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The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers

4.0 of 5 stars 4.00  ·  rating details  ·  3,343 ratings  ·  284 reviews
This classic guide, from the renowned novelist and professor, has helped transform generations of aspiring writers into masterful writers—and will continue to do so for many years to come.

John Gardner was almost as famous as a teacher of creative writing as he was for his own works. In this practical, instructive handbook, based on the courses and seminars that he gave, h
Paperback, 224 pages
Published June 4th 1991 by Vintage (first published 1984)
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Nov 21, 2007 Christy rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: writing teachers and aspiring writers
Shelves: writing
This is one of very, very many books on how to write fiction. Gardner's book strives to offer more than the multitude of alternatives do, however, and, generally, I'd say he succeeds.

The first half of the book is devoted to more theoretical discussions of the art of fiction, some of which is very useful and some of which is quite particular to Gardner's own literary tastes. And his tastes definitely color the advice he gives. It is mostly sound advice for those who wish to write fiction in the
Samir Rawas Sarayji
This is Gardner's classic text of 'how to write'. The incredibly arrogant tone and egotistical voice of Gardner drove me nuts at times but I plowed through to the end.

The book's in two parts, the first is a collection of four essays on literature - titled 'Notes on Literary-Aesthetic Theory' - of which, the first two were engaging and insightful. The third essay was twice as long as any of the others and gave me the impression of how much Gardner is in love with his own ideas and how infallible
Chance Maree

In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner explains what it takes for a writer to create great fiction; it takes lots of hard work, advice that is more helpful than reading manuals that set unrealistic expectations through vacuous cheer leading. On a practical note, Gardner describes common mistakes and advises the writer on how to avoid them. I was able to understand through Gardner's examples several mistaken tendencies in my writing.

Some of his lessons are now standard knowledge, such as show, don't
for my creative writing class. 40 pages in, I've found a lot of useful thought, but my reactions scribbled in the margins have tended towards

"And Lord Gardner now graces the mere mortals with his beneficent gift of knowledge. How kind."


"Everytime you're a misogynist, God kills a kitten."


"I think every 11th grade English teacher in America would disagree, Johnny." (re: Steinbeck's "failure" of a novel, the unheard of and obviously inferior Grapes of Wrath)

REGARDLESS, if you want to write
David Wise
Of the very slim shelf of books on writing that are worth a damn, "The Art of Fiction" is by far the best. Passionate, evangelical, profound, deeply moving and extremely useful, it's meant for advanced writing students. But everyone interested in writing can benefit from reading it -- beginner, advanced and professional. Even book lovers who have no interest in becoming writers will become better readers for having come in contact with Gardner's wisdom.

How powerful is this book? After I gave my
On the outside, John Gardner's "The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers" promises to be an intense and informative read on creating solid and effective fiction geared for new or fairly new writers. Instead, "The Art of Fiction" is half literary theory and assumptions that all readers of this book are college educated people and the other half is equally as pompous diatribe on the fundamentals of writing: rhythm, style, plot and point of view.

I am college educated. My degree is in W
I'm not going to count this toward my 2013 totals; firstly, because I haven't read all of it, and secondly, because I never really intend to complete it linearly. It's something to pick up when I'm feeling puzzled, delighted, frustrated, or utterly romantic about literature, or more often when I feel like getting down with some first-class iconoclasm. It also helps defuse, a bit, Garder's reputation as a mud-slinging crank. He emphatically dismisses any notion of limits on fiction. He praises th ...more
Kicking off this whole pursuit of mine to read more about the art of writing, I picked a haughty tome to start with. I wish I could gush about Gardner's teaching here the way others on Goodreads have, but his points (all of them valid and good) darn near were lost on me on account of his high-minded rhetoric and tone. (Not to mention the examples he chose to illustrate them with—-I've never been a mythology girl so following Gardner's advice on the art of plotting through his rehashing of the He ...more
Rachael Sherwood
I typically walk away from books about writing with a few new tips or tricks and maybe a new idea. This book is very different. As the title reflects, it explores fiction as both craft and art. At first I worried that Gardner was kind of pretentious--his style is certainly very academic. But he managed to fuse together solid writing advice with interesting theory in a way that challenged me to think about how I approach writing (without making me feel like I had to write like ~*the classics*~). ...more
sarah gilbert
It may be wonderful praise, may be a cautionary tale, that I began this book as a lark undertaken in the midst of two classes on memoir (nonfiction is, I've always believed, my life's work) and serious work rewriting my food memoir's first chapter, and before I'd half-finished Gardner's book, I began a novel.

