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What do you want to be? Who are you? Now what do you want to be?


Caravaggio - Narcissus


Anne K. Yoder recently pointed out this Susan Sontag quote to me (it’s from the opening of her review of Camus’ notebooks, written in 1963):

Great writers are either husbands or lovers. Some writers supply the solid virtues of a husband: reliability, intelligibility, generosity, decency. There are other writers in whom one prizes the gifts of a lover, gifts of temperament rather than of moral goodness. Notoriously, women tolerate qualities in a lover—moodiness, selfishness, unreliability, brutality—that they would never countenance in a husband, in return for excitement, an infusion of intense feeling. In the same way, readers put up with unintelligibility, obsessiveness, painful truths, lies, bad grammar—if, in compensation, the writer allows them to savor rare emotions and dangerous sensations.                                                       

Keep reading. 

Coupled with this, I recently paged through a John Gardner interview and found something striking:

Samuel Beckett-surely one of the great writers of our time despite my objections-is loved by critics, but except for John Fowles, I hear no one pointing out that the tendency of all he says is wrong. He says it powerfully-with comi-tragic brilliance, and he believes it, but what he says is not quite sound. Every night Samuel Beckett goes home to his wife…he lies down in bed with her, puts his arms around her, and says, “No meaning again today…” Critics can, and do say, Well it doesn’t matter what he says, it’s how well he says it. But I think in the long run Beckett is in for it. Because great writers tell the truth exactly-and get it right.

Keep reading.

Two of the most influential American critics (as well as fiction writers) of the last century. They each use the term great writer.

Is there bias in what they say?

Good old Albert and Sam. Nothing like two existentialists get the morality wheel rolling.

84 thoughts on “What do you want to be? Who are you? Now what do you want to be?

  1. Gardner is the grand trivializer. So pompous: “Samuel Beckett-surely one of the great writers of our time despite my objections-is loved by critics…” Despite his “objections”? Sounds like he’s whining.

    I suppose Gardner is trying to be funny, but this was a thoroughly stupid thing to say, to reduce Beckett to this caricature:
    “Every night Samuel Beckett goes home to his wife…he lies down in bed with her, puts his arms around her, and says, “No meaning again today…”

    For more evidence of same, read his terribly considered, and ill-motivated, diatribes against Hawkes, Gass, Barth, Pynchon et al. in his book On Moral Fiction.

    One thing is certain, is that this isn’t being and won’t be said: “John Gardner–surely one of the great writers of our time…”

    1. I was also wondering how in the world he knew that Beckett would go and lie down with his wife – and even – put his arms around her. That’s doesn’t seem like a Beckett move to me, but Gardner was a Beowulf/Chaucer dude. Still, many many people have read his books – On Becoming a Novelist, On Moral Fiction, and The Art of Fiction. There were (or are) required reading in creative writing courses.

      Still he said a few things I remember that have helped, which is “don’t use ‘that’ or ‘which’ too much in your sentences” which I seem to remember, but that I sometimes forget to heed.

        1. A well-written speculation (even an irreverent one) would be great. This wasn’t what Gardner was doing. He was trivializing, dismissing. But this was his M.O.

          Someone should exhume Gardner’s corpse and have him write book reviews for the New Yorker. Oh wait, they already have… ba-dump-dump-chh

        2. Honestly, this makes me think of a poem I drafted once and need to get back to–the whole idea is these sort of iconic people being made human–the idea of conscious and unconscious expectations of these people.

          For instance, imagine yourself hanging out at Beckett’s abode, and you go to use the bathroom and note in your head that he uses Pantene Pro-V shampoo, and you think, “He uses the same shampoo I do,” and suddenly realize his humanity in that.

          1. I was once at a Famous Writer’s house, and I saw a dumb note that he’d left on his fridge to his wife, and I had precisely this kind of thought. I remember feeling relieved that even a Great and Famous Writer could write a dumb post-it note—that everything didn’t have to be a dissertation.

            I’ve learned nothing from this lesson, mind you. But I was relieved.

            1. Ha. Yeah. My example about the Pantene Pro-V is actually taken from real life, and what kind of struck me most about it is the fact that I never once before thought, “I bet [Highly Regarded Writer] uses a really high-art shampoo,” but when I saw that he used Pantene, I was found myself taken aback by it.

              Namely, the idea that we (or maybe just me, okay) have these subconscious expectations of these people we look up to, even w/r/t such quotidian things as shampoo and personal effects. It makes me wonder about other expectations I might harbor but not even realize until presented with them or their adverse.

              I think I over-thought that moment a lot.

              1. If other writers do as much mental writing in the shower as I do (at least a couple of stories have gotten “finished” there), the choice of shampoo might take on an importance rivaling that of one’s desk arrangement or whether one writes in the mornings of evenings. One can almost imagine it becoming a staple of post-reading Q&A: “What shampoo do you use as you’re writing?” Who knows, a conditioner might make it into the acknowledgments page of a National Book Award nominee…reviewers might argue for a fundamental shift, from showers to baths, in the later work of author X.

