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The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers

really liked it 4.00  ·  Rating Details  ·  4,047 Ratings  ·  330 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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(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Nov 21, 2007 Christy rated it really liked it
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
Jul 26, 2013 Chance Maree rated it really liked it

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
Apr 11, 2016 Antigone rated it it was amazing
Shelves: craft
John Gardner's classic on writing technique is a damned hard read. The text is thick and thorny and shoots you right back to those advanced placement English courses you got into by the skin of your teeth - then spent the next nine weeks dreaming yourself out of in various stages of nakedness. I don't belong here, you may have thought, and next Tuesday's the day they're going to figure that out. In the meantime, what the heck does profluence mean? Third person - is that subjective or objective? ...more
David Wise
Jun 18, 2010 David Wise rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 09, 2013 James rated it it was amazing
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
May 27, 2011 Gail rated it it was ok
Shelves: on-writing
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
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
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
Rachael Sherwood
Mar 29, 2011 Rachael Sherwood rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2011
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
Jun 28, 2012 John rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: writing
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
Apr 25, 2013 Cassandra rated it really liked it
"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
Jun 25, 2013 John rated it really liked it
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
Mar 02, 2009 Natasha Oliver rated it really liked it
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
Jan 17, 2010 Joseph rated it it was amazing
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
Mar 01, 2009 Nina rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2009-books
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
Apr 16, 2015 Ryandake rated it it was amazing
Shelves: the-good-shit
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
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
Jul 23, 2009 Nic rated it it was ok
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
Apr 05, 2016 Brittany rated it liked it
I think this book definitely contained many useful tips. There were many things that I came across while reading that I will keep in mind for the revision process, as well as the plotting process of my other stories. The common errors chapter was also very useful in reminding me to keep an eye on a few flaws.

Naturally, there were certain guidelines found within this book that I vehemently disagreed with (which I expected, as some "rules" are meant to be broken). Even more so, I really had an is
Garrett Cook
Jul 01, 2008 Garrett Cook rated it liked it
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
Mar 10, 2014 Casee Marie rated it liked it
Shelves: 2014
"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
Sep 02, 2012 Eric rated it really liked it
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 did not like it
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
Jun 07, 2011 Jeff rated it liked it
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
Mar 28, 2013 Will Gates rated it it was amazing
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
Jul 25, 2013 Elisabeth rated it did not like it
Shelves: writing
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
Jan 29, 2008 Drew Lackovic rated it did not like it
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 19 Feb 04, 2013 11:35AM  
things that i've read in the book 10 14 Dec 17, 2012 07:16AM  
  • Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft
  • Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew
  • Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction
  • Making Shapely Fiction
  • Narrative Design: Working with Imagination, Craft, and Form
  • Aspects of the Novel
  • Characters and Viewpoint (Elements of Fiction Writing)
  • How to Grow a Novel: The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome Them
  • From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction
  • Becoming a Writer
  • Beginnings, Middles & Ends (Elements of Fiction Writing)
  • What If?: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers
  • The Portable MFA in Creative Writing
  • Plot
  • On Writing
  • A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation
  • The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear
  • Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go
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...

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“The primary subject of fiction is and has always been human emotion, values, and beliefs.” 22 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.” 16 likes
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