Taking Pains

From On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner:
In conversation with a slightly older colleague at the University of California at Chico, where I was teaching at the time, I suggested that the two of us do an anthology of fiction including (as anthologies did not then do and most anthologies do not do now) not only short stories but also other forms -- fables, tales, yarns, sketches, etc. The result was The Forms of Fiction, a book (now long out of print and almost impossible to get a hold of) that provided a close analysis of the narratives we included. A more important result, for me, was that I learned about taking pains. Lennis Dunlap, my collaborator, was and remains one of the most infuriatingly stubborn perfectionists I have ever known. Night after night for two full years we would work for five, six, seven hours on what sometimes added up to three or four sentences. He drove me crazy, and he wasn't so kind to himself, either: often we had to stop because the stress of working with a young man as impatient as I was would give Lennis a histamine headache. Gradually I came to feel as unwilling as he was to let a sentence stand if the meaning was not as unambiguously visible as a grizzly bear in a brightly lit kitchen. I discovered what every good writer knows, that getting down one's exact meaning helps one to discover what one means. Looking back now at our writing in The Forms of Fiction, I find the style overly cautious, a bit too tight. (Sometimes saying a thing twice is a good idea.) But that painful two years -- the midnight fights and sometimes the shock of joy we would both experience when the right choice of words made us grasp the idea that had until that instant teased and eluded us -- showed me what was wrong with my fiction.

Needless to say, since I was writing fiction throughout this period, and since Lennis Dunlap has a mind worth consulting, from time to time I showed him my own fiction. He went over it with the same eye for detail he gave to our work on other people's writing, and though I cannot say he wasn't helpful, I soon learned the limits of even the best advice. Coming from Tennessee, he did not speak the same English I speak, or know the same kinds of people, or interpret life experiences in quite the same ways I do. When he suggested changes and I accepted his suggestions, the story almost invariably went wrong. What I learned from him, in short, is that a writer must take infinite pains -- if he writes only one great story in his life, that is better than writing a hundred bad ones -- and that finally the pains the writer takes must be his own.
William Gass, speaking of Gardner, in "The Sound and Fury Over Fiction" by Stephen Singular, The New York Times Magazine, 7/8/79, included in Conversations with John Gardner:
John should revise more, but he doesn't. His greatest weaknesses are his glibness and his preachiness, and his problem is that of almost any writer who has gained some popularity. That popularity is almost invariably based on what is weakest in the writer's work, and then the tendency is for the writer to lean in the direction of that quality which encourages the weakness rather than counteracting it.


  1. Great pair of excerpts, thanks. I've been fascinated by the interaction between the two of them since reading Gardner's On Moral Fiction in high school. In that book, in the middle of trashing Pynchon, Porter, Barthelme, Barth, etc. ad nauseam, he praises Gass to the skies, before attacking Gass's Tractarian theory of fiction. It would be fascinating for someone to compare Gass and Gardner's opinions of each other's work, but I don't think it's going to be me...

    It's true, though. Nickel Mountain was probably as good as Gardner ever got, and that was one of his earliest novels. His more ambitious works did not fulfill their stated missions.

  2. Mr. W, you should definitely dig up a copy of the Conversations with Gardner book, then, because there's a good debate between Gardner and Gass in it -- they obviously really enjoy each other and are utterly infuriated by each other at the same time. The ending is priceless -- Gardner describes Gass as the most talented writer in America, but one who is wasting his talent, and says, "...what I think is beautiful, he would think is not yet sufficiently ornate. The difference is that my 707 will fly and his is too encrusted with gold to get off the ground." Gass replies, "There is always that danger. But what I really want is to have it sit there solid as a rock and have everybody think it is flying." Gardner finishes, "Bill Gass is quoted as saying that his ambition in life is to write a book so good that nobody will publish it. My ambition in life is to outlive Bill Gass and change all of his books."

    Gardner was, too, the first person to publish Gass's story "The Pedersen Kid" in his magazine MSS. I think he might have published another Gass story, too.

    As for Gardner's novels, I haven't yet read Nickel Mountain. I liked about 50 pages of October Light, found Sunlight Dialogues a surprisingly easy and immensely unsatisfying read, liked Grendel and most of Mickelson's Ghosts (I think I'm mispelling the name there), and loved, loved, loved The King's Indian and Other Stories. The others I have yet to read.

    Anyway. All of which is tangential to the reason I posted the two quotes -- both of which, oddly enough, I agree with. (Which is not to imply everything I post as quotes here is stuff I agree with -- usually it's something that's gotten me thinking, so I share.)

  3. Gardner's Curse

    We sat together at one summer's end,
    That famous unread novelist, your friend,
    And you and I, and talked of MFAs.
    I said, "A line will take us maybe days;
    Yet if it does not seem like a first draft,
    Our stitching and unstitching has been naff...."

  4. I saw Gass the other week. Amazingly acute for a man of 82; even his voice has been preserved. Ironically, he lived long enough to finish his big book, even though Gardner didn't live to see it. Unlike Ralph Ellison, Gass didn't (I think) waste a thing.

    Philosophically, Gardner was a philistine next to Gass, but I suspect they only spoke about fiction and not philosophy--it's where Sunlight Dialogues falls apart. And yet his critique of modern American fiction and his attacks on Updike, Barth, Coover, Doctorow, and Bellow have always struck me as instinctively compelling.

    I do recommend Nickel Mountain; it has the most of his best and the least of his worst.

  5. Lennis Dunlap was the best writing instructor I've ever had. I first took a course from him in 1985, at Chico State--"Rhetoric and Writing." John Gardner's description is apt, especially the bit about him being from a different world than the rest of us. I'm just glad I had the chance to let him improve my writing, which he did, immeasurably.

  6. Like Anonymous above, I too remember Lennis Dunlap as the best writing instructior I've ever had. In fact, he wasone of the primary role models of my life, as he was for many people I knew at Chico.

    He also influenced Rayond Carver. In fact, in "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" the character of Dr. Maxwell is based on Lennis.


  7. It seems that many of us were influenced by Lennis Dunlap during our tenure at what was then Chico State. I was enrolled in his honors English Literature course and found him to be a formidable and challenging professor. He is one who stands out when I think of those who have profoundly affected the development of my intellect. I remember him fondly, certainly his quirks (I don't recall anyone else riding around Chico's campus in 1970 on his balloon tire bike sporting a one-piece lavender jump suit- give it up for the man-he definitely stood apart!)

  8. Maybe it was just the idiocy of celebrating Restoration Drama as something more than middle school high jinks that turned Lennis Dunlap sour in 1970, but I avoided his classes afterward. Very pleased to learn, from post and preceding comments, that he improved so much.

  9. first off, forgive my tendency to post w/o caps. laziness, let's call it.

    i had lennis dunlap at chico in the early 80's also. he had us submit anonymous writing samples the first day of class "to show you what i expect from your writing". my sample was the first he read aloud...after a couple sentences he held the paper out like a wet hankie and said "oh god, that just makes me nauseous". it was a wake up call.

    does anyone here know if mr. dunlap is still alive and if so how one might contact him? i've just written my first children's novel and after months of staring at it i've lost all perspective - i can no longer see what's on the page, if you know what i mean. and i could really use the kind of merciless critique i used to get from him.

  10. Mr. Dunlap was my advisor when I took my first class from him in 1962. He was the best teacher I ever had and even sponsored me in an application to Oxford. They really don't make them like that anymore. Is he still alive?


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