An Interview with John Gardner

--Interviewed by Joyce Renwick and Howard Smith

John Gardner was born in 1933. A man of many talents, he recently won the Armstrong Prize for his radio play The Temptation Game, and has written seven novels: The Resurrection, The Wreckage of Agathon, Grendel, The Sunlight Dialogues, Nickel Mountain, October Light and In the Suicide Mountains. He is also a short story writer, poet, and critic, who has done everything from writing rock lyrics, to scholarly works on Chaucer. His most recent book is the controversial On Moral Fiction (Basic Books, Inc., 1978). A Guggenheim Scholar, John Gardner has taught Old and Middle English and/or Creative Writing at Oberlin, San Francisco State University, Southern Illinois University, George Mason University, SUNY at Binghamton, and the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference. This interview took place on August 25th, 1978, at Bread Loaf. Portions were broadcast on "Garfield Street" on WPFW, 89.3 FM.

Interviewers: John, you criticize academics for their over-intellectualization of fiction and for writing fiction for other scholars. Yet in On Moral Fiction you appear to aim your book for this clique instead of your normal audience. Why?

Gardner: Right. I think probably you're right that I'm aiming at professionals. I think probably the kind of people who would normally read my books also read that book because after you've built up a reputation with a certain following, then they kind of trust you. I mean, all the lawyers' wives and the doctors who come home, you know, and read a few novels and aren't professional literary people but do read books. They see my name in the book and the think, you know, maybe that's interesting and they pick that up. Because a lot of the mail that I have gotten about On Moral Fiction is from people who have read my other books and aren't very familiar with contemporary fiction, partly because they've quit reading. And a great many people everywhere I go--and I think it is true of most people--say, I just don't read fiction anymore. I read nonfiction. And the reason is very simple. Fiction has gotten boring and stupid and depressing, and shoddy, in many ways. There are always good writers. There are great writers, like John Fowles whom I mention in On Moral Fiction. There're plenty more besides Fowles. But it is certainly true that the book is written for professionals. I criticize books like those of Tom Pynchon and those of John Barth, and some other people, as books which are held up as true and noble works of art when in fact they're not. They're not that good. They have very specific faults in them--faults of execution, faults of conception. They are sometimes a reflection of personalities which are forgivable and lovable in everyday life but ought not to be held up as models because they're just not that good as human models; and my objection, really, is not to the fact that these writers exist, but to the fact that academics so often praise them. What happens in a classroom is this: you're teaching a novel by somebody like Anthony Trollope who is a sort of perfect novelist who, as someone says, never puts a foot wrong. That is he just does his job beautifully, simply, clearly and you've got to take as long in the classroom as it takes your kids to read this novel, right, which means, you know, a couple of weeks if you're hurrying them. Like Barchester Towers--you can't really ask kids in college to read and think about that book in less than two weeks. So that means three classes the first week and three classes the second week where you've got to go in and talk about Barchester Towers. The problem is there is nothing to say, because it's a perfect book. The student understands what the characters are like, he understands why they do what they do, he understands why it is important that they do and think what they do, he understands the setting, and he understands that it's great art, and there you stand, with nothing to say. On the other hand, you come into a classroom with Gravity's Rainbow and you can talk and talk and talk because there are tricks coming out of tricks. You know, you can find the secret hidden SS's everywhere. You can talk about modern history and you can talk about existentialism, you can talk about Freud, you can talk about Marx, and so on. There are millions and millions of things to talk about. The book may not be a very good story, it may be philosophically unsound, it may be psychologically unsound, it may be overwrought, it may be boring, it may be wonderful, too. But whatever the case, the fact is that it's much easier to teach. The result is, as we get more and more courses about literature, you know, which is happening--more and more courses are being taught about books. The result is that you get more and more courses about books that are easy to teach, because they're arcane, or they're weird, or something else. You get farther and farther away from a sense of what is a good book. It is true that some great books are difficult. I would say that Finnegans Wake takes a whole semester to teach even half well. I'd say Ulysses is pretty difficult and a great book although it's got its faults. I'd say even Portrait of the Artist. I would say that The Sound and the Fury is fun to talk about in class and it's a great book. But there are also all those books--book after book after book. The complete works of Dickens--if you give the students a few clues to how Dickens works you never have to say anything more. Three days of lectures on Dickens ought to be enough, because he is a wonderful writer and he does do interesting and ingenious symbolic things, but you can point them out like lightning, and the rest of the semester you've got nothing to say. So I've been objecting to what's going on in the classroom, to a kind of valuing of novels for their intellectual difficulty rather than for their art. What's really happening is practical concerns, how to get through that class, have redefined art. So that the academy becomes farther and farther from the people who actually read. The books that we all know to be the wonderful books that we love to read aren't in the college catalog. One example, then I'll stop on this question. Probably a book that influences American people more than any other is Gone With the Wind. Whether it's great art or not, it has moved enormous numbers of people, which gives it at least a claim to be some kind of art. And I would argue as a writer that it's not badly put together, that the sentences are rather good sentences, that in fact it has a right to stand as one of our important American novels. It certainly does try to tell the truth about a very important period of American history, and it does create lasting characters, as we know by the very fact that every girl who reads it wants to model herself on the central character of that book for a while at least. And yet it's vary rare to find Gone With the Wind in a college classroom, whereas it's regular to find Finnegans Wake in a college classroom, although very few people in American were ever deeply moved by anything in that book.

