Friday, October 16, 2015

Book Review: On Becoming a Novelist

Bret Lott, in his writing memoir, Before We Get Started, cited John Gardner's book On Becoming a Novelist as a seminal treatise on the life of a novelist. I knew I had the book. I believe I even had to read the book back when I was in college (although perhaps that memory is false and I simply picked it up soon after college because of my own interest in becoming a novelist someday). Thus, I brought this book along on a brief trip to a water park with the boys for their Fall break (always good to bring a book you own, instead of a library book, in case it somehow gets water-damaged).

Perhaps it was simply the distractions of frolicking vacationers or the piecemeal nature of the reading, but I didn't like the book nearly as much as Bret Lott must have. Basically, Gardner sets out what type of individuals seem to be drawn to the profession of writing novels. His comments outline various tendencies, frailties, and temperaments. I felt that I fit the intended audience, as Gardner proclaims in the preface, "I write for those who desire, not publication at any cost, but publication one can be proud of - serious, honest fiction, the kind of novel that readers will find they enjoy reading more than once, the kind of fiction likely to survive." He declares at the outset that the book is not intended to be a "book on craft," but rather a book meant to "deal with, and if possible get rid of, the beginning novelist's worries." Still, apart from the admonition to pursue the craft with vengeance and seek to present one's very best work, without giving way to despair over rejection, I didn't glean all that much.

He says things I have already heard before: "write what you know," "be vigilantly observant," "use precise language," and "persistence is absolutely necessary to success." I suppose I bristled a bit at the opinion that education is also a necessary ingredient for success. He seemed to urge new writers to seek out quality writing courses (outlining which ones were not "quality") and hone their craft by careful study of the masters. I suppose I want to believe that someone without an MFA in writing can still achieve success.

Another recommendation that didn't sit well was the encouragement that novelists work backwards to the skill of honing a short story. That is something I have never felt I excelled at. I'm sure writing a short story would prove difficult because I am used to relying on many pages to develop my characters and bring forth my plot. Perhaps it would be wise to attempt it, but I seriously doubt that I would do well.

Mostly, the writing in this book wasn't nearly as accessible as the writing in Lott's memoir on the craft of writing, Before We Get Started. This wasn't as easy a read and required a bit more diligence to follow his arguments and encouragements. I'm sure this is, indeed, an important text if one is interested in pursuing novel-writing, but I didn't really enjoy reading it, sadly. Other writers must feel differently than me, because Kenneth Selb of the Fresno Bee writes, "Let me say at once that this is simply the best book ever written for someone who aspires to be a novelist."

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