                I’m trying to figure out why Shya’s positings about Beckett above are hilarious. I think it’s because we think of Beckett as being purged to the point of purity from bourgeois concerns, as he was burning those elements from his own work progressively, putting what is essentially human in relief? So that crab cakes would have gone early, like before his earliest work begins? Somehow picturing Jonathan Franzen ordering the crab cakes doesn’t seem funny, it just seems probable.

      1. Yes, those books are assigned. (Is that a measure of “greatness” anyway?) Are his fictions, though? He wrote thirteen novels. I’m sure there are people out there reading them. But is there serious consensus that they’re great. I doubt it.

        1. Grendel is wonderful.

          I don’t know much about ‘great.’ I’m more into ‘wonderful.’

          Ask Sontag about the ‘great’ writers.

          So who are husbands and who are lovers?

          Is Kerouac a lover? Is Gass a husband? Hardy couldn’t be a lover, could he? If Lutz is a husband and Schutt is a husband, wouldn’t that make Carver more of husband, though he seems more like a lover.

            1. Hi John, Greg, Shya, all,

              It may be odd for me to stick up for John Gardner—I’ve certainly spent plenty of time railing against ON MORAL FICTION. But I do think that Gardner’s overall argument is a fairly subtle and complex one. I don’t necessarily agree with him, but I also have learned over time to take him pretty seriously. He was, I think, very sincere in his concerns and criticisms, and I think that Gass and Pynchon and Barth et al. benefited from his criticisms. I know Gass did. (And ON MORAL FICTION is dedicated in part to Gass.)

              I’ve been planning to write something about OMF because of its relationship to Wood and HOW FICTION WORKS. That more recent text shows how clever and insightful a book OMF actually is—Wood is no John Gardner.

              I’m circling around a fuzzy point here, but my basic argument, I guess, is that I think Gardner’s argument was actually a fairly subtle and complex one, and in some cases a sympathetic one. (I sympathize with certain aspects of it.) I view his long-running debate with Gass not as animosity, but more of a dialectic that benefited both writers, and all of us, in the long run. A lot of my critical work since then has been, in part, an attempt to synthesize something from their debate.

              Give me a minute and I’ll try to clarify some of what I find valuable in Gardner.

              1. Hey Adam,

                I’ve read Gardner’s On Moral Fiction, On Becoming a Novelist, and The Art of Fiction. I also have read the famed “debate” between Gass and Gardner, as well as various elaborations about their disagreements, their friendship, their reviews of each other’s work, etc.

                Woods is definitely not Gardner, nor Bloom for that matter.

                One can cherry pick through all three writers and find many things most writers would support. But, for me, they are all ultimately more claustrophobically confining than they are enlightening.

                1. That’s fair. I tend to be pretty charitable, though. And of the three, I like Gardner the best, by far. I do think he was well-intentioned (although we all know where that gets us).

                  Of the three, he’s also (by far) the best fiction writer—the only serious fiction writer, really. And his fiction isn’t terrible.

                  Plus he seems like he was a nice guy. Pompous, perhaps, but in very motivated way. He believed quite strongly in what he believed in. Well, we all know people like that. I don’t think he was out to put anyone down, per se: he just wanted everyone to do better.

                  I view him, ultimately, as a goad. As a dissident. Which isn’t a bad thing. I bet he made more than one 1970s author reconsider their writing, and then make it better, or at least a little less lazy/trendy. Or at least articulate why what they were doing was OK. That’s an accomplishment! We need dissidents for that, regardless of how pompous they can sometimes be.

                  And certainly many on the “innovative fiction” side have always been pompous. I think it was fair for Gardner to call them on it.

                  But…I understand that I may be taking a more charitable view of Gardner than others want to. I’m cool with that. After railing against the guy for ten years, I’m going to spend the next decade saying nice things about him.

                  Then I’ll go back to hating him.

                  1. I don’t hate Gardner, but I refuse to take a charitable view about him. While it might be true (although I would love to see this demonstrated, not only from the mouths of those imagined authors but also from informed critics) that “he made more than one 1970s author reconsider their writing, and then make it better, or at least a little less lazy/trendy. Or at least articulate why what they were doing was OK,” he may also have helped to destroy the fragile sensibilities of same, and especially that of embryonic writers.

                    You “don’t think he was out to put anyone down, per se: he just wanted everyone to do better”?

                    Do we really have to scan through his books and interviews and find all the insulting things he’d written and said?

                    Okay, here’s one from the famed Gass/Gardner “debate.”

                    “Gardner: Bill Gass is quoted as saying that his ambition in life is to write a book so good no one will publish it. My ambition in life is to outlive Bill Gass and change all of his books.”

                    I’m much more aligned with Gass who says in the same “debate”:
                    “I would also claim that my view [regarding moral judgments in art] is more catholic. It will allow in as good writers many more than this other view will; John [Gardner] lets hardly anybody in the door.”

                    1. But that line about changing Gass’s books was a joke, John! I don’t think it’s insulting at all—rather loving, in fact. He clearly adored Gass.

                      And I agree with Gass’s more charitable view. (And Gass has said no shortage of nasty things.)

                      In any case, it’s very possible I’m sugar-coating Gardner. I tend to take the charitable approach, though. And I’ll try to write something more considered about it soon.

        2. I think GRENDEL gets taught. Which I’m all for—it’s a wonderful re-imagining of the original. And probably a good way to lead people into reading BEOWULF. I’d love to do a class where I taught both texts. I’d also show the Zemeckis movie (which had a very clever conceit, I thought). Might even teach Crichton’s EATERS OF THE DEAD, too…

          As for the other ones, I think OCTOBER LIGHT was and is the critical favorite. I read it once and liked it fine—it’s pretty funny. The opening reminds me a lot of the very first Unca’ Scrooge comic, “Christmas on Bear Mountain.” But I haven’t looked at it in a while. I should revisit it; it got reprinted in 2005. And it was “published for James Laughlin,” which is something no book of mine ever will be:


          (I’ve always wanted to make that claim on some eventual book of mine, even if it wasn’t put out by New Directions—that it was still “published for James Laughlin,” regardless.)

  2. I just began reading J.G. Ballard’s Crash, and I can tell you I’m really hoping for some “rare emotions and dangerous sensations” to make up for the clumsy and inelegant sentences.

    1. I don’t remember much of Crash- he’s definitely an idea man, though, more than a prose stylist. Kindness of Women made a big impression on me.

  3. What a little nugget! Sontag and Agnes Varga talking. Worth it for what happens at 1:59 alone.

  4. Greg, since you told me to come over here and comment, I decided that what your thread really needed was this:


  5. OK, regarding Gardner.

    When I first read his arguments with Gass, and ON MORAL FICTION (all those years ago), I found him to be a convenient whipping boy. And I said many nasty things about him, called him nasty names.

    But over time, as I’ve mellowed, I’ve learned to appreciate his argument more. I don’t think he always expressed it all that well, and I think that he made some rather silly claims. But there’s a lot that I now find sympathetic in his writing, even in OMF.

    I’ll try to post more about this soon. But in the meantime, here are a few observations:

    As Tom LeClair noted in ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN, despite whatever Gass and Gardner argued, Gass’s fiction looks more like the kinds of fiction Gardner describes, and Gardner’s fictions look more like the things Gass describes. That may be putting too fine a point on it, but it is true that Gardner’s fiction didn’t actually look like what he argues for in OMF. In certain regards. I mean, he wrote GRENDEL. So he wasn’t just a straight realist.

    Gardner also said nice things about Beckett. In ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN, he defends Beckett, and calls him a great writer, and says that Beckett’s a moral writer. Because even if Beckett can’t ultimately argue for all that much—he doesn’t conclude that life is great—he proceeds morally, and the writing is itself well-made. (Gardner says this better in ACH but I don’t have that in front of me right now.)

    Gardner also says in ACH that even if a work of fiction reached an amoral conclusion, if the write proceeded morally, the fiction would ultimately be moral. This of course is vague, and Gardner’s argument was vague at times, but it was also, as I think this shows, not as straightforward as is sometimes reported.

    So what was Gardner’s argument? It often gets confused with an argument in defense of realism, and Gardner did often argue in in that direction. But it’s not that simple. For instance, Gardner was well aware that realism was “just a style,” and not necessarily some great truth. He’s cleverer than that. And he studied plenty of non-realist writing; he was a classics scholar.

    Gardner was, I’d argue, less interested in defending/promoting realism than he was in defending/promoting moral fiction. So what is moral fiction? This gets complicated, and Gardner isn’t always consistent, but in summary: it’s fiction that results from moral writing. Meaning that the writer undertakes moral concerns and seeks to address them. Meaning that the writer sees writing as a moral activity, and seeks to produce writing that advocates for good morality.

    Again, what this all really means gets complicated very, very quickly. But we might conclude that what Gardner wants is for writers to take fiction seriously, and to respect fiction’s history, and to work from there. And to not trivialize fiction by making it simply commercial, or fashionable, or trendy. Or “turning it against itself,” as he often said—not because he was a priori opposed to metafiction, I think, but because he was opposed to nihilism. And self-negation. (More about this in a second.)

    He often said things like, “It’s wrong to write books that advocate killing yourself, because then some reader goes and kills himself, and the writer pockets a paycheck and writes another book.” I think that if we’re charitable we can see here some resonance with arguments such as: It’s wrong for artists to work cynically, and to make movies like SAW and other torture porn films, which are just violence for the sake of titillation, and make people unhappy, and not for any serious reason, but because the filmmakers want to prey on people’s desire for violence and gore, and make money. I’m not making that argument here—I’m just pointing out that I think Gardner’s argument resonates with this kind of thinking. He was opposed to artists producing cynical works that led people in a different moral direction than they themselves were going in. (Cue the cliche of the producer who makes violent and racist films for the money, but who never watches his own movies, and instead goes to the opera. …You get the idea.)

    9I also think that Gardner started off very simplistically, earlier in his career, then refined his position a lot due to criticism and arguments from people like Gass. (You can say what you like about Gardner, but he was always very open-minded, and very willing to debate. Things got heated at times, and I know a lot of experimental folk from back then despised the guy–but history has shown that he was arguing in good faith, and would have continued to do so had he not died so young. If we are to have “enemies,” may they be enemies like John Gardner!) (And I don’t consider Gardner an enemy. More of a dissident. And we need dissidents.)]

