And, without further ado, I'll turn the blog over to Laura De Silva from Open Road:


“You’re flying to Rochester to collect materials from the archives of John Gardner," my boss informs me.


Frantic typing in Google ensues.


Like many of my twenty-something peers, I had never read John Gardner. Suddenly, I needed to learn everything about him.


Because I was born after a motorcycle accident cut short the author’s life in 1982, I’ve never read a review of Gardner’s latest work or attended one of his creative writing workshops with the likes of Raymond Carver. Since I had all my secondary and post-secondary education in the twenty-first century, Gardner simply was not on my literary radar; many of his titles were out of print in the years when I was discovering his contemporaries. It was, it turns out, my loss.


306i7C56B1774F43172FThrough conversations with Gardner's archivists and his son, Joel (pictured at left), I quickly learned he was a writer’s writer and an academic of the first order. He was the sort of man who wrote the highly respected The Life and Times of Chaucer on the one hand, and the metafiction(!) title that won him a National Book Critics Circle award, October Light, on the other. A rebel to the core, he turned the literary community on its head when he criticized contemporary writers in On Moral Fiction for failing to live up to his claim that “true art is by its nature moral.” His novel The Sunlight Dialogues was called “a novel in the grand line of American fiction” by The Boston Globe. Big words.


He was the exact sort of writer—exciting, surprising, forever experimenting—I should have read.


308i4ACDBE562F269119 Gardner’s archives reflect his unparalleled levels of eccentricity, creativity, and output. The John Gardner Papers in the Department of Rare Books/Special Collections at University of Rochester contain some ninety boxes of material ranging from a cleverly illustrated notebook of his high school poetry to Christmas cards from Joyce Carol Oates. They have notes from his lectures as a professor of medieval literature, family photographs from his childhood, and even his pipe. One folder contains an early typed and hand-edited draft of what would become “Redemption,” a semi-autobiographical short story addressing a horrible accident with a cultipacker that killed his brother when both were children. The initial title was “Escape”; he had crossed it out and renamed it “Acceptance” before settling on the title that eventually stuck. Entire theses have been written on authors’ writing processes with less information.


310iE9264C4118B8A4EDAs I looked through and scanned treasures of Gardner’s life with the tireless folks who manage the archives, a larger picture began to emerge outside of his writing. I saw the day-to-day management of a literary magazine that required constant correspondence; the piles of bills, some overdue, that every writer dreads; and an invitation from Princeton to spend a semester teaching creative writing workshops in New Jersey (he never did; a Guggenheim Fellowship interceded). I saw sonnets written to his first wife, Joan; wedding photos with his second wife, Liz; and their divorce papers with a processing stamp dated after his death. I even came across a lock of his famously long, blond hair, cut in 1979 for a performance and preserved beneath plastic. Weird — but also a really interesting connection to the days when locks of hair were standard keepsakes. He was a medievalist, after all. (For a look at that crazy, long hair — check out his author video.)


316i3E28F6FB58020301 Writers don’t write in a vacuum. All of this — the flattering, the challenging, the devastating, and even the downright odd — is a joy to explore explore. As readers, we wonder about the author behind the novels. Seeing pictures of Gardner with his brother as a child and then reading “Redemption” makes it immeasurably more poignant. Knowing that Gardner was a consummate teacher of great writers allows us to look at the story-within-a-story structure of October Light in an entirely new, technical way. Maybe we finally pick up that copy of On Becoming a Novelist.


The Gardner ebooks, for me, are no longer just a collection of texts that received good reviews in 1972. They’re more than an opportunity to increase literary street cred by reading an esoteric author. They’re the product of a man who took a controversial stand on the function of art — and put his money where his mouth was by publishing novels that reflected that stance. In a world where it takes us seconds to Tweet, it was refreshing to meet — through his papers and his family — a writer who truly believed in spending months on a single page. Read him, and you’ll see that it paid off.


Fifteen John Gardner titles are available through Open Road Media, including The Sunlight Dialogues, October Light, On Becoming a Novelist, and more.


Video and photos available at


Images courtesy of John Gardner Papers, Department of Rare Books/Special Collections, University of Rochester.

by Sunltcloud on ‎09-28-2010 01:45 PM

I think that John Gardner's "On Becoming a Novelist" is as valid today as when it was first published. My own copy is heavily marked and about to fall apart - purchased in 1986. And though we live in an age of instant gratification via instant communication, I still believe in what he had to say: "By the nature of his work it is important that one way or another the novelist learn to depend primarily on himself, not others, that he love without too much need and dependency, and look inward (or toward some private standard) for approval and support."

by NmDPlm on ‎09-29-2010 01:52 AM

I grew up in Gardner's hometown of Batavia, NY and quietly discovered his works there. He also happens to be buried in the same small cemetery as my great grandparents, so whenever I stop to pay my respects to them I stop to his gravesite as well.


Regarding the accidental death of his brother when they were young, I once read an interview that was done probably around the height of his career at that point, and he was asked what he would ask God if he were to meet him and his answer was "Is it enough?".  The interviewer later commented that he felt John was asking if he had done enough in the successes of his writing and as a teacher to have "paid for" accidentally killing his brother.  It was a loss that haunted him always.


Thanks for visiting Rochester and the Gardner archives and giving them some public view here. He deserves far more readership than he gets.

by on ‎09-29-2010 04:50 AM

Thanks for sharing that, NmDPim.

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