To a greater or lesser extent, John Gardner’s ideas about writing are just one of those things you eventually have to deal with in MFA school. For my critical thesis topic–the omniscient point of view–The Art of Fiction became one of my primary source books (he was a big fan), and On Becoming a Novelist worked its way in there too, since I had a point to make about the oft-misinterpreted fictive dream concept.
I won’t bore you with talk about that. But running down some things, I came across a couple of links that might be of interest. (Jeff Ford, you studied with Gardner, right?*)
Anyway, I like this passage from Stewart O’Nan’s "Notes from the Underground," on how seeing the various drafts of Grendel taught him to revise:
I’d heard how hard writers worked at revising, but here was concrete and heartening proof. I’d been impatient with my work because my early drafts lacked depth and precision; now I realized I had completely misjudged them, and misjudged the effort required to write well. It was not brilliance or facility that was necessary, but the determination to bear and even enjoy the dull process of wading into one’s own bad prose again, one more time, and then once again, with the utmost concentration and taste, looking for opportunities to mine deeper, clues to what these people wanted and needed. I went back to my desk, applied myself with this in mind, and discovered that I was again writing on another level, a level that even now I’m happy to reach.
As the class proceeds, Gardner proceeds to take the gloves off. Suddenly he is attacking his host, Barth, whom he tags as a "secondary" writer–someone who writes fiction about fiction. And chief among Barth’s offenses, just in case the students were thinking of buying it, is Giles Goat-Boy, which Gardner tells them is "arch, extravagantly self-indulgent, clumsily allegorical, pedantic, tiresomely and pretentiously advance-guard, and like much of our ‘new fiction’, puerilely obscene."
A few days later, the argument is recounted in The Sun, in an article portentously titled "Two Literary Lions Tangle." Barth fires off a letter to The Sun, acknowledging that he "registered, very briefly, some of my objections to [Gardner’s] eloquently expressed literary opinions because that is what seminars–indeed universities–are for." But as the letter proceeds, it sounds as though Barth believes he’s entitled to a rebuttal. What follows is a biting, if somewhat tongue-in-cheek, evaluation of his colleague’s recently published On Moral Fiction as "an intellectually immoral, self-serving, finally demalogical attack on his contemporaries, many of whom (in my opinion) are immensely more talented than himself."
It’s hard to disagree with the take of Liz Rosenberg (caught between them at the time):
When asked how significant, in the end, she thought this battle was, Rosenberg thinks carefully before answering. "I don’t know," she says finally. "There was an experimental phase in writing, which has died down to some degree, but maybe that battle untethered the way for greater freedom in writing." She does express some regret for the passing of an era when two major writers cared passionately enough to fight about the principles of their art. "Since then, battles have become purely personal and a lot less ideological," she says.
More high-minded feuds, please.
*Updated: Jeff reminds me why I was thinking that — well, besides that it’s true. A couple of years ago, he posted his introduction to the Fantasy Masterwords edition of Grendel:
I got to see first hand how he approached the craft of fiction. I’d bring him my short stories, and he would go to work on them, spending as much time as was necessary to show me the gaffs, what repairs were possible, where the fatal flaws lay, and discuss writing strategies that would help me to circumvent the same problems in the future. A meeting could take up to two hours. Rehabilitating a single awkward sentence was as important as understanding the entire structure of a story, and a story’s structure was discussed as if it were a kind of music. If there was a line of students waiting to see him outside his door, they would have to wait until he was finished, but they always waited, because they knew that when it was their turn, he would do the same for each of them.