    Gardner believed quite strongly in fiction as a moral agent. He believed that writing was a moral activity. I don’t necessarily agree with him. I think that fiction has a moral component—so does Gass. I prefer Gass’s view of art’s morality to Gardner’s, because I think it’s better-developed, but I don’t reject Gardner’s basic assumption.


    (Wayne C. Booth also wrote very convincingly on the ethics of writing—see THE COMPANY WE KEEP. And a lot of Curt White’s current writing, e.g. THE MIDDLE MIND, concerns how art related to morality.)

    And Gardner believed that fiction forms a great tradition. He valued being part of that tradition, and felt that novels and stories were a very important part of life and culture. Again, I don’t disagree with him—although I’d probably define that argument much more broadly than him, and value many things that Gardner would probably consider garbage.

    Meanwhile, as I alluded to above. I think that Gardner’s objection, ultimately, was with cynicism, and existentialism, and especially with nihilism. He opposed anything that (he felt) denied value, and tradition, and morality.

    Gardner believed that a lot of the postmodernist and other experimental fiction at the time espoused existentialist and nihilist views. (I realize I’m being very simplistic here, apologies.) Gardner therefore opposed those kinds of writings. But I think his view of them, and his argument in general, got more subtle over time. He started out “offended by metafiction,” but then when he got to know it better, wasn’t opposed to *all* of it. (He did make concessions.)

    Put another way. Have you ever had this experience? You labor very hard on a piece of fiction, are proud of how it belongs to the history of writing, how it responds to it, how it’s a good story. And then you submit it to various literary magazines, and it gets rejected over and over. Because what you wrote wasn’t trendy. And you consider the writing that’s trendy shallow, and superficial, and not well-made. And not a good direction for literature to be going in.

    Well, if you’ve had that experience at all, then you’re a bit closer to Gardner than you might realize. Because I think that was a big part of his objection to a lot of American writing post-1950.

    It’s perhaps hard for us to see now, or even believe, but at one time metafiction and formally innovative fiction was the hip thing. It was popular. It got published. That period didn’t last very long, but writers like Beckett and Barth and Pynchon and Barthelme were lionized. The ordinary public knew who they were. It must have been strange days.

    And they had a lot of imitators. I’m sure a lot of garbage was being written, as it always is. And I think that Gardner mostly objected to that garbage. To the zeitgeist. He felt, to put it in Frank Kermode’s terms, perhaps, that there had been too much “apocalypse.” That fiction was breaking too radically with its past. That there needed to be less “innovation for innovation’s sake,” and more continuity.

    Well, this, again, is all very quick and dirty. And some of it’s conjecture. I’ve been reading Gardner’s work for over a decade now, trying to make sense of it, and it’s much subtler than I originally thought, and I think anyone gave him credit for. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I have gained an appreciation for the guy over time. The fact that he kept duking it out with Gass doesn’t hurt. I mean—you have to admire him for that! Who here would have wanted to take on Gass, over and over again, and in the 1970s? Give the guy his props!

    I am also biased by his co-translation of the Gilgamesh Epic; Gilgamesh is perhaps my favorite work of literature ever.

    I’ll try to write more carefully and cogently about all of this sometime soon. I am very interested in Gardner’s debates with Gass, and with ON MORAL FICTION. And with morality in fiction.

    Meanwhile, anyone who was there at the time can tell me I’m a loon. I’ve heard it said more than once from people who were there at the time that Gardner was just an idiot; maybe he was; I never met him. (I really wish I could have.) But I don’t think his writing, looked at now, is idiotic. Debatable, surely. But not idiotic.

    1. Hey Adam,

      Has anyone called Gardner idiotic here?

      Gardner’s polemic against his favorite whipping boys Gass, Barth, Pynchon, et al. was motivated, in part, by his jealousy of those writers, something he admitted to himself. (Somebody please help me find the source.) So much for moral nonfiction.

      1. No, they haven’t. You’re right. I’m sorry I implied as such.

        I’m sure Gardner was jealous of the others. He was obviously a very emotional man. I don’t hold that against him, though. He was also very upfront about his emotions, which I greatly admire.

        I think it took a lot of courage to make the kinds of arguments he made, at the time. He was really rowing against the Zeitgeist.

        I don’t think his emotions invalidate his argument, though. I’m not really much of one for psychotherapy (that’s just me, though). I mean, all arguments, even moral ones, involve emotions. They need to.

        This is another way in which Gardner’s different than his peers. He didn’t hold himself aloof, as so many of them did. He wasn’t cool. He was sloppy and excitable. He’d admit to his failings. And so on. I find all of that admirable—charming, even. But I’m gregarious myself.

        I think that Gardner’s argument started out fairly general and un-nuanced when he was younger, then proceeded to get more nuanced and careful as he matured. I can appreciate that.

        Here’s another way of putting it: when I read Gardner, I feel sympathy for him. I’m moved by his writing (both his fiction and nonfiction). I think he’s being honest, and trying to say something useful. This is a subjective quality but I sense it in his work, and therefore I value it, even if I don’t agree with it. Like I’ve said—give me enemies like John Gardner! I’d be a much better person for it.

          1. While admittedly ignorant of the intricacies of both arguments, I can say that I’m equally grateful for “gatekeeper” attitudes as I am “door opener” attitudes, insofar as the former remain adamantly on guard against the potential slide into a purely aesthetic practice of fiction. Even DFW–in practice very much in the camp of Gass–denounced as a trend fictioneers like Mark Leyner, whose ultimate response to morally corrosive postmodern irony is a kind of willful abandonment expressed as “play.”

            Beckett counting out exact change.

            1. The idea that so-called gatekeepers perform a service by “remain[ing] adamantly on guard against the potential slide into a purely aesthetic practice of fiction” is one that needs some teasing apart. Gatekeepers keep things in and keep things out. Is that always a good thing? And what is “a purely aesthetic practice of fiction”? And who is practicing it? And why is it wrong for an artist to work within that mode should he or she choose to?

              I find that these “gatekeepers” often perform a very different function: to maintain the status quo.

              And no matter what writers who don’t (always) write according to Gardner’s, Wood’s, Bloom’s (and Aristotle’s) prescriptions write, or do, will ever change that people will write according to Gardner’s, Wood’s, Bloom’s (and Aristotle’s) prescriptions. Why the worry?

              1. I agree my statement is very vague. There are two issues, I suppose, though they are related: the first is the usefulness of any level of prescriptive argument about art making.

                I personally don’t adhere to prescriptivism in any systematic way, though I do find it useful within a conditional framework. IF I want to create the effect of sympathy, for instance, THAN I need to make a character recognizable in some emotional way. There’s nothing preventing me from using language in completely unexpected, new ways, to use the proper noun Fred, and assign him the action of “feeling stripy.” I can do this, and this is totally valid. But I personally would not know what “feeling stripy” is, and would not expect my readers to necessarily sympathize with this feeling. Which is okay if I don’t care whether or not they sympathize with Fred! Etc.

                Anyway, then there is the level of morality in fiction, which is something I personally struggle with a great deal in a pretty basic way: is it important for my fiction to “matter” in any way other than providing a nice entertainment or puzzle or distraction from “real life”, and if so, how can I do that without being pedantic or crude? It’s also something I sometimes miss among the work of my contemporaries–work which seems very “informed” and acrobatic and often beautiful, but which doesn’t often seem to operate on a moral level. This is mostly where I see the value in thinkers like Gardner (and Wallace), if I understand the gist of his concerns. Again, I’m not saying they’re right, or that I adhere to anyone’s prescriptivism about moral writing. Only that it’s good to have people around who believe so strongly in it, to serve as a kind of touchstone–even if it’s just something to react against!

                You seem to be vehemently opposed to anyone who uses the word “should” in the same sentence as “writing” and I get that. I’m not against you, per se. I just see room for should.

                1. Hey Shya,

                  Yes, I think it’s fair to say that when it comes to art I’m, for the most part, “vehemently opposed to anyone who uses the word ‘should’ in the same sentence as ‘writing,'” from any direction, from any quarter.

                  I’d like to hear more about this statement:
                  “It’s also something I sometimes miss among the work of my contemporaries–work which seems very “informed” and acrobatic and often beautiful, but which doesn’t often seem to operate on a moral level.”

                  It’s hard for me to get a picture of what you’re referring to. Who are these contemporaries? What does “acrobatic” mean in this case? How do these works that are concerned primarily with beauty not “operate on a moral level”? I ask these questions because I would think that writers whose work is “acrobatic” and “often beautiful,” are in the minority of your contemporaries.

              2. Obviously I myself tend to come down on the more inclusive side of things—hence my dislike of HOW FICTION WORKS—and I shudder to think of how many innovative fiction writers John gardner kept away from Bread Loaf—Bread Loaf, mind you!—

                —but I don’t mind criticism at all. My impression of Gardner, when all is said and done, is less that he was trying to stop people from reading or even writing anything, and trying to shift the conversation in what he perceived to be a more moral direction. But maybe I’m wrong about that…

                Look at pages 48–9 in ON MORAL FICTION, where he discusses Wittgenstein, and what Chaucer would have written had he mistrusted language’s ability to communicate. Gardner admires Wittgenstein (he says that suspicion’s the right project when faced with totalitarianism), but he’s also pointing out (correctly, I think) that our very contemporary suspicion of language blocks us from writing the kinds of things that Chaucer wrote. And that is some cause for concern, perhaps. There’s something to that.

                This is not so far away from Beckett, really: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Gardner said he admired Beckett for going on; his argument was with those who didn’t go on. Or, as he also put it, with those who told others not to go on, but then went on themselves.

                We’re surrounded by lots of slick, insincere, cynical, shallow writing. Gardner started to make more sense to me when I realized he was talking more about that writing than he was about Gass.

                Or maybe that’s just the way I’ve chosen to make my peace with Gardner—to use him. I always want everything to be useful. In any case, I’ve found that my more charitable view of him has been productive, and I’m happy about that.

                In my view, Gass won those debates. But that doesn’t mean Gardner’s trampled over. What I seek now is how one reconciles Gardner’s views with Gass’s. I think there are many ways to do it. I think Gass himself tried to do so. That final essay in FICTION AND THE FIGURES OF LIFE is certainly a response to Gardner. I’m glad Gass was pushed to it.

