcadcrof Homer'sltiadb stirrealto sk whetherAchillc lcally lovesBriseusor simplythinls of her-+s Aganremnon does-esr war priza The point b importantbecause it pro foundlyrffectsour iudgmentof Achillc'chancter. If he both hvesBriseusandcpnsiders her his righdul prize (asof counc sheb), we haveadeguete motivationfor hisrvithdrawdfron t{revnr, r withdrawelthet mustresultin the deethof ftirnd!. If hc doesnot lovc her,lre b lik.ly ro soemto us petty md vindictive,r sulkychild too sensitive, evenfor r Grech about hb honor.Criricalgd will andHomer'shighvaluetionof hb herohrd usto es$rmc tlut Achillc doesloveBdserudrough dso,rs thenrenty-fourthbookmrkcscleer,hecxaggemtcc tho vdueof honorof thesonbestowed by othersBut erctpt onog b-"dy, thrcughthe mouthurd p,cnntof view of e sccondery chrnctcr (Achilles'friendhtroHoc), Homcrrcfr$cssny d irv€r to otu questioo. It's esif the whoh mattfr scerndo him bcnestheph dignir'', mcrctcr-tablcgoslp pbrhepc,s torm scholars heveergud Greekherocsthoughtit unmenl)rto c.rl veqymucheboutwomenOr, on the otherhand,pcrhapwitb $ a*p Tnseof whatb right rnd hb Grcekcouirty oi love'r placein the all-cnrbncingordcr of Zers (r subiect-ue*erlin trc OQssey),Homerwouldbc shockd by o* doubrof hb hero'cgrcat-heenedness; thet b perhap hc thoughtAchillef lovc went without srying.But c'hatcvcrhb reason,Homcr givesrs only whathnokks thinla-.or clrirm he thi"t t in r rituetionthlt rright inclin€hin o llF{nd offerg in hb osn voioe,noclue Tate another,more modernexamplaIn Slnkespcercl Hlrnlf wc mmrally askhow it b thrlwhen shippedofi o whrt b mErntto bc hb deatb the rsually indecisivcprincc with thcir oump€tlrd-cn evcnt Trnqgesto hobt his cnemies thettekcsp1".. sagean{ rt leastin thesurvivingtcrr, g€tt 9ff oo resl qplanrtion.If prcsod,Sihakespearc might sayth.t- tro erpectsrs to recognize thatthefor out-foxedb anold modfh lioemture-h could mdrc up 6G tiremG dcreibif bc hrd

6

THEoRY NCnEsoN LITEMRY-AESrHETIc

to-and that the point throughout b hot Hrmlct'r indccisivcncssin gencral(any princc wonh hb salt cm knock off r pair enxof hfucncmy'sfawningundcrlinp) but hissclf-dcstructivc violrtof that dilemma, iety ashe facese specificmctaphysical ing law for a higher law in an uncertain univcrsc; that b' murderingr stepfathcr and king on thc say-soof r ghoct. (I simplify, of coursc.The proofs arc clcar cnoughfor thc ratior alisi Horatio; but Horatio b not Hamlet. The center of every play, as of all grert litererure,fo character;and Shakapcarcan it is Hamlct's panic, rage, and indecisivcnesthat rahe the qucstion of whet madc him act so decisivcly this once-the questionShakapearcdocs not answcr.) But thc explanation mouth is probably not thc true one. I'vc put in Shakespeareb The iruth is very likely that almostwithout bothcring to think s.w by a flash of intuition thrt thc whole it out, Shakespcarc was unimportant,off the pint; and so like Mozen, quction tic white shark of music,he snappedstraight to thc hcan of the ma$cr, rcfusingto let himselfbc slowed for an instant by trivial questionsof plot logic or pychological consistencyquestionsunlikely to come up in the rush of dramq though they do occur to us tll we Porc over the book. Shakespeare's insti"ct told hinr, "Gct beck to thc busines bctwecn Hamlet andClaudius,"and,suddenaslightning,hc wasback. This refusalto be led ofi to the uivial b commonin grat literaturq as is its comic opposite,the cndlcsly claboratcdcxplanationof the obviouswc find in, for instancg thc opentnq Lhapt.t of Trbtrmr Shandy.This is no proof that thc general principlc with which wc bcgen+he principle that e work itroutd in somcway givc answersto the questionsit raises-is and othcn valuelcs. But the examplcof Homer, Shakespeare, suspcrdcd. bc czn comctim€s laurs ecthctic docs suggestthrt taking mcens coursc laws of Suspendingrccognizablcacsthctic say to hb may risks,end thc teachcrwho wishesto phy it safc but nc for e bcsudcnts, "That's dl right for Shakcspcarc, ginner." Thc trouble wittt ttris solution is that it uics to rcach

