John Irving, on John Gardner
|"Or his stinkin' pipe?"|
(Digression: it occurs to me that Wolfe, Irving, Mailer and Updike engage in an ongoing pissing match, a peculiarly male activity that makes little or no splash (ahem) in the ever-expanding circle of women readers. Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Walker, Janet Turner Hospital — writers who have arguably taken over the vanguard of Western english literature from Updike, Mailer, Wolfe and even Irving — don't give Wolfe's tirades so much as a curious sniff. Exceptions allowed for, but I don't believe women care for such behavior. This sort of bluster is what occurs when the men at the table have had too many glasses of wine, thanks to an overly-generous host who regrets making the invitation, and has retreated to another room.)
Irving posed it rhetorically, but in fact the question of who remembers Gardner has a ready and increasingly apparent answer: anyone who's ever attended a creative writing course on the North American continent. Irving doesn't trouble himself with the rags in which Gardner's ghost makes regular appearances, but they are the product of, and for, the last heretical cult of believers who have given themselves heart and soul to the sanctity of the word in print. Last year we witnessed Gardner's shaggy chimera arise among the literrowdies at The Believer; this year he haunts the opening pages of Poets & Writers. These publications represent the Two Towers for creative writing students: P&W is an overly sober (but practical) version of Writer's Digest, while The Believer is everything the creative writing student aspires to: it is hipper-than-thou, smack-in-the-zeitgeist, name-droppingly popular, without qualifying as a sell-out (i.e., it's still struggling to turn a profit).
I, too, remember Gardner — thanks solely to my experience in a creative writing course. My prof took care to mention Gardner at our concluding class, stating for the record that Gardner might well have been the greatest American writer of the century, and a worthy teacher of craft to boot. This startling pronouncement launched us out of the classroom and straight to the university bookstore to see if they stocked any of Gardner's books. The book guy I talked to said, "The only title we bother with is The Art of Fiction, and we're out of stock."
This turned out to be the case at other book stores, too. When I finally purchased my own copy, I quickly discovered why: Gardner's lessons on craft are infectious in their passion, his literary observations astonishingly broad in scope and keen in their precision. I devoured the book, then returned to the beginning and devoured it again. While reading, I contrasted Gardner's aural clarity to the benign fudging of my prof. It was just as well we'd been so lately introduced to Gardner — any earlier, and our prof might well have had a mutiny on his hands.
Though he was no admirer of his fiction, Gardner took Camus's most breathtaking declaration ("There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide") and wielded it in his criticism and art. He asserted, in The Art of Fiction, On Becoming A Novelist, On Writers And Writing, and most notoriously in On Moral Fiction, that a reader considering suicide is right to expect dissuasion and something life-affirming in a story. For the writer who is just starting out, this assertion, stated with the passion and erudition that only Gardner could muster, is profoundly empowering. Gardner tells the punk writer the attention she pays to her art is worthy — is, in fact, the only important thing — because it is the difference between life and death.
Of course, Gardner caught flak in his critical execution of this maxim. He had no trouble locating writers who tried to dodge or purposely defeat this expectation of his, and he didn't hesitate to call them immoral. It's worth noting the writers he disparaged most — John Barth, and the Williams Gass and Bardis — are now disappearing from critical favor and public awareness with a speed that would have astonished the original readers of Gardner's criticism. It's also worth noting that, while Gardner had nothing but praise for John Irving, he certainly had a pickle up his ass when it came to E.L. Doctorow (whose novels I would, with a few exceptions, choose over Irving's in a heartbeat).
As for Gardner's fiction, well . . . If, as Godard said, the proper way to criticize a movie is to make one yourself, Gardner proved himself eager to criticize contemporary novels with novels of his own. This tendency has the unfortunate effect of miring much of his work to his time, particularly the novels he wrote to correct the noise and flash of metafiction. Again, any punk kid aspiring to write will have little difficulty reading Freddy's Book, or even October Light — but most serious readers over 30 will find their patience with metafictional concerns has long been exhausted in favor of an intuitive, Aristotelian acceptance of what really "works". You don't need a novel to help you reach that conclusion — you just need to get older.
The best of Gardner's fiction, however, is transcendent. Novels like The Sunlight Dialogues, and especially Grendel, are charmingly baroque, with ornate touches that belie the seriousness of Gardner's aesthetic ethic. Like his best criticism, they invite and reward multiple readings.
Even so, it seems as if it is Gardner's fate to occupy the same literary parabola as one of his heroes, Dorothea Brande. Brande was, in her day (the 1930s and 40s), a prolific writer of novels, short stories and plays. She was also a recognized critic. But her only surviving work, acknowledged and brought back into print every 15 years or so, is a snappy little book called Becoming A Writer (anyone frustrated with the New-Age-speak of The Artist's Way is encouraged to seek out a copy). The current reprint includes a forward by none other than "that asshole" himself. And if Gardner's continued presence in magazines like The Believer and Poets & Writers is any indication, we won't see The Art Of Fiction disappear from print anytime soon.
It's difficult to speculate what Gardner would have thought of his final claim to literary longevity, but it does qualify as a truly remarkable legacy. For writers proceeding on shaky legs, Gardner's encouragement is not only helpful in its precision and direction, it is the equivalent of a shot of existential steroids. Too bad John Irving is as bullish, if not as eloquent, in his opinions as Gardner was. Irving, who has a novel or two struggling to transcend the decades they were published in, might just consider himself fortunate should his name be recalled with the fervor of Gardner's.