Interviewers: John, you have mentioned frequently in your lectures and in conversations with me in the past that one of the goals of the novelist is to explore and recreate the world, to establish basically a moral code as you explained in On Moral Fiction--do you feel that there's any consistent theme or sense of morality which ties all of your works together? Or are they each separate components that deal with separate ideas?

Gardner: I think there is a total theme which is the metaphysic of John Gardner, a sort of an intuitive artistic metaphysic. I think that each book takes up a different part of the metaphysic and works it in a different way.

The novel Grendel, it seems to me, is essentially a novel about faith and reason. Grendel is again and again given the opportunity of believing something which western civilization has held up as a value. For instance, heroism is one of the subjects taken up in the book very explicitly. A young man named Hrothgar decides he is going to be a hero. Just on faith he believes in heroes--he hasn't really thought about it--and he's willing to die for this principle. Grendel, who doesn't believe in anything, that's why he's a monster, makes fun of him and makes him doubt the idea of heroism. He gives you all the good arguments, like, only the young are heroic, they go out because they're stupid and they run up the hill at the machine gun. Or, heroism is a knee-jerk response, it's not a free will response, and so on . . . Grendel is given the opportunity to believe in love. Freud can prove to you, if you are willing to listen to proof, that love does not exist, that it's an illusion. It's mutual need or something like this. Any value that we have can be rationalized out of existence, reasoned out of existence. At some point you just have to say I don't care, here I stand. But until that last moment of the novel Grendel is unable to make that leap, and then he makes it because he's sort of pushed over the ledge and driven to it. So that's a book of faith.

The King's Indian, another novel--it's not really a novel it's a collection of stories ending with a novella, but the stories are all interlinked, at least in my mind, and they're all about one thing--is my book about aesthetics and there are certain fundamental questions about how art works and what it does for people, to people and to the world that can only be answered by a fictional demonstration. And--the organizing principle in the three sections of that book: first, a bunch of black stories in which people survive by accident, kind of, then the Queen Louisa stories in which--sort of mad, happy, crazy stories, and then The King's Indian novella. They're all about art. When you get through with it, if you feel like being that kind of person and you analyze it and change all the concrete material into abstract material, you have the book on aesthetics.

