I just finished reading Nickel Mountain by John Gardner. I’m restricting myself to one Gardner novel a year, just to make them last longer, and this one was (as almost all of them are) well worth the wait. It has all his capacity for creating a sense of the uncanny in the everyday, for revealing the profound in the common, for creating human-impossibly-human characters. It’s a beautiful book.
All of which brought me to wonder, however, why Gardner has largely been forgotten by literary posterity. After all, he was famous during his lifetime, not only as a novelist, but also as a critic and as a creative writing instructor. He also wrote children’s stories (strange and beautiful), translations, poetry, and biography. One of his books on writing, On Moral Fiction, is among my favourites in the genre. Of the novels I have read — