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A Resurrected Light

On Writers and Writing

By John Gardner

Edited by Stewart O'Nan


297 pp.; $12, paper

Remembering John Gardner.

John Gardner's posthumous collection, On Writers and Writing, has been reissued in trade paperback by Addison-Wesley, who brought out the hardback last year. In his introduction to the collection, National Book Award- winning novelist Charles Johnson begins with this sentence: "On the day of his fatal motorcycle accident on September 14, 1982, on a lonely though not particularly dangerous curving stretch of road in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, John Gardner, the embattled advocate for higher artistic and moral standards in our fiction, was snatched at age forty-nine from the stage of contemporary American literature before we could properly measure either his contribution to literary culture or the man himself."

Johnson was a student and friend, indebted to Gardner as a Zen adept is to a master, and thus his tone. But the curve of his sentence suggests the direction that future writing about Gardner will take: an embattled and romantic literary figure of Byronic dimensions has been snatched away at the height of his powers, before proper assessment has been made of "either his contribution to literary culture or the man himself."

True assessment, of course, centers on a writer's work. Time is never kind to "the man himself," as Johnson well knows, and the more facts that exist about a writer, the more they can be assembled, it seems, to suit an assessor's ends. Better that nobody knows you, or that intimates are absent when the assessment begins, as with Will-from-on-Avon. And besides, in our age of information overload, when facts seem to breed further facts and every person is a creative biographer, la the New Historicism, it is not comforting to consider the assessments a few will reach.

But Johnson has mentioned literary culture and the man himself for a reason. The shock waves caused by Gardner's death were due to his personality's impact. Those affected by Gardner were never neutral about him; it was love or hate. Or if not hate, then disdain for him as a self-anointed meddler and prophet. This view sprang to the surface when On Moral Fiction appeared in 1976, with a large percentage of "literary culture" howling in outrage: Who does this guy think he is? He's so outr he claims all fiction has a moral basis-his excuse for letting fly at us postmodernists!

Gardner fashioned from the man himself a durable, if not cultic figure who, for over a decade, seemed omnipresent. It is not surprising to hear that a biography is now in the works, but I believe these collected essays are a better way of getting at the man. Here, in Gardner's own words, are the actual statements, incisive and measured and sometimes outrageous, that registered his omnipresence. Many of those who continue to love him, with a passion and staying power that few writers seem able to inspire, are former students, but by no means all; others "discovered" Gardner, as they reckon it, in one or another of his novels.

Gardner was one of the first creative writing gurus, and as a teacher of writing, he can hardly be bettered. His Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist are still the most helpful books available for aspiring writers, and those who studied under Gardner tend, as I've suggested, to idolize him. As editor of the literary magazine MSS and correspondent and mentor to many, he nursed along so many writers it is impossible to estimate the numbers. One who gained prominence was Raymond Carver, who, even at his peak of popularity, never hesitated to acknowledge with gratitude Gardner's encouragement and direction. As a critic, Gardner kept his square, strong farmer's hand firmly on the pulse of American fiction, and you either waited for or feared his reviews and regular assessments of writers and writing-his manifestoes, as they were seen by some: diatribes and hallucinations by others. And here I probably should say that I write not only as an observer of Gardner and one reviewed by him, but as one of those, along with Galway Kinnell and others, who was invited to help fill the vacuum left at the State University of New York-Binghamton after Gardner's death. I have observed that lonely stretch of curving road in Susquehanna County. I've spent time with one of Gardner's widows (he was married twice) and with the young woman he was planning to marry the week of his accident. And eventually I taught the graduate students from different corners of the country who had come to suny-Binghamton to study the novel under Gardner.