                1. Yes, one of the things I like about your writing here is your inclusive tone. I think that it’s important when appraising someone’s work to give them the full measure.

                  You write:
                  “We’re surrounded by lots of slick, insincere, cynical, shallow writing. Gardner started to make more sense to me when I realized he was talking more about that writing than he was about Gass.”

                  Yes, there is that, and, after with a number of historical and cultural qualifications, there always was. But we’re also surrounded by whatever would be the opposite to all of that, and so much more. I know you’re aware of that as well. Was Gardner? Gardner, as critic, wrote as someone who was trying to protect something. He was a conservative. Moreover, one who was destructive.

                  Hey, if he’s useful to you, great. For me, sentence by sentence, in comparison to Gass, and other critics, he just doesn’t measure up. Last week, I read Paul Valéry’s Dialogues and was completely floored by “Dance of the Soul” and “Eupalinos,” and everything else. And it made me want to read everything else he’d written (I’d only read some essays and poems from him here and there before this). Why would I want to reread Gardner when I can do that, or go back and reread Wallace Stevens’s “Necessary Angel,” or, or, or ad infinitum?

                  I know you know this, but it’s important to clarify that Beckett did not say, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” the unnamed narrator of The Unnamable did. The book is an art object not a philosophical statement from Beckett. Conflating the two, that is, autobiography and art, is treacherous. I know you know that, too.

                  I love Gass’s essay “The Artist and Society.” Where did you get the idea that was “certainly a response to Gardner”? I could be wrong, but I don’t remember Gardner being referenced.

                  1. “Gardner, as critic, wrote as someone who was trying to protect something. He was a conservative. Moreover, one who was destructive.”

                    I do agree that he can be read that way; I spent ten years reading him that way. But now I’m going to spend ten years reading him a different way.

                    “Why would I want to reread Gardner when I can do that, or go back and reread Wallace Stevens’s ‘Necessary Angel,’ or, or, or ad infinitum?”

                    I think this is a very valid point. I try to read what I find useful at the moment, but what I find useful is not necessarily what others will find useful. This is the danger inherent in telling people that they should read anything. Why should they? Even if it’s great, they may not find much value in it.

                    For example, as everyone knows by now, I saw the Japanese film HAUSU (1977) last night. Here, here’s the trailer for it:


                    Now, I thought this was a simply marvelous film. I’d encourage everyone to see it.

                    BUT. One of the things I liked about it is how formally innovative it is. I see this film as being part of a very strong tradition in cinema. For instance, It seems to me heavily influenced by Seijun Suzuki’s 1960s “pop art” yakuza films:


                    And by Hammer Horror films:


                    And by Jean Cocteau:


                    Well, I’ve seen all those films, and I enjoyed seeing a movie from 1977 that synthesized those things, and that was more than just those things.

                    But who knows what someone else would make of it? Maybe they’ve seen all these films and would find HAUSU boring as a result. (They might not share my interest in tracing out traditions in art and culture.) Or they may never have seen any of those previous films, and would be blown away by HAUSU. Or wouldn’t know how to make sense of it. One film, many viewers, many impressions.

                    “I know you know this, but it’s important to clarify that Beckett did not say, ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on,’ the unnamed narrator of The Unnamable did. The book is an art object not a philosophical statement from Beckett. Conflating the two, that is, autobiography and art, is treacherous. I know you know that, too.”

                    You’re right, of course. I was responding more in the spirit of Gass’s and Gardner’s discussion of the text, as found in that transcribed debate in ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN.

                    “‘The Artist and Society.’ Where did you get the idea that was ‘certainly a response to Gardner’? I could be wrong, but I don’t remember Gardner being referenced.”

                    He’s not; Gass doesn’t reference anyone. But I imagine he must be replying (in part) to Gardner; they’d been debating art’s morality for a long time by that point. Due to that ongoing debate over the morality of fiction, Gass surely had to be thinking of Gardner (among other things) when he sat down to write it. (I might be wrong about that, of course, but it would seem quite odd if Gass didn’t.) And Gardner surely influenced Gass’s views on the subject, even if it was influence by opposition.

                    Here’s something for you, in case you haven’t seen it. It’s not about Gardner, but you’ll like that:

                    And this is interesting reading:

                    1. I’ve read that Saltzman interview along with the other ones contained in Conversations with Williams Gass. It’s a good one, of course.

                  2. I haven’t read NICKEL MOUNTAIN, but I’m going to check it out. Gass wrote an introduction to the newest edition, and I really want to read that!

                    What it all boils down to for me, John, is that Gass and Gardner had a long and complicated—and productive—relationship. And friendship! I find that inspirational. That’s why, even though I tend to “side with” Gass (as you well know), I’m interested in approaching Gardner charitably.

                    Gass did. He found Gardner worth engaging with for over thirty years. I’m trying to follow his example.

            2. Beckett agreeing that tension is good, being productive.

              Beckett disagreeing though about Mark Leyner, whose early writings are good. Beckett remembering that DFW was opposed more to what Leyner became, if memory serves: a parody of himself.

              Beckett also remembering now that, even though many forget, Leyner was once considered the Great White Hope.