Jason and Medeia, another book that I did, is about a set of polarities that are in the original myth and that are in the commentaries on the myth. It's a modernized version of the same question. First of all, it's the polarity of male and female. Jason is sort of archetypically male and Medeia archetypically female and that's a question which has become very interesting with the new feminist movement and gay lib and everything else, where sexuality becomes once again a front question for philosophy. It's also a book about the mystical intuity. Male and female again in terms of brain lobes and so on. The whole polarity of maleness and femaleness is the subject matter of Jason and Medeia and by the time you get through the book you know everything I think and I know everything I think about that. I didn't know, by the way, when I started out what I was going to think about those things but in working out the story and in trying to tell the truth, trying to say, that is what she would do, and he would do, it would do, and they would do, I come to the conclusion, which is the book. Each book has its different subject. It all adds up. The whole output adds up to a continuing examination of method, a total world view, or nation order, or whatever you want to call it. I am conscious that each book is about something different and that it's always on the same fundamental question. If I found that I was doing a book exactly like the one I did before on the same subject I'd be pretty worried and I'd probably drop the book or I'd try very hard to say the opposite thing from what I said the last time. If I could prove that I changed my mind then I'd be interested, otherwise it would be a horrible book.

Interviewers: Is there any one of your books that you are really satisfied that you got across what you really wanted to--one that from your own point of view is the best of what you've done in terms of getting out what you wanted to get out?

Gardner: I think my favorite book is The King's Indian but I like The Sunlight Dialogues a lot. I like Grendel very very much except for one small technical mistake, which annoys me, but most people don't recognize it when they read it. I'm not gonna tell you. I like all my books because I sit on them until I'm ready. Nickel Mountain took me 20 years to write. I worked on it some every year all that time. I worked on it until I just couldn't see it anymore and then I would put it away in a drawer for a while and when it got so I could handle it again I would go back and write some more. By the time I was through I had rewritten that thing hundreds of times. I had episodes which I had introduced and then taken out. I'd changed characters and changed all the names. By the time I was through I had really gone over that thing. It was one polished jewel. If it was bad after 20 years of work then I ought to get up and give up the business. So, that's how it is with all my books. I don't let them go until I think I've solved the problems. I think they're good entertainments in the high arts.

Interviewers: Then you're pretty satisfied with each thing you've done?

Gardner: Yes, I've published nothing that I think is bad. I've published one short story that I think is so stupid and I've always pretended that it doesn't exist but usually I like my stuff.

Interviewers: John, most people know you as a writer but you also spend a great deal of time as a college teacher. You were originally a medievalist and now you spend a great deal of energy teaching writing courses. Could you tell us why you have to do this when obviously you have probably sold enough books that you don't have to teach.

Gardner: Right. I haven't sold enough books that I don't have to teach. As a matter of fact . . . because I've always had financial problems. It takes so long to write a novel that even if you make a lot of money you're not making anything like the people who are steadily making $25,000 a year. The most I ever made on a book was $80,000 and that took me 20 years to write and that's not good wages. But I originally taught medieval literature and so on because I needed to support myself in writing. I taught medieval literature for two reasons. One was that I love that kind of story. In the Middle Ages, of course, they had all the kind of stories that I naturally tell, stories about dragons, stories about knights, stories about fair maidens, everything that Dante does, all the cartoony Walt Disneyish stuff that Chaucer does and so on. Partly I chose it because half the time when you're teaching medieval what you're teaching is language and it never changes and so you don't have to prepare classes, and if you work it out right, as I did, you set your classes up so you meet for three hours on Monday night and you're free the rest of the week and you can write. So it was a way of earning a living and doing fiction which is what I really wanted to do because no serious artist in this country can support himself. I think that the minute you see an artist beginning to support himself really well, you're looking at a middle-aged artist who has somehow gotten past the years of starvation or you're looking at a phony. I don't know, it may not be true. There may be some wild exception, but usually it takes forever to earn enough to live on. Then after I had gotten so that I could have supported myself, not very well, but I could have supported myself on fiction, I shifted into teaching creative writing sort of on a part-time basis and on a full-time basis and I continued to do it because I think teaching creative writing is hard. A great many people who can write beautifully don't really know what they're doing. They write kind of' intuitively. They just rework the scene until it feels right and when they see a student piece they don't know what to tell the student except, well, go rewrite it, or this isn't very good, or whatever. Some people, a few people, are able to show you techniques of fiction and to show you what you're doing wrong and if you are one of those people you sort of owe it to the students to do it.