His life indeed contained romantic elements, hints of which Johnson conveys in his introduction. Gardner, who was raised on a farm, usually lived in a rural setting with his wife and children and a variety of animals. Before he began to favor denim workshirts, he wore a medieval leather jerkin or a black-leather motorcycle jacket. And though some adherents and students and fans (yes, he had fans) tried to imitate his lifestyle or manner of dress, none could manage his actual presence, with white-blond hair to his shoulders and the disarming aura of a shining angel. He could be so unassuming and stolid you wondered where the words for "An Invective Against Mere Fiction"-one of the essays collected in On Writers and Writing-rose from.

Yet others viewed him as the bad boy of literature. He was called this (and less flattering names) by those who did not take to him or saw him as a self-aggrandizing interloper. He often drank too much and seldom hung out with the right crowd, meaning the literati of New York. He tended to admire writers whose names you might have to have repeated; he was unsparing about overrated popular writers (he usually called them "fashionable," with a sneer you can still detect); he drove a Harley hog or a Mercedes or a vw, and was not always modest. He spoke unabashedly about himself and his work. He was as well read as any writer you will run across, a polymath who could speak knowledgeably not only about fiction, past or foreign or contemporary, but music, theology, philosophy, history, physics, and most any other topic that came up.

He didn't merely hold forth, though he could do that; his talk was laced with references from books that even some of the experts in the fields had not read, and his ability to quote and recall swatches of pages suggested a memory nearly photographic. At other times, he was a musing or amused listener, moving his pipe around in his mouth as he sat back dreamily silent. The pipe was both a pleasure and a prop. He smoked most anything within reach but tended to return to the pipe. You can sense him sliding it over his teeth or puffing away at it and then biting down as he zeros in on the right word in the sentences of these essays.

He also wrote fiction, and at least two of his novels were bestsellers. Most of his fiction traveled traditional routes, but one of Gardner's boots (Wellingtons, usually) was planted in postmodernism as surely as the other bore traces of the farm near Batavia, New York, where he grew up. His experimental range includes Grendel, The Sunlight Dialogues, In The Suicide Mountains, and Freddy's Book; his more traditional novels (and to my taste, his best) are Nickel Mountain, Mickelsson's Ghosts, and the central narrative portions of October Light. He wrote a book-length poem, two short-story collections, several children's books, and a biography of Chaucer-over 20 books in all before his motorcycle went out of control on that curve.

On that sunlit September afternoon, Gardner was on his way to Binghamton for yet another student conference, with manuscripts in his motorcycle carrier. Contrary to rumors, he had not been drinking heavily or otherwise acting suicidal, or so those close to him on that day report. He had recovered from the many negative reviews of Mickelsson's Ghosts; he had just written a friend about Gilgamesh, the translation he was finishing-"Great pome!"-and was looking forward to his marriage that weekend with his usual sunny disposition.

The curve was elementary for a seasoned motorcyclist, and someone who lived in a farmhouse on a hill near the curve said she heard a noise and then saw a pickup speeding away, so perhaps Gardner was forced off the road by a redneck. Or he could have been merely daydreaming too deeply; his memorable definition of fiction was "the vivid and continuous dream." When his motorcycle went down, the end of a handlebar jerked back and ruptured his spleen. There wasn't a mark on his body. The pickup couldn't be traced. He remained as romantic and enigmatic in death as in life.

There has been no hurry, it seems, to assess Gardner's work, and perhaps On Writers and Writing is the place to begin. In "More Smog from the Dark Satanic Mills," Gardner laments the fashionable trash and imitation serious fiction that obscures first-rate writing, and suggests, in an amusing scenario, that perhaps editors don't really read the books they publish:

They buy the novel from an agent who has never read it either, he just "represents" it, the way a number can represent two sick fish or two chickenhouses, and to get them to buy it the agent throws in some other novel, cheaper than it would have been otherwise, by someone like John Hersey, who's safe. The editor gives the manuscript to a girl from Radcliffe, who fixes the spelling and changes the parts that aren't clear to her, and then somebody else who's read twenty-five pages writes the jacket blurb which vaguely alludes to "outrageous humor" or "delicate insight" and the "deeper symbolic intent."

