Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Literary Outlaw

I know John Gardner only through his writing about writing: The Art of Fiction, On Becoming a Novelist, and On Moral Fiction. On that basis, I’d always assumed him to be a stodgy, conservative character. Imagine my surprise, then, when I stumbled across a biography of him subtitled Literary Outlaw, complete with a cover photo of him sporting long hair and a leather jacket. The description on the flyleaf refers to Gardner as “a man of unrestrained energy and blatant contempt for convention,” and “arguably America’s most daring writer.” It promises details of a personal life “as chaotic as his writing was prolific.” Clearly there is much about this man and his work that I have yet to learn. I’ll have to read the biography and some of his fiction and reassess my conception of him. Any Gardner fans out there with a recommendation as to which of his novels I should try first?


Booklad said...

Oh, yes, he was quite the "James Dean" of academia. I'd start with "Grendel". It's a short, but excellent read and it contains everything that makes him a good writer: taste, energy, style, originality. If you want something a little more substantial you can try "October Light". I enjoy reading Gardner and recommend him whenever I can.

chapman said...

i agree about "grendel." and if you're really ambitious, "sunlight dialogues."

i love his stodgy conservative "on moral fiction," he's great to argue with. and the other books on writing are directly inspiring.

it's too damn bad he didn't wear a helmet on his bike.

Richard said...

I knew Gardner at Bread Loaf around 30 years ago, and he was indeed a wild man -- somewhat controlled, but man, I figured he would buy it on that motorcycle one day. He was a terrific teacher and a great guy. His On Becoming a Novelist is a great book. He could laugh at himself, too.

A friend of mine who went to Bread Loaf a few years later said, "Oh, he must be having a breakdown. His fingernails were filthy." No, that was just Gardner.

I had dinner a couple of years ago with one of his wives. We discussed how sad it is that the current image of Gardner is so unlike the great person he really was.