Aesthetic Lsl)tandArrtnic Mystny

?

thc an of fiction by shrinkingthc art, making it something moremenageable but no longerart. Art dependsheavily on feeling,intuition, taste.h is feeling, not somerule, that tells the abstractpainterto put his yellow hereand there,not there,and may later tell him that it should havebeenbrown or purplcor pea-green. It's feelingthat makes the composer breaksuqprisingly from hiskey, feelingthat givc the writer the rhythmsof his sentences, the pafternof riseand fall in his episodes, the proportionsof alternatingelements, so that dialoguegoeson only so long beforea shift to descriprion or narrativesummaryor somephysicalaction.The greatwriter hasan instinctfor thesethings.He has,Iike a greatcomedian, an infellible senseof timing. And his instinct toucheseveqy thread of his fabric, even rhc murkiest fringes of symbolic structure.He knowswhen and whereto think up and spring sulprises,thme startling leapsof the imaginationthat characterizeall of the very greetestwriting. Obviouslythisis not to imply that cool intellectis uselesto the writer. What Fancy sends,the wrirer must order by Judgment He must think out completely,as coolly as any critiq what his 6,ctionmeans,or is trying to mean.He must complete his equations, think out the subtlesrimplicationsof what hc's said,get at the uuth not iusr of his characters and action but also of his fiction's form, rememberingthat neatnesscan bc carried too far, so thar rhe work beginsto seemfusy and overwrought,anal compulsivc,unspontaneous, and remembering thaq on the other hand, messis no adequrtealternative. He must think ascleanly asa mathematician,but he must also know by intuition when to sacrificeprecisionfor somehighcr good, how to simplifn take shon cus, keepthe foregroundup thcre in front and the backgroundback. The first and last imponant rule for the creative writer, then, is that though there may be rules (formulas) for ordinary, easilypublishebleficrion-imitation fiction-therc are no rules for real fiction, any more than there are rules for serious