Gardner was not a humorless academic. The reader will find refreshing pleasures in nearly every essay or review collected here, whether of Cheever or Lewis Carroll or John Steinbeck or Italo Calvino or John Fowles. When Gardner reviewed a particular writer, or addressed as broad a topic as "Contemporary American Fiction," as he does here, he came to his subject well prepared, often with months of reading behind him, and something larger on his mind to say. Though some of the references in the essays are slightly dated, his insights are always arresting: "I happen to know that Joyce Carol Oates, the goriest writer in America, shuts her eyes during the bloody parts of Polanski's Macbeth."

About Tolkien: "His edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was a good, trustworthy edition, not brilliant-curiously weak when it comes to interpretation-and his modernizations of that poem and also of Pearl and Sir Orfeo were loaded with forced inversions, false rhymes and silly archaisms like 'eke' and 'ere.' Tolkien's original story-poems, like 'The Adventures of Tom Bombadil,' were even worse, yet The Lord of the Rings looms already as one of the truly great works of the human spirit."

I have not mentioned Gardner's wide reading and study in medieval literature, or his book on Chaucer's poetics, the genesis of which he mentions here:

At the Iowa Writer's Workshop, where, like Flannery O'Connor and everybody else, I'd gone to study my trade, I'd arrived too late and so encountered not the great white company of earlier days but Freudian novelist Marguerite Young, sodbuster Robert O'Bowen, and wooden allegorists like Calvin Kentfield, writers of the sort who, to set us yawning, divide their books about life in the Navy into sections entitled Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. . . . I quit the writer's workshop and went up the hill to take classes in Italian, Greek, and Latin, to John McGalliard's Old English Class, where people still cared about stories.

If you pity the poor sodbuster or allegorist who got in Gardner's way, notice how fast they have faded: fashionableness. Yet Gardner's statement above could be construed as misleading. Though he became competent in several languages and eventually did translations from more than one, and though he was as well read in medieval literature as most scholars in the field and did write about Chaucer, both his master's degree and his doctorate, as the records show, were in creative writing. Even his biography of Chaucer caused a critical flurry or furor when it appeared, with certain scholars claiming it contained unacknowledged borrowings.

But Gardner was most cogent in his assessments of the contemporary scene. He notes of Barthelme (and in particular of Snow White) that Barthelme's work "has nothing to do with black comedy-Beckett's Happy Days, for instance, which angrily laughs at brainless optimism. . . . Like Ralph Waldo Emerson ('I contradict myself?'), Barthelme's crazies systematically evade the issue, and they encourage the reader to evade it too, with neurotically healthy vigor. They work like the Christianity of those Updike adults who have shucked religion but carry on from childhood a security ultimately untouched by their knowledge that it's groundless."

This is from his essay "A Writer's View of Contemporary American Fiction," a brilliant cataract of 25 pages that includes most American writers of Gardner's era. He states his premise early on: "Though most of the writers I plan to mention would dislike my calling them religious, American writers now at work fall into five main groups: (1) religious liberals and liberal agnostics (often indistinguishable); (2) orthodox or troubled-orthodox Christians; (3) Christians who have lost their faith and cannot stand it; (4) diabolists; (5) heretics."

About the liberals, he says with insight, "From Emerson to Saul Bellow the line runs straight. The Reform Jew is only barely a Jew, as the Transcendentalist is only barely a Christian. He believes in ethics and civilization, tradition and clear communication. When he writes he uses plot, character, and setting, and he's fairly true to all of them, to prove-in case anyone should doubt-that he's serious. He does not believe, if you press him, in art. He believes in using art to facilitate thought about important issues." Some of the writers other than Bellow that Gardner gathers under this rubric are Elkin, Mailer, and Malamud. Gardner notes, "Except for Walt Whitman, the liberal tradition has produced no great writers, certainly no great recent writers, though Malamud frequently comes close. To a man they make lumpy, misshapen fictions . . . that drone like the lectures Unitarians substitute for sermons, fictions which, in two words, are insufficiently alert. Bad writers in this crowd show the fault most clearly, E. L. Doctorow, for instance."