As inspiration, this is either all of it or a great chill; every sentence in this book is written with the clear undertone, "writing a novel is hard, hard work." That the work is worthwhile
Despite Gardner's claim that this is "the best book of its kind," I didn't find it helpful at all. Most of Gardner's ideas are surprisingly shallow considering how pretentiously (and obnoxiously) he writes. In describing how to write prose fiction, Gardner constantly encourages his readers to emulate Shakespear, Homer, Dante, Mellville and Joyce--despite the fact that Shakespear was a playwright, Homer and Dante wrote epic poems, and Melville and Joyce are virtually unreadable (and torturous) to ...more
"Nobody's perfect, they generously observe. But the true artist is impatient with such talk. Circus knife-throwers know that it is indeed possible to be perfect, and one had better be. Perfection means hitting exactly what you are aiming at and not touching by a hair what you are not."
Gardner is mercilessly, obsessively scrupulous, almost to the level of snobbishness, in his concern that fiction should be 'moral'--that is, that every little gesture, every syllable, should ring true to human exp
This book on fiction writing is commonly recommended. I was less impressed by it than I had expected and hoped to be. Be forewarned: the prose is verbose, dull, rambling, and frequently wanders off into digressions. I found it hard to maintain interest.

High points: Gardner's concept of 'psychic distance' as part of POV; the concept of 'frigidity' (when the writer accidentally lets slip that he really doesn't care about a character) and 'profluence', the reader's sense that the story is progressi
Natasha Oliver
John Gardner let's you know in his preface that he is writing this book for the serious writer (who he defines as the literary writer), so my fellow sci fi and fantasy writers (genre), we are not his target audience. However, that does not mean we can not learn from him.

I do not recommend this to the writer who is beginning their journey. By beginning, I mean who has never written a novel-length manuscript (unpublished of course) or at least a novella. I think Gardner presents too much detail an
Courtney Stirrat
"Good description is symbolic not because the writer plants symbols in it but because, by working in the proper way, he forces symbols still largely mysterious to him up into his conscious mind where, little by little as his fiction progresses, he can work with them and finally understand them. To put this another way, the organized and intelligent fictional dream that will eventually fill the reader's mind begins as a largely mysterious dream in the writers mind."


I adore this snarky, arr
I've had a lot of writer's tell me about Gardner's book, but I never got around to reading it until now. I'm glad I did. It's a gem.
While an esteemed teacher of writing, as well as a well respected writer in his own right,Gardner freely admits there are no absolutes in creating fiction. All things are at least theoretically possible. I like his honesty and the relatively modest task he sets out for those who choose to teach creative writing.

Not surprising, is his assertion that a key to good w
Dear Mr. Gardner,

You don't know me, but I know you - particularly another work of yours, Grendel. I was intrigued by your sense of humor and your unerring ear for words. However, I figured this would be our first and last meeting.

Consider me surprised, then, when my parents gave your little gray book to me for Christmas. "Thought it might be interesting," they said, which is accurate; I plan to go into creative writing, and a little guidance would be helpful. Most advice I've gotten would have m
quite probably the best book i've ever read on writing.

the finest part of it is that it skips all the simple stuff at the baseline level: characterization, metaphor, dialogue. not that gardner doesn't have a few things to say about each, but he clearly has assumed that his reader has educated herself on the basics.

so this is in some ways not really for absolute novice writers. it assumes at least some education (or habit) in analyzing a text critically.

so gardner is free to take off from the mid
Since the 1980s, when I got "serious" about writing creatively, I've been hearing John Gardner praised to the skies. I suspect he was one of the first writers to really elevate teaching to an art, beating the plethora of "how to write" books that now flood the shelves. And while it's de riguer to speak ill of the dead, I am finding this text both condescending and needlessly dense. Many of his ideas are right on, but I have heard them more accessibly expressed in the past thirty years than they ...more
Adam Mann
The problem I have with this book is its lack of poise, which is mainly due to the way it has been organized. As a general rule, I dislike just about anything that frontloads heady theory before practical experience. Part I of The Art of Fiction does exactly that, and is like eating fondue before running a marathon. It's heavy and rich, but it's going to sit in the pit of your stomach like a leaden ball, knocking around at every step as you try to focus on the task at hand, and is likely to do m ...more
Garrett Cook
Jul 01, 2008 Garrett Cook rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: The dedicated, the mad
Recommended to Garrett by: Professors and teachers
Considered ideal for young writers, but its exercises are masochistic and often sheer folly. Gardner himself wrote "tedium is the worst pain" and trying to slog through Art of Fiction exercises would leave old Grendel raging at any number of additional Meadhalls. The text itself is good and you can find sound advice in it, but there are much better writing books out there. It might have paved the way, but so did 8 tracks.
Casee Marie
"What moves us is not just that characters, images, and events get some form of recapitulations or recall: We are moved by the increasing connectedness of things, ultimately a connectedness of values."

