The Writer’s Sanity and Taste

John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, 201:

“Sanity in a writer is merely this: However stupid he may be in his private life, he never cheats in writing. He never forgets that his audience is, at least ideally, as noble, generous, and tolerant as he is himself (or more so), and never forgets that he is writing about people, so that to turn characters to cartoons, to treat his characters as innately inferior to himself, to forget their reasons for being as they are, to treat them as brutes, is bad art. Sanity in a writer also involves taste. The true writer has a great advantage over most other people: He knows the great tradition of literature, which has always been on the cutting edge of morality, religion, and politics, to say nothing of social reform. He knows what the greatest literary minds of the past are proud to do and what they will not stoop to, and his knowledge informs his practice. He fits himself to the company he most respects and enjoys: the company of Homer, Vergil, Dante, Shakespeare, and so forth. Their standards become, in some measure, his own. Pettiness, vulgarity, bad taste fall away from him automatically, and when he reads bad writers he notices their lapses of taste at once. He sees that they dwell on things Shakespeare would not have dwelled on, at his best, not because Shakespeare failed to notice them but because he saw their triviality. (Except to examine new techniques, or because of personal friendship, no serious apprentice should ever study second-rate writers).
To write with taste, in the highest sense, is to write with the assumption that one out of a hundred people who read one’s work may be dying, or have some loved one dying; to write so that no one commits suicide, no one despairs; to write, as Shakespeare wrote, so that people understand, sympathize, see the universality of pain, and feel strengthened, if not directly encouraged to live on. . . every writer should be aware that he might be read by the desperate, by people who might be persuaded toward life or death.”

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for these excellent posts on Gardner’s book. I’ve asked Leslie to pick up a copy.

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