Gardner concludes, "If we admire the liberals, we admire them more for their goodness than for their art; and too often, as in Doctorow, even the goodness is partly illusory. Saul Bellow is patently and annoyingly a male chauvinist pig. Doctorow lies about history to make his ethically liberal points." Not much contemporary criticism takes such an assertive stance, and certainly a few, such as Doctorow and Bellow, must be grateful for that. That tone is a primary reason for Gardner's bad-boy reputation. If some of the writers he mentions aren't as popular nowadays, then most current writers suffer diminishment by comparison. And in this era of correctness of all kinds, Gardner's opinions have the effect of a salutary, mind-clearing antidote.

About the orthodox: "It is Christianity-hellfire Protestant Christianity-not the terrible state of the world, that makes the idea of apocalypse so important in modern American fiction; and it is Christianity of a gentler sort that gives such importance to the idea of resurrection, physical or spiritual." In this category Gardner, with his usual unabashedness, places himself, and indeed it was Gardner who popularized and perhaps even minted the concept of "redemptive" fiction. He includes here Ralph Ellison, Cheever, Gass, Gaddis, Hawkes, Charles Johnson, Pynchon, and, in a backhanded way, Robert Coover: "Coover at his worst works exactly like the meanest fundamentalist Baptist." Then, drawing in Barthelme and John Barth and the Gass of Omensetter's Luck, Gardner makes his telling point: "All of these writers have, in common with Coover, the ex-Christian's love of bathroom humor and fifth-grader irreverence." He goes on to say that Barth, "though by nature a cheerful man, talks endlessly, even in his earlier novels, about the meaninglessness of life. No one believes for a moment that he profoundly believes what he says; it's merely fashionable French existentialist b--s--; nevertheless he prattles on about suicide and how it makes no difference one way or the other. A pagan Greek would stare in bafflement. 'Who cares if life has meaning,' he would say. 'Stop nattering and play your flute.' "

About the diabolists Gardner has little to say, because they are not, he explains, the engineers of evil they imagine themselves to be-although nowadays he might alter that opinion. And the heretics? Perhaps because he was brought up Presbyterian and first wrote sermons, according to his mother, Gardner seems particularly attuned to the theology of Updike: "And by heretics-my last category-I mean such writers as John Updike, religious men whose ideas of religion I dislike. Updike's message, again and again, is a twisted version of the message of his church, neo-orthodox Presbyterianism: Christ has saved us; nothing is wrong; so come to bed with me."

In a withering review of Walker Percy's Lancelot (not as withering, however, as I remembered it from 1977, in The New York Times Book Review), this is the concluding paragraph: "Fiction, at its best, is a means of discovery, a philosophical method. By that standard, Walker Percy is not a very good novelist; in fact Lancelot, for all its dramatic and philosophical intensity, is bad art, and what's worse, typical bad art. Like Tom Stoppard's plays, it fools around with philosophy, only in this case not for laughs but for fashionable groans. Art, it seems to me, should be a little less pompous, a lot more serious. It should stop sniveling and go for answers or else shut up."

Whether or not you agree with Gardner's opinions, they are so appositely put you're forced to fashion rebuttals, if you can. That is the best way to learn, and this recent collection is one of the best places to begin. The only American writer who has spoken with anything like Gardner's aptness about contemporaries is John Updike, and Updike's generally milder opinions seem pale in comparison, although Updike might see his manner as "Christianity of a gentler sort." However that may be, and however these essays strike the thousands they should reach, few will be able to come away from them without a sense of "the man himself." As you hear for the first time or hear again Gardner's voice in these resurrected essays, you realize he remains the figure he always was: a shining light and an enigma.

Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS & CULTURE Review


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