Interviewers: So you do feel that you can teach a person to write?

Gardner: Yeah.

Interviewers: How do you do this?

Gardner: Well, my basic method is to first of all use exercises to develop skills that amateur writers, or beginning writers, don't know they need. An awful lot of writing involves tricks that are never mentioned in literature courses because literary critics look at writing from the other end, you know, what does it mean? Instead of, how is it created? So I use a lot of exercises. The other thing is I use a lot of analysis of what is fiction, what are you after? what's the fiction? and so on. And then of course people begin writing short stories and novels and I criticize them closely, and give them theoretical questions, and hopefully free them of any need to talk to me. They eventually internalize my information.

Interviewers: There are two points, John, that you frequently mention to new writers or young writers, first of which is when you're writing a story you want to try to preserve a dream that you create in your fiction in the reader's mind. The second one, which is I guess related to this, is you generally ask the people when they've finished a story or after they've read a story, why should anyone read this? Would you explain how these two ideas reflect your own attitudes about fiction and why they're important for young writers.


Gardner: Well, both things have to do with a simple question, you know, does the story tell a story? Are you rapt as you hear it, the way you are when you hear Jack and the Beanstalk or Snow White or anything like that? If fiction is really working well the reader curls up in his chair and forgets time. You know, you sit down after lunch and somebody is shaking you suddenly and saying aren't you gonna come to supper and you don't think about the fact that five hours have passed or whatever. It always happens to me when I read good Tolstoy, even bad Tolstoy. It always happens to me when I read good Faulkner. If it doesn't happen to me, if I find myself looking around, looking at my watch wondering what I should do, then I don't think the writer has managed it--brought it off. So I think that what the writer has to want to do is create a vivid and continual dream in the reader's mind. Vivid in that he gives enough clues with concrete, specific details so that you've got something to hook your dream on, and continuous in that he doesn't distract you with some stupid bad writing or something which makes you think about the writer instead of the scene. And then I think when it's all over the reader is going to go over it and say did I like that or not, and often, particularly in movies these days, you go to a movie, you have a good time and you go home and you have sort of second thoughts. You don't really care about it. It just doesn't seem like a good movie after all. And no writer wants that to happen to him. So better you tell a student that it's gonna happen and try to teach him not to let it happen.

Interviewers: Are there any writers you've heard, John, at Bread Loaf, that you would recommend anyone else reading?

Gardner: Sure . . . I think, hands down, the finest reading this year was by Susan Shreve . . . a short story. Susan's very young, and her style is up and down. Sometimes she's absolutely brilliant, sometimes she's unbelievably awful. The story that she read is simply brilliant, I think. It just . . . works, all the way through. And I think that that's going to be the way she writes more and more. I think there's--simply no limit to her future.

I think that Stanley Elkin's story is typical Stanley Elkin, and wonderful, you know, the imagination just pours out, and you just can't stop him, he's just a brilliant imaginer. I disagree with him philosophically about life, itself, and I think that if you're wrong, philosophically, your stories always end up hollow. If you believe-Stanley sort of argues, you know, that God made this terrible mess because . . . it makes a good story. I would say philosophically that the best story you can tell is one in which love is the central motivating feature. And in Stanley's work . . . love is an illusion. I think, therefore, no matter how wonderfully funny or vivid the story is, you always come away thinking "that's not true." And that's not what happens in Susan's story. It's true that Stanley, of course, is an old pro, and he can write circles around Susan, or indeed me. But he's wrong.

 

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