If I could use one word to describe John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist, it would be: practical.
What Gardner didn’t do was lend to the young writer a bunch of writing advice that would hopefully make them a better writer. Instead, he dives deep into what it takes to be a novelist.
What characteristics, or what personality a novelist should have is what Gardner mainly hits on. Of those what stood out the most to me was the will of the young writer. As in, if you don’t have the will to write and write and write, then you probably won’t make it as a novelist.
I find that this book is actually the answer to what many young writer’s ask or wish to ask, “Do I have what it takes.” Gardner begins the book by talking about this question and then goes on to give a few characteristics a writer should have to be successful. I think this question is actually covered in the entire book.
By the time you finish you have a sense of if you’re ready to write a novel, or if you should stick to short stories for a while (or you realize you may never write a novel.)
Here’s the real kicker to Gardner’s practical advice on if you can be a novelist or not:
His entire book is based around novel writing as an art form. If you don’t write literature in order to write art, this book doesn’t really apply to you.
“This book is for the beginning novelist who has already figured out that it is far more satisfying to write well than simply to write well enough to get published,” pg. xxii.
With that some of the characteristics a novelist should have (and Gardner says if the novelist is without, can learn) are his verbal sensitivity, the accuracy and originality of his “eye,” his intelligence (a certain kind), and a compulsiveness.
Next, Gardner hits on the education of the writer. Education is key, but there are different ways to get that education. Though, he does say that someone without a higher education may lack a deeper storytelling because of the works that are exposed to students.
On this point I slightly disagree. I find that if the writer exposes themselves to the right books, then the storytelling can be just a vibrant.
Gardner goes on to talk about publication and then finally touches more deeply on the will of the writer.
All very practical and needed for any writer trying to do more than write for themselves. And I think that’s what I liked about it. Gardner may come off as elitist, and he is in a sense, but he’s just being honest about his experiences as a novelist and what it took to get him there.