What’s wrong with John Gardner’s concept of narrative structure

This weekend I had the opportunity to read a negative review written about someone whose stories I found dazzling. The reviewer has since admitted he was wrong about the review, so I suppose the less I say about the whole thing, the better. But I was intrigued by the reviewer citing John Gardner as the example of How One Must Write.

John Gardner has been on my mind lately as one of the people who studied at the Creative Writing Workshop From Hell — run by a highly authoritarian program director who also pioneered the Creative Writing Program as Anti-Commie Propaganda. (For background, see Creative Writing Programs and the CIA Fan Club and More on the Iowa Writers Workshop.)

Did the authoritarian workshop impact Gardner’s aesthetic, and through that, the writing advice that is handed down to writers, editors, and reviewers? I don’t know.

But I’d really like to, because John Gardner and his Way One Must Write has been on my mind since 1996, when I wrote a critical essay on narrative structure for my master’s thesis. I’m including an excerpt here.

The form of a story does influence its subject. A traditional narrative structure, such as that found in many nineteenth century novels, has strong closure, in which something happens that limits the characters’ options or makes them unable to change in some way. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner describes the story’s denouement:

“The conflict is now resolved, or in the process of resolving, either because the will of the central character has been overwhelmed or because he has won and his situation is once more stabilizing (188).”

In the first instance, where the character has been overwhelmed, the character cannot change because he or she has failed. In the second, the character cannot change because he or she has won; this is not necessarily bad for the character or the reader, but it can mislead the reader by obscuring the fact that something always happens next.

This traditional plot structure is well suited to death and marriage stories; death and marriage can both limit the characters’ options in the way that Gardner suggests they should—by making them either fail or “succeed.” However, many other stories don’t fit this traditional plot structure—especially quest stories in which the protagonist continues questing at the end of the novel. Song of the Lark, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit don’t fit this structure because the female protagonists don’t seem to be able to conclude their quests or stop their emotional and intellectual growth. That is, although they do “win,” their victory doesn’t halt or obscure their growth. Another kind of story that can’t be told using this traditional narrative structure is the story in which the characters don’t win or lose, but instead simply live in some kind stasis. For instance, in Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch, the main character, Oliveira beings the story with no real battle to fight and reaches a point in which he literally cannot go on to do anything else, either living or dying. In Hopscotch, Cortazar gives the reader the alternative of reading the novel by skipping from one chapter to another in a prearranged way. At the “end” of the novel, Cortazar directs the reader to chapter 131, then to chapter 58, then back to chapter 131 and so on, for infinity or until the reader decides to put the book down. Here Oliveira has not won. He might be said to have lost, because he has no hope, but I would argue instead that he is simply in a deadening stasis, much like the drug-addicted mother in Paley’s story.

If traditional narrative structure doesn’t provide a way for these stories to be told, it also doesn’t provide a way to keep the struggle between possibilities and limitations unresolved at the end of the story; or to show life as a process rather than an end product.

If I had this essay to write over, I would probably say many things differently. If I look at John Gardner’s book again, I would probably read it differently. But one thing’s for sure:

There is no One Right Way to make stories.

Thank goodness.

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