Thursday, February 25, 2010

Introduction – John Gardner


John Gardner July 21, 1933 – September 14, 1982

Never have I spent so much time researching an author. The time I have spent has almost gone beyond what I seem to think is necessary, and is becoming an obsession that is interfering with the reading of the short stories.

I’m not sure what it is about Gardner that has attracted me to him. I’ve listened to interviews conducted with Don Swaim, I’ve read countless interviews, read portions of books by him and about him off of Google Books, sifted through the journal of Joyce Carol Oates to read her thoughts of him, sought out photos of him, read archived newspaper articles about him...I just need to stop and get what I have about him down here and get along with reading the shorts.

The closest thing that I can narrow down as to the reason for the attraction, is the fact that he wrote a very controversial book, heaped praise on one of my favorite writers, drank to excess, smoked and then died in a motorcycle accident. His death occurred shortly after he finished pulling together his selections for this volume. He selected stories published in magazines from 1981 – selection process must have been done early in ’81 and the anthology must have come out in mid to late ’82 – just before his death in September.

I’d like to point out the contents of this volume. He made the decision not to order them in the book alphabetically by the last name of the author. I’d be interested to know what his placement reasons were...or if, during my reading, I can discover a pattern.

Also, it should be noted and I’ll quote him below, that he only selected one story from The New Yorker.

That’s my man!

He did select two stories from his own literary publication MSS – I can’t help but feel that this was a bit selfish.

Below, are portions from the introduction that I feel will give a better insight to the selections he made as well as show why I am so excited to read the stories.

From the introduction:

...but I can’t believe anyone with nay sense would deny that these are extremely good stories, or that the richness and variety of the whole makes this an unusually readable, abundantly satisfying collection.

In short this collection is a result of choices, but I would not like to be forced to defend those choices in front of a serious Board of Inquisition.

But of the hundred and twenty stories she passed on to me, I like only ten enough to consider for this collection, and in the end I included only six- some of those partly because my wife, another experienced reader of (in my opinion) unimpeachable taste, argued me around to them.

Gardner goes into further detail at this point in the introduction as to how he, Shannon and his wife Liz chose the stories for this book. He mentions that he started reading for these selections about a week before his deadline. He cites being frantically busy. Gardner had Shannon send him “her truckload of magazines”. He and his wife read themselves blind.

The only New Yorker story Liz would divorce me for not including is Mary Robinson’s “Coach,” which is one reason (though not the only one) that it’s here. On the whole my taste has never been partial to New Yorker stories. The New Yorker publishes more fiction than anybody else, some of it excellent, but in general I find the magazine all knife-flash, no blood. I like even less imitation New Yorker stories- increasingly common in the so-called little magazines.

-Wonderful I was so happy to read the above paragraph.

The selection of these stories was not solely mine, in other words, though I’m finally responsible and proud to be so.

The three-way collaboration did not force my choices, like a dully compromising committee vote; instead, like tarot cards, it enabled me to see things I might otherwise have missed. In the end, I give you my word; I’m stubborn as a mule.

...-I favor, on the one hand (as I’ve suggested), metaphysical stories, maybe gentled by humor, or at the very least heavy, thoughtful pieces...and I favor on the other hand, brilliant lighter stories, comic or quasi comic, seriously conceived, surprisingly imaginative, stories hinting at depths of meaning below the facile surface-...Fiction more smooth and sophisticated than I would care to write myself, or indeed, know how to write, is also represented...

If one were really to choose the “best” short stories of a given year, one might conceivably end up with a half dozen stories by one author.

At present the heavyweight is Joyce Carol Oates. Though her work is even more uneven than was Faulkner’s, she’s notoriously prolific, and of the numerous stories she published in 1981 at least three or four are as powerful, original, and moving as “Theft,” the story I’ve chosen. In selecting only one, I implicitly acknowledge that this anthology is representative, not absolute.

Nineteen eighty-one saw the publication of interesting stories by John Updike, Donald Barthelme, Ann Beattie, William Gass, Bary Targan, and at least one superb story by Frederick Barthelme; but none of these stories seems to me to hold up beside the work of relative newcomers represented here, or even to some of the work of other newcomers I’ve read and liked,...

-Looks like he is still seeking the forgiveness of the writers he shanked in “On Moral Fiction”.

...the 1981 stories of the famous writers I’ve mentioned all seem to me a bit too casual, too safe.

A new seriousness seems to have settled over North American short fiction. I don’t know for sure what the reasons are. I suspect our culture, or at least a segment of it may finally be tiring of the self-consciously trivial artistic practice Americans favored in the age when we wanted to seem as wearily elegant and intelligent as post –World War I Europeans-...

I’d also like to draw attention to some observations by Joyce Carol Oates. These are from her journal.