              Beckett beginning to sound like Rorschach in Watchmen. “I am in my mother’s room. It’s I who live there now. Dog carcass in bed, tire tread on burst stomach. I don’t know how it got there. Perhaps in an ambulance, certainly a vehicle of some kind. My mother is afraid of me. I have seen her true face…”

                1. No, he would have let Moore through. In fact, right before his death, Gardner was working on a sequel to OMF: “On Moore’s Alt-Fiction.”

                  But he wouldn’t have let Larry Hama through. Or Dave Sim. Or Frank Miller. And that’s the problem.

            3. I just finished DFW’s “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky” yesterday. I wish I’d have brought it to work today, because I feel like I remember a great quote near the end of that essay that bears on this current convo thread, and I don’t want to butcher it in paraphrase. I’ll try to post it when I get home in a bit.

  6. If I had a time machine, I’d travel back to the early 1970s and introduce John Gardner to B.S. Johnson.

    Johnson would crack Gardner up, and make him calm down some.

    And Gardner would cheer Johnson up, and make him realize that others cared.

    Then Johnson wouldn’t have killed himself, and Gardner would have become a champion of Johnson’s fiction.

    …I haven’t figured out how to save Ann Quin yet, though.

  7. Hey Adam,

    “But that line about changing Gass’s books was a joke, John!”

    Yes, I know. I just like jokes when they’re funny. And behind Gardner’s joke is a lot of judgment.

        1. He’ll never be my favorite writer, but do check out OCTOBER LIGHT. I’m bumping it up a few places in my reread list.

          James Laughlin must have seen something in the guy…

          I think it’s important to note that what distinguishes Gardner from Wood and Bloom is that Gardner was part of the innovative fiction crowd. He wrote it himself. That’s precisely why people bear him so much animosity to this day: “He was one of us.”

          But I also think that’s why it doesn’t make any sense to read him as being 100% opposed to “innovative fiction.” Maybe he was jealous, sure, but I don’t think that was entirely it. He was trying to point out a trap that he thought fiction was falling into—how it was becoming too solipsistic, perhaps. It’s a valid concern, even if one isn’t compelled to agree.

          We all love and hate our betters. I’ll never write anything as good as Gass, or Beckett, or Barthelme, or Joyce, etc.

          As Barbara Cartland said, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

            1. Beckett watching Becket.


              …come on. You know at some point he saw it.

  8. Funny, I just read Jefferson Navicky’s “Collagists’ Biography,” and in it I found this:

    Mr. X
    “I’m just overwhelmed by Beckett…Everyone states his profundity, by I am overwhelmed by the sheer anxiety of influence he has created. A poor twenty-year-old artist will now only (re)produce ‘Becketts’ and think them wonderfull.”

      1. I would say yes, there are many. I also am in agreement with Gardner on Beckett. I realize this makes me alone here with those thoughts. But, I am.

        1. I’d agree with you, Paula (that there are bad Beckett impostors—surely there must be!), but I’m having trouble naming any. Maybe I’ve been lucky in avoiding them.

          I just read NOG by Rudy Wurlitzer (1968), but that’s not bad at all: it’s a very excellent novel influenced by Beckett, and not imitative of him. But impossible without Beckett.

          Oh, I’d say that Donald Barthelme’s story “Bone Bubbles” can be regarded as a failed Beckett imitation. That said, I don’t think it’s “bad” per se. Its existence is useful, and I’m glad it exists. And it’s in what might be my favorite Don B. collection, CITY LIFE (1970). I read once that Don B.’s editor fought very hard to get “Bone Bubbles” out of CL, but Don B. insisted it stay in. Of course he never wrote a story like it ever again.

          As for your second point, Paula, I don’t agree, but I do understand how people can not like Beckett. Just like how I understand how some people can not like Woody Allen. I don’t agree, but I don’t try to convince them otherwise.

          (The secret with Beckett, though, is that he is very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very funny. Once one sees the humor, one sees all of it.)

          (And Gardner said—eventually—that he liked Beckett. Was he lying? We’ll probably never know. I doubt he read him all that much—but we’ll never know.)

          Cheers, A

          1. I was thinking of younger, contemporary writers. Not Barthelme and certainly not Wurlitzer who is good stuff.

            I used to love Beckett- now I don’t. I understand he is funny. I understand his historical importance as a writer, I just find he is one of those writers that you love in your 20s, and for some of us, doesn’t hold up well as we become more mature readers. I know quite a few middle-aged writers who agree with me on this, but of course, many who don’t. Same goes for Woody Allen- only a few of his movies do I still love.

            1. I agree with the canard that we often have to kill our influences. I used to be a huge fan of Peter Greenaway’s films, and I still think his work in general is pretty great, but usually when I mention him these days, I do so to criticize him. Same thing with Terry Gilliam. Sometimes my friends are like, “Hey, the way you put those guys down—do you even like them?” …Maybe Beckett and Allen are like that for you?

              I’m often saying things like, “Donald Barthelme was one of the greatest writers of the late Twentieth Century—and he even produced one good book!” Three, actually: Caligari, Unspeakable (a witty Beckett ref), and City Life. After that I get very critical. Have never been a huge fan of the novels.

              (Of course they’re all great and he’s brilliant.)

