Advice, Art


In my novel class last week, my teacher, the esteemed Professor Bosworth, gave us a worksheet written by John Gardner, an American novelist best known for his writing how-to guide On Moral Fiction, which basically pissed a lot of people off. The worksheet we read features 26 writing exercises, and it has a lengthy introduction during which Gardner makes the following recommendations:

An aspiring writer should:

  1. remember that he is writing for and about people, and must never speak down to them
  2. study the work of great authors, in order to learn their tricks
  3. “…be aware that he might be read by the desperate, by people who might by a single sentence be persuaded to choose the jump off the bridge.”

There’s more to it than that–a lot more–but that’s the main points I’m pulling out for my purposes right now. If you want to read the whole thing, I’ve gone and typed it up for you. You’re welcome.

This piece has been on my mind all week not because it’s a (mostly) brilliant bit of advice, but because when my professor presented it to the class, two separate peers of mine immediately began trashing it for reasons that I can’t begin to fathom. Bear with me while I present their arguments, then rant about why they’re wrong.

Peer 1: Gardner is a pretentious, prescriptivist asshole, and I can’t decide if I want to piss on this essay or his grave.

There is nothing prescriptivist about telling someone that if they want to be a good writer, they should practice writing a million ways toward the weekend. Yes, Gardner tends to focus on “dead white guy” authors in his own list of the “writing greats,” which precludes a lot of fantastic work, but he specifically says that aspiring writers should make their own lists, and try to improve upon learned techniques (“The writer who has worked hard at these exercises will see…that he has various choices available at every point in his fiction, and he will know how to choose the best, or invent something new.“). The closest he comes to being prescriptivist is in his presumption that his exercises will make better writers, and his failure to acknowledge that there are probably lots of other good ones, too.

What concerns me most about this reaction to the piece is the assumption that prescriptivists have nothing to teach. Asshole or not, Gardner has put together a list of fantastic writing exercises, and all writers can improve through practice, even the “geniuses” Gardner talks about. Prescriptive rules exist for a reason: they work. They are not the end-all, be-all of fiction, but they are effective tools and it would benefit any aspiring author to know them inside and out. What’s more, to reject Gardner’s advice outright on the basis that you do not have the same favorite authors as he does is a self-defeating action; everybody has something to teach you, regardless of how much you disagree about the merits of dead white guy fiction.

Peer 2: Writers aren’t doctors, and they are not responsible for the consequences of their artwork. I didn’t kill an old lady after reading Crime and Punishment, so why should I worry about what people do after reading my work?

This bit of tripe came from my least favorite person in this class, so I’ll admit that my bristles were up the second she opened her mouth. But to suggest that artists don’t have a moral responsibility to their audience is absolutely repugnant to me, and I would have taken issue with the assertion no matter who made it.

First of all, if you read Gardner’s piece, you’ll know that he is not encouraging writers to compromise their work for the sake of a sunny outlook. He is merely encouraging them to consider the ramifications of what they write, and be sure that they can live with themselves if somebody takes them at their word. I think this is a fair point to make. Far too often, literary movements get so caught up in misery and nihilism and trying to create as much drama as possible that they lose sight of what art is really about: understanding the human condition, and helping to improve it. That, to me, is the point of art; not to rub people’s face in the horror and futility of life, but to help them find the silver lining and keep clawing their way forward.

Writing is a huge responsibility. When we’re striving to get out there, get noticed, get published, it’s easy to forget that the real goal is to connect with someone else. It’s easy to get caught up in the conflict, to think that the dark side is the only one that really matters, that pain is the only truth worth telling. But the most important thing is to remember that readers aren’t just statistics on the New York Times bestsellers list; they’re people, and what you say matters to them, or else they wouldn’t be reading.

As for my peer, I sincerely hope that she never gets published, not out of distaste or spite, but for fear of what impact she might have on the world. Careless writing is dangerous writing, and an author must always consider the moral implications of their work. She can tell herself that the consequences of her art are separate from herself, but I very much doubt she would find that separation so easy to make if someone did, indeed, jump off a bridge with her manuscript in hand.

What do you think? Am I wrong?

Petulantly yours,
M.M. Jordahl

“Sanity is a writer is merely this: However stupid he may be in his private life, he never cheats in writing.” -John Gardner

BotG: Prologue added, 3rd chapter re-written (again). It’s hard to keep moving forward when you keep having to revise earlier chapters for class. Very tempted to skip ahead to the eighth chapter, because at this rate I’m never going to get to the exciting bit at the end. XD

2 thoughts on “Exercises”

  1. Ironically, I actually DID kill an old Lady after reading Crime and Punishment.

    I think those three quoted tips are excellent. #1 is sadly rare (especially in movies. So many great premises just get ruined by scripts which assume audiences can’t COPE with any innovations on three-act structure. It’s seriously turning me off film as an art form, which is tragic…not to mention moronic on my part). ALSO, I’m reading your ‘art of procrastination’ blog WHILE I OUGHT TO BE DOING STUFF. Oh, the symmetry!

  2. I dig Gardner. Read him in a Fundamentals of Fiction class a little over a year ago. I remember occasionally taking issue with him, but was overall persuaded at least by the strength of his own writing that he knew what he was talking about–he was engaging as all hell, not to mention surprisingly accessible, and I’m definitely willing to listen to someone like that on the subject of writing-for-audiences.

    Though I do sort of think that point 3 quoted above is (while technically true) a bit, er, dramatic…?

    While considering the ramifications of one’s writing is paramount etc., overestimating said ramifications during the writing process can sink a good project into the mud. There’s more than one author who’s taken ‘think of your moral obligation to your audience’ as an invitation to stroll on up to the pulpit and start being a bore, or a confirmation that he or she’s Tremendously Important. I almost think that if there’s an Order of Stuff to Consider getting (and keeping) an audience ought to take precedence over ensuring that audience changes for the better. Careless writing is only dangerous writing if people read it.

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