Cartooning Like You Mean It

Cartooning, Teaching & Living – by Tom Hart

Quotes from John Gardner’s Art of Fiction

with 3 comments

Rereading John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction as I create “Cartooning Like You Mean It.” Realizing now that this was one of the main influences in my designs to write the thing: theory, craft and exercises all wrapped under one cover. Here’s some notes from within, with my reflections (in italics…)

P 47 “Poe frees Kafka to write: “One day Gregor Samsa awoke to discover that he had been changed into a large cockroach.” ”

Gardner’s point being that Poe frees us from needing to know WHY things happen (his example being The Cask of Amontillado)- freeing us cartoonists to stretch reality, to imagine impossible realities. Did Poe free McCay to imagine a boy whose very sneeze could overturn elephants, or Herriman to imagine a brick-throwing mouse? Did Bosch’s nightmare creatures have anything to do with it- did Odilon Redon free our line medium to explore its fantasies? Words and pictures, fiction, etching and painting. All these entangled histories in our comix world.

P47 cont.- “By the selection and arrangement of the materials of his fiction, the writer give us not the truth about the world and how things come about but an image of himself, “a portrait of the artist”- or perhaps nothing more than an interesting construction, an object for our study and amusement.”

My feeling is that no one defines for the young artist what art is for. This is a good approximation above. We create to communicate with our audience -in back and forth dialectic and poetic, psychological, metaphysical discourse- what it is to be who we are. And at other times, we create for others an object for study and amusement. This different kind of creation is no less a gift to our readers, but is best done as mindfully as possible.

P 52 – “Particles of the action, “event ideas” such as kidnapping, pursuit of the elusive loved one…; or particles that go to make up character, such as obesity… In isolation, each element has relatively limited meaning; in juxtaposition to one another, the elements become more significant, forming abstractions of a kind- higher units of poetic thought.”

I like “higher units of poetic thought”. This is what people whose literal readings of art never are comfortable with. Not knowing, not having concrete words for the deep meanings in art or in their spirits…


P 55- “What the logical progress of an argument is to non-fiction, event-sequence is to fiction. “

But what is it in comix? Show me one thing- it’s not one thing. These two things “logical progress” and “event-sequence” are found in comix, but so too poetic, visual connection, etc.

P 79-  “As for fiction, in any case, it seems fair to argue that, since no narrative beyond a certain length can hold interest without some such profluence as a causal relation of events,…no narrative except a very short one can escape real-world relevance. ”

I’ve been interested in the subject all my career. Where can you locate the answers to this question in comix?  How long can a piece be before it NEEDS human drama? How little might it need?  What are the limits of “real-world relevance”? How can we both honor and evade it?

P 80— “Good-heartedness and sincerity are no substitute for rigorous pursuit of the fictional process.”

I read this after a discussion with a table full of writers lamenting the trend towards memoir in publishing right now. Gardner would no doubt agree that the trend represents a lack of need for artistry, and a cheapening of the human imagination. I agreed, and countered sadly that the average reader doesn’t care about craft as much as the people at that table. Weirdly, Gardner almost validates this a few pages later (but I no doubt feel he would stress an knowledge of technique to allow one the ability to accomplish the below.)

P 93 – “All the ordinary, decent-hearted  reader will ask is that the transformation be astonishing and interesting and that the story in some way appear to make sense…”

P 185 “Successful novel-length fictions can be organized in numerous ways: energetically, that is, by a sequence of causally related events; juxtapositionally, when the novel’s parts have symbolic or thematic relationship but no flowing development through cause and effect; or lyrically, that is, by some essentially musical principle- one thinks, for example, of the novels of Marcel Proust or Virginia Woolf.”

“The lyrical novel is the most difficult to talk about… The form lends itself to psychological narrative, imitating the play of the wandering or dreaming mind (especially the mind troubled by one or more traumatic experiences)… ”

P 192  – “It is this quality of the novel, its built in need to return and repeat, that forms the physical basis of the novel’s chief glory, its resonant close. … What moves us is not just that characters, images, and events get some form of recapitulation or recall: We are moved by the increasing connectedness of things, ultimately a connectedness of values.”

P 193 –  “To achieve such an effect, the writer must rise above his physical plot to an understanding of all his plot’s elements and their relationships, including those that are inexpressible.”

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Written by hutchowen

January 20, 2009 at 9:30 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Great book. One of my favorite parts is Gardner addresses Hemingway’s “Write what you know” bit:

    Nothing can be more limiting to the imagination, nothing is quicker to turn on the psyche’s censoring devices and distortion systems, than trying to write truthfully and interestingly about one’s own home town, one’s Episcopalian mother, one’s crippled younger sister. For some writers, the advice may work, but when it does, it usually works by a curious accident: The writer writes well about what he knows because he has read primarily fiction of this kind–realistic fiction of the sort we associate with The New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, or Harper’s. The writer, in other words, is presenting not so much what he knows about life as what he knows about a particular literary genre. A better answer, though still not an ideal one, might have been “Write the kind of story you know and like best–a ghost story, a science-fiction piece, a realistic story about your childhood, or whatever.”Though the fact is not always obvious at a glance when we look at works of art very close to us in time, the artist’s primary unit of thought–his primary conscious or unconscious basis for selecting and organizing the details of his work–is genre.”

    Not write what you like. Write what you know.

    Would love to hear your thoughts about it.

    Austin Kleon

    February 9, 2009 at 9:56 pm

  2. Whoops. I meant:

    Not write what you know. Write what you like.

    Austin Kleon

    February 9, 2009 at 9:57 pm

  3. viniciusbruner.blogspot.com

    Vinicius

    February 14, 2011 at 6:23 pm


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