              Hey, check this out:

              1. Well, I would not call Beckett or Allen my influences…although maybe some of the stuff I wrote in my 20s (my face just went hot with shame). I haven’t read Barthelme in 15 years. I don’t know about killing your influences, but I do think its healthy to grow out of stuff, or normal. To have the same interests one’s entire life seems terribly static.

  9. One more thing-when I loved Beckett, I loved the way reading him made me feel about myself. I felt smart, special, “different”. In my 20s, I liked to have those feelings when I read- it was often about “me” and not the work. Like most young people, I was more self absorbed or narcissistic than I am now. Now when I read, my presence as a reader is far less egotistical.

    And Woody–the last movie of his I tried to watch, that Barcelona one–made me write elsewhere on the “no one hates the hearts and minds of women more than Woody Allen”. Now, that was not always the case with him- he has changed tremendously as a director. I liked his middle, serious period the best,Hannah and her sisters and those ones…

    1. Well Paula, I have agree with this. Look at his two best movies Hannah and Husbands and Wives – the main female character – ironically>? his wife in both – is treated like shit. In one she suffers a man sleeping with his sister, though she never knows it and thinks all is well, even at the end, and in the other she is told to go put her diaphram on to have sex. Then the Liam Neeson character tortures her. Both women are told they are ‘too giving’ – yet this is a reality in relationships.

      In Barcelona it’s trickier. The key woman in the female I would argue is not one of the main three, it’s actually Patricia Clarkson, who is stuck in a marriage she doesn’t want. She offers the best advice, for the main character to go away from the secure choice.

      1. But the whole cliche that “secure” is boring and not something somebody would want- is ridiculous to me. I just find it hard to care about male/female relationship pondering from a man like Woody Allen. He has nothing of interest to say to me.

  10. Well it’s boring in the makeup of that movie. Does anyone honestly root for the woman to stay with the Wall Street guy and not go for the artist, with whom it has been demonstrated she does have feelings for, though maybe the feelings are wrongheaded, but that is love.

    What writers or filmmakers do have something of interest to say about relationships, in your opinion?

    1. I found the whole artist/exciting, businessman/boring theme silly in the movie and I was completely unengaged from it and rooted for no one. It was Woody projecting himself – it was so sad. Anyone who’s spent anytime with artists or bankers knows that both are just as likely to be social climbing narcissists and heartlessly ambitious. It’s all in the details and individuals…that movie was all about cartoon ideas of humanity to me. I realize he was once a good filmmaker. I think he just stopped trying to be a good person and its had a effect on his movies.

      I think Pedro Almodavar(sp) is good. I’m not really a film buff. The two best movies I’ve seen recenty- Frozen River, but that was more about our relationships to money and The Burning Plain, maybe. Writers? Tons of them..any writer I like for the most part, is addressing human relationships in complicated and heartfelt ways.

  11. Ultimately Gardner was great for US literature. He did many things and said many things – I chose one of his more triggering statements. But we are flawed people. As Adam pointed out he seemed to learn from his mistakes and pushed other people to learn as well.

    1. This is so incredibly reductive. And I can’t see why anyone should take this seriously.

      “But we are flawed people.”
      Why are you saying this? This is obvious. What perhaps isn’t so obvious is that some of us are more flawed than others. Imagine criticizing George Bush and then someone saying, “Ultimately George Bush was great for the US. He did many things and said many things. But we are flawed people. He seemed to learn from his mistakes and pushed other people to learn as well…” This is not to compare Gardner to Bush, but to demonstrate the weakness of your argument.

      Have you read John Barth’s “The Literature of Replenishment”? In it, he calls On Moral Fiction a “tract…an exercise in literary kneecapping that lumps modernists and postmodernists together without distinction and consigns us all to Hell with the indiscriminate fervor characteristic of late converts to the right.”

      Have you read “A Writers Forum on Moral Fiction” in Fiction International, No. 12 (1980) where writers like Barth, Sorrentino, Federman, even Updike(!) take Gardner to task?

      Giving Gardner the full measure will reveal many nuances, and subtleties to his argument. And examining the evolution of his ideas, and also his own practice of fiction, will show some contradictions to his virulently espoused concepts. But it won’t ultimately contradict that Gardner was a narrow-minded prescriptivist.

  12. Is there a link to the Writers Forum on Moral Fiction?

    Of course it was wrong-headed for Gardner to write a book called On Moral Fiction. Who is he to say what morality is? But one can’t discount his distinguished Grendel and On Becoming a Novelist, the Art of Fiction as well as his translations of the Gawain poet. Here was someone who devoted his life to literature and wrote over 25 books in his 49 years on earth. That’s an accomplishment.

    As to narrow-mindedness, has there been any great author that hasn’t been accused of it?

    1. Check JSTOR for the journal. It might be available there. Barth’s essay is in The Friday book: essays and other nonfiction.

      And there are so many problems with The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist.

      Gardner accomplished many things. I thought we were talking about him as critic.

      “As to narrow-mindedness, has there been any great author that hasn’t been accused of it?”

      The more pertinent question is whether the claim that someone is narrow-minded can be demonstrably proven. I’d like to see someone do that with Samuel Delaney, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Umberto Eco, and on and on.

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