8

THEoRY rcnrs oN LTTEMRY-ADsrHsnc

vlsual art or musical composition There rre techniquahunilredsof thern-that, like carpenter'suicls, can bc studicil and taught; there are moral and aestheticconsidentionseveqy seriouswriter mustsooneror later brood on r littlg whetheror not he broodsin a highly systematicwey; thert ere common mistakc-infelicitieq clodpole wayr of doing things-+hrt rhow up repeatedlyin unsuccesful6aion and can be sholnn of how they underminethe 6cfor what they are by *lfis tion's inrcndedefiects;thcrc arg in shorg e greet many things evcry seriors writcr needsto think ebout; but there are no nrles Namc ong and instantlysomeliterary ertlst will offer w somen€w work that breals thc nrlc yet pcrsuadesrs' Inve tioq aftcr dl, b rn's mainbusines*and oneof thc greatioys of evcry artist comeswith making the outrageous.cceP&$le' e3 when the painter mrkc sturply clashingcolors harmoniousor aedition inuoduccs-conrtincr vnitcr in the ingly--a ghosc mis is not m sry thet no one rcally knoun what fiction b or what is limits are; it b simply o recognizethat the valuc or "saying power" of any.piece of literaturc hes to dq findly' with the ctrancter and penonality of the ani* who crcatd ftJtis instincts,his knowledgeof ert and the world, his mar tcry. Mastery holds fast Whrt the beginning writer needq discouragingas it mey bc to hear, b not a set of nrles but urastery--emongotherthings,ma$eq'tof the an of breakingsocdlcd nrles.When m enist of true ruthority sP€e}c-+omeonc Raeine,Dostoevsky,or Mellikc Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, ville-we listcn, dl rnentiott, even if what he seysseerr 8t frst r little queer.(At eny nrte we listen if we're old enough cxperiencedinough, so that we know what kinds of things ere boitng, iuvenile,ii*pt.-*ind.d, and what thingc erc not. To rcadwell, oneelsoneedsa cenainkind of mastery.) On reflectionwe seethar the greatwritcr's ruthoriry consiss of two elemena.The first we rny call, loosely,his sanehumar ness;that is, his tru$wortfiinessrs a iudge of things' I stability

AestbabLtu ntd Attittc Mynny

g

rootcd in thc mm of thosc crmplex qualitiesof his charactcr rnd personality (wiedorn,generosiry,compasio4 snength of will) to which we respond,aswe respondto whet fubestin our friends, with instant rccogrition rnd admiration"sayin& "Ycs, you're right, thaCshow it is!" The secondelement,or perhapsI rhould sry fmce, b the writer's ebolute tnrst (not blind flith) in his own restheticiudgmens and instincts,e trrsr grounded panly i" his intelligenccrnd sensitivity-his ebility to penoeivc rnd undentandthe world around hinHnd panly in hb crpcrienceas r cnfsman; that is (by his oum hershstendards), his knowledgg &rwn from long pncticg of whst will worlc rnd what will not. Whrt this means,in prectical tcnns for the srudentcrritcr, b thet in order to achievemasreryhe must reed widely and deeply rnd must write not iust carefully but continudly, thoughdully asesing md reasesing what he writeq because practice,for the writer asfor the concertpianist,is the heartof the matter.Though the literaqydabblermey write r fine story now rnd then, the uue writer is onc for whom techniqueher bccomg asit is for the pianist,secondnenrc. Ordinarily this meansunivenity education"with counesin the writing of fiction, and poetry aswell. Someimportant writers havesaid thc opposite-for insuncg Ernest Hemingwan who is quoted as h"uing saidthat the way for a writer to learn his cmft is to go rway and write. Hemingway,ic *y help to remcrnber,went ewey for free "tutorials" to rwo of the finestteachcrsthen living, SherwoodAndersonandGenmdeStein, It is true that somewriters have kept themselvesmore or les innocentof education,that some,like Jack Londonnwere more or lessself-madcmen; thar is, peoplewho scratchedout an educationby readingbools baween work-shiftsbn boats,in loggng campsor gold camps,on farmsor in factoric. It is true that univenity educationis in many ways inimicd to the work of the eni*: Rarely do paintershrve much good to say of aestheticians or hiltoqy-of-ert profesors, rod it's cqually un-

