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Gardner lecture at Chautauqua, NY., 8.11.82


John Gardner: Notes from his lecture at Chautauqua, 8/11/82.

From Question and Answer session following Gardner's reading of his short story, Caesar and the Werewolf:



Question: Explain the development of an individual piece of your work from its general conception of it to its final form. How do you get started, and what motivates you to finish?



Answer: Well, I've done that a lot of times in my own mind, partly because I teach creative writing. I think what happens is this: that a number of things happen to you in your life and they all sort of sit there ringing--they're important. Other things happen to you and you forget them--you know, I can't remember what what I did yesterday. But I remember something happened the day before that was important, and so on. And then, suddenly you're reading something or you see something and it all snaps together. It happened in my case that I had just, uh, been talking with somebody about werewolves, just before I read Sertonius. And Sertonius talks about-as I put in the story--the business Caesar sees two different people in one man: a blonde head with black eyes, for instance, and very tall and very fat and all kind of things of that; and, suddenly, a lot of things in my life clicked together in the possibility of a story--something that has a beginning, middle and end, people do things--that's, for me, that's a story. And for me nothing else is a story, which means that most of modern fiction doesn't seem to me fiction at all but just some kind of ... perambulation.

Anyway, uh, what I was concerned about was the way things seem out of control, ...suddenly a bunch of crazy people in Italy and Germany start, start throwing bombs and shooting at Jews who have nothing to do with the Israelis--things really seem out of control, and I want to be Caesar, and I want to say, "Listen everybody, line up and I'm going to give you names and salaries and from now on we're going to have law and order and I'm going to boss it. And I realize, that's insane. ...that's in a way what we all do when we lose faith, in the basic goodness of people.

Ah, so--this story [Caesar and the Werewolf] started with, with the feeling that the world's out of control that had to do with my father's stroke, and that was my sudden chaos, and also, of course, it has to do with my sense that ... that ... that which seems most perfectly in control--that's of course sub-text, it's not really in the story, that is to say a man who is strong and healthy suddenly isn't strong and healthy (I'm happy to say he's getting much better now)--all of that became part of the story.

Basically what I always look for, is a real story, like the "Three Little Pigs," or ... or Emma, or Persuasion, or whatever--it doesn't matter what kind of story, but something where I can really keep a story going. And it has to be about something, and this one is about the wish to control, and the foolishness of that wish.


Question: Would you please comment on the popularity of fantasy and science fiction.

Movies such as ET, Star Trek 11--do you see a relationship between their popularity and the state of society today. Why is the literature of vision and fantasy so popular today?

[ two minute of his response in wav format ; please be advised that you may need a soundcard if using Internet Explorer, whereas people seem to be having better luck with Netscape; a 33.6 modem takes about 2 1/2 to 4 minutes to download--have patience, please]

Answer: I think that fantasy, science fiction, that kind of thing, fable, is the mainstream of literature from the beginning. If you read Gilgamesh--the oldest thing we have in western civilization--you'll find that, you know--one of the things that king Gilgamesh does, is he sinks into the center of the Earth to get the root of life and he comes up and a snake steals it. A lot of Gilgamesh is borrowed and cleaned up for the Old Testament, so it's an interesting book. A lot of the Old Testament would qualify, in many minds, as fantasy science fiction, which is not to deny that it is at least metaphorically profoundly true. Dante, Homer, Virgil, Milton, Shakespeare: down and down and down through history, fantasy--science fiction, if you want to call it that--has been the ruling mode. That's what human beings desire, that's what we tell our kids most of the time, and so on.

During the rise of the middle class, something were odd happened. The middle class suddenly had a whole lot of middle class questions, which is, since we're not upper class--which is ... there's always been kings and peasants, right, or you want barons and peasants--suddenly there's a whole lot of people who aren't barons and aren't peasants and they want to know how should I live? what should I do? And the novel appears out of nowhere and it controls the world for two hundred years. That is to say, realistic middle-class fiction ... how do I marry the right man instead of the wrong man? or the right girl instead of the wrong girl? what do I do with my money? how should politics be arranged?--all that was the question of the hovel, until, I think, in recent times the middle class became upper class. I think we are now as sophisticated, more sophisticated than barons were in the 17th century. We--the middle class--are now ready to graduate from those easy questions of how do I marry the right girl (easy except never answerable), to the big, metaphysical questions which have always been the main questions of great literature. And I think what we're seeing is a movement of middle-class literature to the big questions. Science Fiction may answer the big questions badly, but it's on the right questions. So, I celebrate the rise of the new middle class.


Question: Both you and Mr. Haley have had accusations of plagiarism leveled against you--you for your Life and Times of Chaucer. How can an author avoid such problems when attempting to write a major work with an historical research basis.

[click here to listen to his 3 minute response, which will take a few minutes to download]

Answer: Well, I think ... first of all I should mention I was never actually accused of plagiarism. There was a long article in Speculum, which is the official organ of the medieval, the medievalist, ah, which bent over backwards saying "I'm not saying this is plagiarism, I'm not saying this is plagiarism, ah, but t's too similar..." so on and so forth.

Then a man who doesn't like me, at Newsweek magazine, and isn't very fussy about that kind of stuff, did a plagiarism innuendo, which, which clearly he was ducking the claim that I had plagiarized. But, it is now popularly known that I ... am a great plagiarist.

It's certainly true that when I write fiction, I steal from everywhere, but I transform in the stealing. Much of what you've just heard, is right out of Sertonius. Ah, but it's transformed-, obviously, Sertonius did not believe in werewolves, and so on. When you write fiction, you play fast and lose. One of the great exercises of the student of English literature, is to find out where Melville got that, and where he got that and where he got that. Ah, there're whole books about Shakespeare sources, in fact an industry of Chaucer's sources and I don't feel bad about that at all. I think the minute you steal somebody's character and try to steal somebody's effects without completely transforming them to your own vision, then you're a plagiarist and you're a bad guy.

When you write history, on the other hand, you really have problems because you're going to be giving, most of the time, the same information that's been given over and over in other books, and you add a certain changed interpretation and a certain changed view, but mostly you're just purveying information. A teacher plagiarizes every minute of the day. He's telling students things he was told, and so on. And if someone decides he doesn't like you, he's going to say that you plagiarize. The, ah, particular passage that the Speculum person thought I took too closely from another writer, ah, was not footnoted to that writer. I certainly know that I had that writer in mind ... there are a hundred and ten footnotes to that very writer in the Chaucer biography. Only a person who's, who's, who got up on the wrong side of bed that morning, would make a scene about that. That person did and, and I guess got his promotion, and that's ok. Ah, in any case, I think that the truth is, you have to be careful to identify your sources insofar as you can; if somebody's out to get you, they're going to get you, and that's too bad, but we do all have to get promoted and one of the ways to get promoted is to pick on those who stand above one. It's, ah, the oldest game in the world--it's called "debunking." Then we have the un-debunking, and then we debunk the undebunkers and so on. It's better to just go on with original ideas and stop the fighting, but one can't, somehow, avoid it completely. I'd say just be as careful as you can and all will be well. Most readers--we're going to end on a positive note-most readers are generous and benevolent and write you kind letters instead of nasty letters, so, don't worry. Thank you.


Transcribed from a cassette recording, by Jan Quackenbush--8/23/97


updated January 14, 1998

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