Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
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.