TO

TITEORY NOTES ONLTTEMRY-AESTHEflC

commonfor eventhe most scrious,"academiC'writes to loolc n'theprofessionof English."And it's with fond admirationat truermoreover,that life in the univenity hasalmostncvcrPro' duced subiectmatter for really good 6ction. Thc lifc has too much trivia" too much mcdiocrity, too much soapopra but consider: No ignoramus-no wrfuerwho haskept himselfinnocentof cducadon-has ever producedgreetert. Onc uouble with heving read nothing wonh readingis that one never fully underthat standsthe othersideof one'sergument'ncverunderstands never are), (all great argumene is en old one thc argument undentandsthe digniry and worth of the peopleone has cast failure n The Grqes of Witnes John Steinbeck's rs enemies. Wrah.It shouldhavebeenone of America'sgreat books.But while Steinbeckknew all there wes to know about Okies and thc countlesssorrowsof their movc to C.aliforniato 6nd work, hc knew nothing about the &lifornia rancherswho employed rnd exploited them; he had no clue to, or interest in, their reasonJforbchavingasthey did; and the resultis that Steinbeck wrote not a great end firm novel but a disappointing melodremain which complex good is pitted againstunmitigatcd, unbelievablc cvil. Obfcctivity, fair-mindednas, the qistcmatic purzuit of lcgitimatc evaluadon,thesc arc someof thc mosthighly toutcd valuesof universitylifc, and evenif-'+s is no doubt truHome profesors arc asguilty of simplification rs John Steinbcck was' the very fact that these velues are mouthedmusthavesomeeffecton the elertstudent.Moreover, no studentcen get far in any university without cncountering the discusion method; and what this means,at le*st in any good universiry,is that the student mu$ learn to lisren carefully and fair-mindedly to opinionsdifferent from his own. In my experiencc,this is not commonelsewhere.In most assemblia, pcople all arguc on rhc samesidc. Look at small-town papcrs.Tmth is not much valued where evcryonc egrecso-n what thc truth is and no onc is handy to speakup for thc side

Aesthetic lau md Arthtic Mystery

tr

that's becn dismised. However bad universiry profcssorsmey bc in gcneral,every greatprofessoris a manor womandevotcd to truth, and every universityhasat leastone or two of them around. But what mako ignoramuscs bad writen is not iust their incxperiencein fair xrgumcnt. All great writing is in r sensc imitationof greatwriting. Writing a novel,howeverinnovative that novel may be, thc writcr strugglcsto achicvcone spccific lrrge cffect, what can only be calledthe efrect wc arc usedto gctdng from good novels.However wcird the technique,whateverthe novel'smode,we saywhen we havcfinishedit, "Now thm is e noeel!"We sayit of Anna Karminaand of Uniler the Voleano,alsoof the mysteriouslyconstructedMoby-Dick. lf. we say it of Smuel Becketr'sWatt or MaloneDieq of ltalo Calvino'sTbe Bmon in tbe Trees,or Kobo Abc's ?be Rained Map, we say it bccause,for all their surfacc oddiry, thosc novelsproducethe familiar cffect. It rarely happens,if it hap pensat all, that e writer can achieveeffectsmuch larger than the effectsachievedin bookshe hasrcad and admired.Human beinp, like chimpanzees, can do very linle without models. One may learn to love Shakespeare by readinghim on one's own-the ignoramusis unlikely ro have done even this-but thereis no substitutefor beingtakcn by thc hand and guided linc by line through Othello, Handet, or King Lerr. This is thc work of the universityShakespeare course!and evenif the tcachu is a personof limired intelligenceand sensitivity,onc can find in universitiesthe critical bools and anicles most likely to be helpful,the booksthat haveheld up, and the best of the new boola. Outside the university'sselecriveproc€ssr onc hardly knowswhich way ro turn. One endsup with some crank book on how Shakapearewas really an erheisr,or a Communht,or a pen-nameusedby FrancisBacon.Outsidethc univeniry it scemsprectically imposible to cometo an understandingof Homer or Vergil, Chauceror Dantg any of the great masterswho, properly understood,provide the highest

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NOTES ON LNEBARY-AESNTEMCTHEORT

modcb yet echievedby our civilizatiol Whrtever hb gpnir* the writer unfamiliar with the highesteffestspossibleb Yirte dly doomedto searchout leser effects Adminedly the manwho haseducatedhimselfh in a bcaer positionthan the man not educetedat dL But his work b surc io beer the mark of his limitation. If one snrdiesthe work of, the self-educateLand we do not ncan here thc mrn who $ere out with limited but rigorous an