Friday, March 11, 2005

The Inexorcisable John Gardner

Who remembers that asshole?
John Irving, on John Gardner
"Or his stinkin' pipe?"
Google has failed me. I read the above quote a year or two ago in a magazine while waiting for my dentist, and although I can remember Irving's context, I remember little else. I'm thinking it was a Maclean's, or Globe & Mail profile of Irving circa: The Cider House Rules Goes Hollywood. At the time, Tom Wolfe provoked the chattering classes with his most recent divide-and-conquer loud-mouthery, an essay in Hooking Up which decried every living American novelist for forsaking their duties as the chroniclers of their times. Wolfe had already provoked several bloodletting responses from Updike, Mailer and Irving, and Irving was weary of giving free press to this flannel-clad coot. Still, the profiler pressed on. Irving finally said something to the effect that no good comes from publicly declaring what novelists ought to be writing. To hammer home the dire consequences of such foolishness, he added, "The last guy to try that was John Gardner, and who remembers that asshole?"

(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.


DarkoV said...

Just an add-on here. Is it a faulty memory or do you remember that when his death was first announced, there was quite a wave of rumours that Gardener's motorcycle accident was actually suicide? He'd travelled that stretch of road on many occasions and even though the curve that he lost control of his bike on was treacherous, it was one he was well familiar with? Again, this may just be me; I've tried googling "John Gardner and Paranoid Plots of Self-Destruction". Would you believe it, not one hit? Hhmmm, might be all of his fans got together and were able to remove any mention of those rumours on the internet. Paranoia, squared.
Anyway,try out this link, , supposedly his last interview. During the interview, he concluded, at one point, to say, "Can't write cheap propaganda shit!".
By the way, any connection between your appreciation of John Gardner and fact that he was a minister's son, loved motorcycles, and had a gift for words? Just seining here....

Whisky Prajer said...

Wow - did that ever make for uncomfortable reading! Poor bastard...

Re: possible suicide - I just assumed that's the party line these days! I haven't read the recent biography by Barry Silesky, but it seems like most people associated with JG at the time were worried he was unravelling. His staggering output, coupled with his increasing appetite for unhealthy indulgences (gin, tobacco, female students he wasn't married to) certainly point to an unhappy conclusion.

It hadn't occurred to me that JG and I are connected as preacher's kids - but sure: why not? As for my love of motorcycles, it was a low-grade passion at best, and I've sworn them off until my daughters are well on their way to adulthood. Now all I need to complete the connection is to start my own creative writing course, then wreck my marriage... On second thought, I'll take a pass!

Steve said...

Just curious - have you read Mickelsson's Ghosts, Gardner's last and arguably (but actually) his best?

How about this:

"Best-selling author John Irving will give a reading this month on campus, highlighting a stellar season of literary events sponsored by the Binghamton Center for Writers.

Irving, author of 11 novels — including The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules — will speak at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 18, in the Anderson Center Chamber Hall. The event, which is free and open to the public, will be followed by a question-and-answer session as well as a reception.

Irving is the inaugural John Garner Reader, which is to be an annual honor given in memory of the late novelist John Gardner. The two were friends, fellow writers and colleagues at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont."

More here:

Whisky Prajer said...

Steve - thanks for the link. Very curious. However even with memory being what it is, I'm sticking with mine: the friendships between writers are, with very rare exceptions, fraught (to say the least).

Haven't yet read Mickelson's Ghosts, but it's certainly on my to-do list. Thanks for dropping by!

beowulf said...

Thanks for this great commentary on Gardner. I've quoted you in my blog:

Author said...

As a John Gardner fan I have included an exploration of his death in a novel I am in the process of completing. Although still very much in its formative stage please visit the beginnings of the web site I am putting together. I am targeting a Dec 2008 completion date for the site and it will achieve a high degree of coherence by then.
I refer anyone who entertains the notion that JG killed himself find the excellent essay by Terrence DesPres.

author said...

For completeness sake here is the reference for the Des Pres volume that has an essay on John Gardner's death and the suicide issue:
Des Pres, Terrence
Writing into the World: Essays, 1973-1987
New York: Viking, 1991. First Printing, 25 cm, 295, Introduction by poet Paul Mariani. Foreword by Elie Wiesel.

Keywords: Essays, Literary Criticism, Holocaust, Philosophy, Vietnam, Jews, Elie Wiesel, John Irving, Armenia

ISBN: 0670804649

Nokaj said...

The New York Post

June 6, 2001
THE bell just sounded for the second round in the literary slugfest that has heavyweight novelists John Irving, Norman Mailer and John Updike in one corner and dandy Tom Wolfe in the other.
The brawl greatly entertained Manhattan's literati earlier this year, but seemed to have ended in a no contest after Wolfe's last jab, where he described the others as "The Three Stooges."
Now, though, Irving has put the gloves back on. "I don't know a serious writer who reads Tom Wolfe," he says in the June/July issue of Details magazine. But, "I would never have said Wolfe was a aebad' writer had he not written his absurd position paper on how to write the American novel."

Irving notes that "the last [bleep]hole who did that was John Gardner - remember him?" He goes on to call Wolfe's polemic "pompous strictures . . . puerile and laughable" and suggests Wolfe has "nothing better to do than to rage against his aestooge' attackers, Mailer, Updike and me. The truth is, he's the only one who cares."

Whisky Prajer said...

Brilliant! I doubt it was the New York Post I was reading in the dentist's office (geographical location makes it unlikely) but you've gift-wrapped the exact quote, and I am in your debt. Thank you so much!