John Gardner

The Art of Fiction

The success of fools in the university world is one of God's great mysteries.

True artists, whatever smiling faces they may show you, are obsessive, driven people--whether driven by some mania or driven by some high, noble vision need not presently concern us...No critical study, however brilliant, is the fierce psychological battle a novel is.

Art, at those moments when it feels most like art--when we feel most alive, most alert, most triumphant--is less like a cocktail than a tank full of sharks.

To the layman it may seem that description serves simply to tell us where things are happening, giving us perhaps some idea of what the characters are like by identifying them with their surroundings, or providing us with props that may later tip over burn down or explode. Good description does far more: It is one of the writer's means of reaching down into his unconscious mind, finding clues to what questions his fiction must ask, and with luck, hints about the answers. Good description is symbolic not because the writer plants symbols in it but because, by working in the proper way, he forces symbols still largely mysterious to him up into his conscious mind where, little by little, as his fiction progresses, he can work with them and finally understand.