May 26, 1977

Gave an impromptu dinner party for John Gardner, who breezed into town unannounced. He was sweet, outrageous, charming in a strange way subdued, possibly a little tired; drank mainly wine all evening and consequently wasn’t as difficult to deal with as the last time we met; seemed genuinely affectionate to Ray and me. His marriage is ended. He is living with a young woman, a girl really, twenty-one or twenty-two, in Cambridge NY, in what he describes as a hunter’s cabin, He appears to be in need of money, which is ironic, since he has had several best sellers and has sold paperback rights for large sums...It was good to see him. I like him very much; far better than I recall. (Our last meeting was some sort of disaster. He was stupefied with drink.) His hands were filthy, amazingly dirty!...He spoke of also of carrying a gun everywhere with him. charming brilliant man, a delight to know. I’m really pleased with the success he’s had in recent years. He deserves it.

March1, 1978

...Skimmed through John Gardner’s Moral Fiction. Cranky, careless, inaccurate, mean spirited. I wonder – why did he do it? Why attack his (former?) friends Bob Coover and John Barth like that? So cruelly pointless. So self-serving. He’s jealous of the, and of Barthelme, and Updike; why not admit it? I am one of the few people he singles out for praise (however faint, however dim) yet I still feel the sting of the book, its silly complacent didactic self-righteousness. He’s been physically ill, of course – yet I almost wonder whether he hasn’t been somewhat emotionally ill as well.

----And finally, some more insight to Gardner from a couple of reviewers.

Gardner's own curriculum vitae was quite impressive. Author of 15 books and recipient of abundant critical acclaim, he had even sought to define art. In a collection of essays, On Moral Fiction, he wrote: “... true art is moral; it seeks to improve life, not debase it. It seeks to hold off, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us.... We recognize true art by its careful, thoroughly honest search for an analysis of values. It is not didactic because, instead of teaching by authority and force it explores, open-mindedly, to learn what it should teach ... moral art tests values and rouses trustworthy feelings about the better and the worse in human action.”

Rodman, Selden. "Gardner's Last Novel." The New Leader 65.18 (4 Oct. 1982): 18. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jean C. Stine and Bridget Broderick. Vol. 28. Detroit

Gardner's confidence that he's an originator of ideas has gotten him into trouble. He was accused of “borrowing passages” from scholars in his The Life and Times of Chaucer; he admitted to “paraphrasing.” On the defensive, he writes in this novel's acknowledgments that he has “borrowed ideas and good lines” from Martin Luther, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Norman O. Brown, Martin Heidegger, and— if that's not enough to cover himself—from “acquaintances, friends, and loved ones.” He's also effectively hidden them.

Harris, Robert R. "What's So Moral about John Gardner's Fiction?" Saturday Review 9.6 (June 1982): 70-71. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jean C. Stine and Bridget Broderick. Vol. 28

John Gardner's On Moral Fiction has been criticized supposedly because it is moral criticism similar to that of Irving Babbitt, which we seemingly have gone beyond. In addition to the furor caused by Gardner's thesis, that “art is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy,” the writers under Gardner's attack may have caused On Moral Fiction to be attacked in turn—Bellow, Porter , Coover , Gaddis, Pynchon , Updike , and Barth , to name only a few, as readers wish to rescue their favorites from Gardner's Judgment, Wrath, and Doom. But aside from the wish to defend one's favorites, Gardner's thesis causes intellectual difficulties of many sorts, a liberal wish not to censor anything and limit the free play of ideas and the problem of whose morality is right.

Gardner has subsequently, in interviews and essays, qualified his views. Over two years ago, he said that true art is invariably affirmative, soft pedaling censorship, by saying that great fiction provides readers vicarious experience, helping “us know what we believe” and reenforcing “those qualities which are noblest in us” and leading us “to feel uneasy about our failings and limitations.” In the recently published, “Learning From Disney and Dickens,” Gardner retreats still further, saying, “I've come to see that fiction simply dramatizes.” Gardner furthers this position in On Becoming a Novelist by asking the following question, “Does the twenty—or twenty-five year old writer really have brilliant insights that the intelligent reading public (doctors, lawyers, professors, skilled machinists, businessmen) has never thought of? If the young novelist's answer is an emphatic yes, he would do the world a favor by entering the ministry or the Communist party.” Still later in the same book, Gardner says, “One cannot argue that the writer's purpose should be the creation of moral fiction, or any other kind; one cannot even argue that his purpose should be to create something beautiful or pleasing or even honest or universally interesting” (86).

Barrow, Craig. "On a Moral Fiction Writer's Last Novel: Gardner's Mickelsson's Ghosts." Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 26.2 (Winter 1985): 49-56. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism Select

Gardner died in a motorcycle accident on September 14, 1982. One can only wonder if it was death that could have been prevented. Was he driving drunk? Was he driving recklessly? Did he as one blogger suggests – commit suicide?

I can’t help but feel his presence as I read these stories. The weight he carried, and still carries for me, is enormous.

I’m really looking forward to reading these selections. I can’t wait to see what they bring forth in me.

1 comment:

  1. (came to your site via your post on the Garnder yahoo-thing)

    nice to see JG inspired you enough to look further into him and his work. Don't stop where you left off, he's well worth a read.

    ReplyDelete