Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

John Gardner’s ultimate how-to for budding novelists


This isn’t a book review so much as a nostalgic reminiscence. The book? John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist.

Vintage 1983, and I can practically remember the day I bought it, at Left Bank Books in St. Louis. I was just getting up the nerve to write a novel for the first time, having done only short stories up till then, so the fact that one of my favorite novelists had put together a handy manual — as if just for me — was an omen.

Readers today might not remember Gardner, but he was hot stuff back then. He’d written a version of Beowulf from the monster’s point of view (Grendel). He’d done a massive tome called The Sunlight Dialogues, which every English major was dying to read. Then there was October Light, Freddie’s Book, Mickelsson’s Ghosts. I ate ‘em up. On top of that, he was the most exotic-looking character you could imagine, an elfin figure with long blond-to-silver hair, woolly Nordic sweaters, and a pipe jabbed between his teeth. He was kind of otherworldly, a medieval messenger chanting lore and wisdom.

On Becoming A Novelist is full of the kind of stuff you probably pick up during the course of an MFA program, everything from the kind of personality that makes a good writer to advice on navigating the publishing business. And there are times when Gardner makes you feel a little bit small, as if you’re not quite ready for the big time. You’ve got work to do. At one point he says something like, “If you’re not going to live like a true artist, maybe you should do something else with your life.”

Still, there are many moments of crystalline recognition: That’s me! I do have what it takes! And believe me, that’s the kind of thing you need — maybe more than raw talent — when you’re young and all set to commit yourself to the writing life.

This book actually came out after Gardner’s death in a motorcycle accident in 1982. I remember feeling like the great man was speaking to me from the beyond. “I’m gone, but at least I can help this young wastrel get his act together.”

The thing is, On Becoming A Novelist is still relevant for nascent wordsmiths. All it lacks are references to the PC and the Internet, which, when you think about it, are just tools and have nothing to do with what’s inside the writer.

You can snag a copy on Amazon. The foreword is by Raymond Carver.

11 comments on “John Gardner’s ultimate how-to for budding novelists

  1. John W. Howell
    March 30, 2016

    Interesting Kevin. I guess we all have moments when we think we have what it takes. The vast amount of time is spent on just that question. Thought provoking post. Thanks

  2. pinklightsabre
    March 30, 2016

    Is this the same Gardner who wrote a Bond book, Icebreaker? If so, I read that in the early 80s — but sounds like he died then too. Reminds me of that Robert McGee book Story, the part about “maybe you’re not quite ready for this.” Which is part motivating and part less so, but I like the way you frame this up. Appetite, whet.

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 30, 2016

      No, not the same Gardner. This would be the gnome/medievalist Gardner. I think probably October Light was his best known title in the ’70s.

      You’d like him, I’m pretty sure …

  3. Audrey Driscoll
    March 30, 2016

    Aargh, I confess my ignorance. I had never heard of John Gardner until now. But then, I studied anthropology, not literature. I’m wondering if there’s a need now for an inspirational book of that sort for the writer who starts out in their middle years. The urge to create may be just as strong, and the well of lived experience deeper, but the time in which to learn the craft and produce works is shorter than for the twenty-something.

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 31, 2016

      I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s already a book like that. If not, maybe YOU should write one!

      • Audrey Driscoll
        March 31, 2016

        That thought occurred to me even as I was typing my comment. Right now would be premature, but you never know…

  4. 1WriteWay
    April 4, 2016

    I studied literature and writing in college. I’ve never read Gardner, but I did hear lots about him. Thanks for the review. Sounds like just the book for me, especially since it’s pre-PC.

    • Kevin Brennan
      April 4, 2016

      I think you’d be inspired, though he can get a little preachy sometimes. Still, it’s nice to get the feeling that you’re close.

      • 1WriteWay
        April 5, 2016

        I’ll have to get me a copy. His book keeps coming up in my travels through the blogosphere and writing sites. But I could be afraid to find that maybe I’m not “close” 😉

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This entry was posted on March 30, 2016 by in Writing and tagged , , , , .
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