John Gardner was perhaps as well known (if not more so) for his instruction on writing as for his own fictional works, and his Art of Fiction: Notes on the Craft for Young Writers compiles the fullness of his teachings on what makes a great writer great. There is, on the whole, a lot to take away f
The weight of the fourth (and possibly third) star comes from the chapters "Common Errors" and much of "Technique." These portions are where Garder's advice is most concrete, practical and most universal. That's not to say that a guide to writing should merely be a composition handbook since the advice is more complex than "no passive sentences." It delves into how a story can work line-by-line. That knowledge alone, I think, helps a writer become much more aware of what their work is doing.

Aug 13, 2008 Serena rated it 1 of 5 stars
Recommended to Serena by: Omphale23
John Gardner's The Art of Fiction is pretentious and not one of my favorite writing books at all. I've heard about this book for sometime and figured I would give it a try. So I picked it up from the library, hoping to learn something new and enjoy the book. I usually don't bash books on the blog, but I cannot recommend this one outright.

Gardner's style of writing in the book bored me to tears; it reminded me of those professors that put the class to sleep in college. I was an eager college stud
I'm using this book to teach a fiction class, so naturally I found many usable points with which to supplement my own lectures, but there are some things that irk me about it.

For one, Gardner and myself have very different appreciations for literature. I get it, you think Hemingway, Faulkner, and Joyce were so-so writers. I think Grendal is stupid, there. (Actually, I didn't read it; I'm just a child).

It's easy to get over the more pretentious passages. At times, Gardner is so egotistical that
♥ Ibrahim ♥

The beauty of this book lies in the fact that it keeps "the beginning writer" in mind, and it is for him that John Gardner has such care and offers excellent mentorship. The young writer should not be searching for aesthetic absolutes or he would end up wasting his energy. This can lead to pedantic rigidity and the atrophy of intuition. The beginning writer needs mastery rather than a set of rules. Mastery can be achieved by reading widely, deeply. He also must write carefully because practice i
Will Gates
This book has been a haven for me as I write. There is an alarming mass of writing books out there that offer little in the way of criticism or objective direction -- they tend to emphasize emotion over craft with no standards by which to judge one's own writing, so long as it's "honest." Gardner here expresses definite opinions. He emphasizes natural talent and instinct, but does not leave the rest of us with no direction. He provides guiding goals and truths, along with practical techniques, e ...more
Not an appropriate book for beginners, but rather for someone who's already got two or three failed novels stuffed away somewhere they'd rather not talk about. Nor for anyone who isn't prepared to take the good parts and discard the rest. And there's a fair bit of "the rest." Gardner is old-school in the worst ways - I thought the book had been published in the 20s or 30s until he name-checked Barthelme - and has plenty of essentializing and not-right-sounding theories about form and genre. But ...more
If this hadn't come so highly recommended, I'd have given up on it by now. Ponderous, pedantic, and dense; so far only the brief section on common mistakes has been remotely useful. For a man who claims not to be talking about metafiction, he spends a whole lot of pages on metafiction.
Still, I'll try to finish it...

ETA I can't do it. There are only forty pages left, but the whole has been so relentlessly dull I can't take in another word. There are so many writing books out there, I can't imagin
Drew Lackovic
I had this as a required text in my Senior Creative Writing class in college. No one, not even the Prof cared for this book (apparently it was one of those "this book is required" mandates from the powers that be).

The problem I had with this book, is the problem I have with John Gardner in general--He was the type of person who believes the world should be one way, and you should follow his law. However, he can break that law whenever he wants.

The book struck me as a pile of double standards, an
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Gardner Misjudges Steinbeck 2 17 Feb 04, 2013 11:35AM  
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  • Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew
  • Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft
  • Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction
  • Aspects of the Novel
  • From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction
  • Making Shapely Fiction
  • Becoming a Writer
  • Characters and Viewpoint (Elements of Fiction Writing)
  • The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide To Staying Out of the Rejection Pile
  • Beginnings, Middles & Ends (Elements of Fiction Writing)
  • What If?: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers
  • How to Grow a Novel: The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome Them
  • Narrative Design: Working with Imagination, Craft, and Form
  • The Forest for the Trees
  • Revision & Self-Editing: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft Into a Finished Novel
  • Writing the Breakout Novel
  • Plot
  • The Art Of Dramatic Writing: Its Basis in the Creative Interpretation of Human Motives
John Champlin Gardner was a well-known and controversial American novelist and university professor, best known for his novel Grendel, a retelling of the Beowulf myth.

Gardner was born in Batavia, New York. His father was a lay preacher and dairy farmer, and his mother taught English at a local school. Both parents were fond of Shakespeare and often recited literature together. As a child, Gardner
More about John Gardner...
Grendel On Becoming a Novelist October Light The Sunlight Dialogues Nickel Mountain

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“The primary subject of fiction is and has always been human emotion, values, and beliefs.” 17 likes
“Fiction does not spring into the world fully grown, like Athena. It is the process of writing and rewriting that makes a fiction original, if not profound.” 15 likes
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