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On Becoming a Novelist Reprint Edition

4.4 out of 5 stars 59 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0393320039
ISBN-10: 0393320030
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Picture the poor, young, serious-fiction writer. He toils alone at a pace not so different from that of Lincoln Tunnel traffic at rush hour in New York. His spouse has a "real" job, or perhaps he has a trust fund. His college friends are cashing in on their dot-coms and wondering if he's ever going to join the real world. He is not hell-bent on publication; he is trying to write "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's likely to have no idea whether he's succeeding. Nobody understands him.

Well, almost nobody. John Gardner understands him. Gardner's sympathetic On Becoming a Novelist is the novelist's ultimate comfort food--better than macaroni and cheese, better than chocolate. Gardner, a fiction writer himself (Grendel), knows in his bones the desperate questioning of a writer who's not sure he's up to the task. He recognizes the validation that comes with being published, just as he believes that "for a true novel there is generally no substitute for slow, slow baking." Gardner also has strong feelings about what kinds of workshops help (and whom they help), and what kinds hinder. But a full half of Gardner's book is devoted to an exploration of the writer's nature. The storyteller's intelligence, he says, "is composed of several qualities, most of which, in normal people, are signs of either immaturity or incivility." In addition, a writer needs "verbal sensitivity, accuracy of eye," and "an almost demonic compulsiveness." But wait--there's more. A writer needs to be driven, and to be driven, he says insightfully, "a psychological wound is helpful." --Jane Steinberg


A classic of its kind. -- Joyce Carol Oates

Few, if any, American writers in our time understood the theory and practice of great literature better than novelist John Gardner. With imagination and breathtaking dedication, he trained a generation of young writers to reach for the highest artistic standards. That legacy is contained in "On Becoming a Novelist," one of the essential books for any writer's library. -- Charles Johnson, National Book Award-winning author of "Middle Passage"

John Gardner taught me how to write. I've read this book countless times, underlined it in many different inks, taught it, quote it, write by it. . . . Alone in my basement after my day job, I pawed through "On Becoming a Novelist," hoping to understand what it was I was trying to achieve, and why. John Gardner answered these questions and many more--and still does. Currently there are a number of popular writing guides--all worthwhile I'm sure--but there's no substitute for experience and the hard work of composition. John Gardner put in countless hours at his desk sweating over the depth, generosity and elegance of his fiction. That after his death he continues to share his practical knowledge with us is a gift. -- Stewart O'Nan, author of "A Prayer for the Dying" and "A World Away"

John Gardner's book is worth a thousand pictures of the writer writing--bemused, puffing a pipe, one hand on the keyboard, one in his hair. John was a devoted teacher, and those of us who witnessed his generous attention must be grateful for these pages and his enduring example. "On Becoming a Novelist" evokes the life of the writer, the student, the teacher, as few other documents can. -- Nicholas Delbanco, author of "Old Scores"

There are three books I keep on my desk so that I'll have them at the ready at any given moment in my writing life: the Bible, Roget's Thesaurus, and "On Becoming a Novelist." There is no better book on what it takes to be a writer than Gardner's classic. Period. -- Bret Lott, author of "Jewel"

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 172 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (October 17, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393320030
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393320039
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.5 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (59 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #175,502 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Before discovering a dusty old hardcover copy of John Gardner's 'On Becoming A Novelist' in an infamous New York City bookstore (Gotham Book Mart), I was under the impression that every book related to the art of writing fit into one of three catagories. Either it focused on technique (Robert McKee's 'Story'), it offered encouragement (Anne Lamott's 'Bird By Bird'), or it took memoir form (Annie Dillard's 'The Writing Life'). I was wrong.
This book is a portrait of the writer as a young man (or woman). After years of teaching creative writing courses and wallowing around the publishing industry, Gardner acquired an opinion or two (major understatement). He correctly believed that writing novels is not a profession or a pasttime for the timid, and so he outlines the prototypical writer's 'character'. The purpose, of course, is to get the young writer to ask himself if he is really cut out for this. In the course of telling you what traits a talented writer must have (verbal accuity, a discerning eye, faith, etc.), Gardner offers up some brilliant insights into the craft. His discussion ranges from writer's block to writers' conferences, and while you may not always agree with him, his views are always thought provoking and perceptive.
In the end, this book may be mildly discouraging for the would-be writer who is currently on the fence. Gardner does not sugar coat his opinions, but I am glad for that. He has no qualms in informing his readers that worthwhile writing takes a great deal of talent, and not everyone has that talent. As he says, the worst that can happen after reading this book is that you will realize you don't have the right stuff, and you will move on to something else.
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Format: Paperback
If he were alive today, John Gardner might be surprised to find that he's more well-known for THE ART OF FICTION and ON BECOMING A NOVELIST than he is for GRENDEL, MICKELSSON'S GHOSTS, etc. Gardner is probably the most influential writing guru alive or dead, despite the hundred of "self help" tomes turned out by Writer's Digest and others.

ON BECOMING A NOVELIST begins with a forward written by Raymond Carver, a former student of Gardner's at Chico State College in California. Carver, one of the leaders of the minimalist movement, went on to a successful career as a short story writer. Gardner gave Carver his first line edit, showing the importance of a good teacher for the beginning novelist.

This book is divided into four sections, the first entitled "The Writer's Nature." In it Gardner describes the highest class of novelist as one who is fascinated by people different from himself. He talks about writers poring over astrology books and psychological case studies in order to find authentic characters.

The second section is entitled "The Writers Training and Education." Gardner begins this section by discussing bad workshops. He likes workshops because they give the beginning writer a chance to meet others like himself, providing some moral support. A bad workshop leader would allow vicious criticism, leading to writer's block for both parties. A bad workshop would have no standard for good fiction. Gardner includes "creation of a vivid and continuous dream, authorial generosity, intellectual and emotional significance, elegance and efficiency, and strangeness" as an example of standards for good fiction.

The third section deals with "Publication and Survival." Gardner begins to show his crankiness here.
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Format: Paperback
I cannot speak to the book's strengths without repeating the other excellent reviews already posted.

It must be said, however, that Gardner is not just a writing teacher of high standards and noble ambitions. He's also a cranky elitist perched in his ivory tower bemoaning that which makes popular fiction... well, popular.

If one is trying to write any type of genre fiction, this book is terribly discouraging. Gardner says in many ways that it is better to be poor and unknown with two published books than to be well-known and well-compensated with dozens of less than perfect titles to one's credit.

This is, of course, complete bull dookey unless your goal is to be an Artist above the mortal fray. There is writing as an art form, and then there is writing as a viable career. Art is worth pursuing, but the artist is not a superior creature through his pursuit. Genre fiction (sci fi, romance, western, mystery) is not intrinsicly less valuable because people enjoy reading it, and creating art within the confines of the genres is not impossible. Gardner repeatedly asserts the falseness of these obvious truths, but fortunately I'm only following his own advice by evaluating his opinions against the context of my own understanding.

"Novelist" is an excellent book to encourage we writers in striving for Art, and for greatness. A writer, seeking to make a living in the real world through his writing without having to take a side job as Gardner did, would do well to take this book with a grain of salt.

(As a final note - this book does serve as a filter of sorts. If a genre writer can read this book without weeping into his bourbon or shriveling up with shame, he is truly ready to be a professional genre writer.)
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