Errors and Defects in Authors of Fiction

John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, discussing “Common Errors” authors make:

“Diction problems are usually symptomatic of defects in the character or education of the writer” (101).

“Let us now turn to three faults far graver than mere clumsiness–not faults of technique but faults of soul: sentimentality, frigidity, and mannerism. . . . Faults of soul, like faults of technique, can be corrected. In fact the main work a writing teacher does, and the main work the writer must do for himself, is bring about change in the writer’s basic character, helping to make him that ‘true Poet,’ as Milton said, without whom there can be no true Poem.

Sentimentality, in all its forms, is the attempt to get some effect without providing due cause. . . emotion or feeling that rings false, usually because achieved by some form of cheating or exaggeration. . . . no reader who’s experienced the power of real fiction will be pleased by it” (115–16).

“The fault Longinus identified as ‘frigidity’ occurs in fiction whenever the author reveals by some slip or self-regarding intrusion that he is less concerned about his characters than he ought to be–less concerned, that is, than any decent human being observing the situation would naturally be. . . . the writer has forgotten that his characters’ situation is serious; he’s responded to his own imagined scene with insufficient warmth, has allowed himself to get carried away . . ., and, momentarily forgetting the scene’s real interest . . . the writer snatches at (or settles for) a detail of, at best, trivial interest. . . The writer lacks the kind of passion all true artists possess. He lacks the nobility of spirit that enables a real writer to enter deeply into the feelings of imaginary characters (as he enters deeply into the feelings of real people). In a word, the writer is frigid” (117–18).

“Mannered writing is writing that continually distracts us from the fictional dream by stylistic tics that we cannot help associating, as we read, with the author’s wish to intrude himself, prove himself different from all other authors” (119).
“Whereas the frigid writer lacks strong feeling, and the sentimental writer applies feeling indiscriminately, the mannered writer feels more strongly about his own personality and ideas–his ego, which he therefore keeps before us by means of style–than he feels about any of his characters–in effect, all the rest of humanity” (120–21).

“Mannered writing, then–like sentimentality and frigidity–arises out of flawed character. In critical circles it is considered bad form to make connections between literary faults and bad character, but for the writing teacher such connections are impossible to miss, hence impossible to ignore. . . . To help the writer, since that is his job, the teacher must enable the writer to see–partly by showing him how the fiction betrays his distorted vision (as fiction, closely scrutinized, always will)–that his personal character is wanting” (121).

Join the Conversation


  1. Wonderful quote. Still wonderful how the Spirit never makes those mistakes in His writing (though His ‘story’ being told is not fiction).

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *