Outlaw Writer

John Gardner: Literary OutlawJohn Gardner: Literary Outlaw by Barry Silesky

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A real teacher, I suppose, can teach through any medium, even if he’s dead.

John Gardner died at age 49 after a motorcycle accident about a year before his classic The Art of Fiction was published in 1983. It’s basically Gardner’s collected notes on the craft, along with exercises. (As an aside: Gardner, as a writing teacher, experimented with broadcasting his writing classes on TV, which seems to prefigure online instruction.)

About ten years after the book’s publication, a friend loaned me a copy at a key time in my long apprenticeship as a writer (like most writers, even famous ones, there are moments I fear I’m a fraud, given my success as a fiction writer amounts to two short stories published online over eight years ago). I read it, absorbed it, worked through its exercises, some of the toughest exercises any writer could and should try.

Its still one of the best books on writing any writer could read, and I recommend it, as I recommend John Gardner: Literary Outlaw, the first fairly extensive general biography of Gardner ever published. The biography is absorbing, for the most part, a solid portrait of a writer as full of foibles and contradictions as he was genius for writing and teaching writing.

In many ways Gardner, or the image of himself that he portrayed publicly, and to most of those who knew him privately, was a model writer, wholly devoted to writing, to the craft; writing absorbed him. It was as much a state of being, almost inseparable from the man, which is a recurrent  theme of the biography. I suppose today much of Gardner’s life as a writer falls into cliche: heavy drinking, womanizing, depressive (probably bipolar, given the envious bouts of energy Gardner seemed to possess, even after drinking astounding amounts of gin, etc.). And yet, it’s sort of a cliche you, as a writer, want to aspire to. A life almost wholly devoted to writing and literature.

As far as Gardner being a literary outlaw: I suppose he was at the time his fame and stature grew in the late ’70s and early ’80s, or infamy as some might and did say with the publication of his book On Moral Fiction, a polemic that pretty much slapped most of his contemporaries (Mailer, Updike, John Barth) in their, according to him, amoral faces.

In time, he would recant some of what he wrote in On Moral Fiction,and his novels (Grendel, Mickelsson’s Ghosts, for instance)would seem to contradict his dismissing the fiction of fabulists and metafictionists, such as Barth, as basically crap that largely broke its promises to the reader of providing a profulent uninterrupted dream, and rather descended into cheap wordplay. (Although to this day, Barth’s short story “Lost in the Funhouse” mostly makes me scratch my head and say WTF?)

At the time that I read On Moral Fiction, in the early ’90s, I loved it; back then, my life had turned seemingly into an absurd existentialist vacuum. I viewed the book then as sort of a secular bible. And, I suppose, its urge toward attempting to write not didactic fiction, but fiction that challenges and moves toward transcendence rather than the Abyss, is still a driving force in my writing.

And it’s not hard to believe Gardner reached such a transcendence in his own life, as Silesky suggests poignantly at the end of the biography, quoting one of Gardner’s students who wrote after visiting the site in 1998 in Susquehanna, New York where Gardner crashed his motorcycle and died: “‘In the mythology of death . . . one must cross the river; and there it was [the Susquehanna River]. All he had to do was get up, brush the grit off his trousers and step across.'”

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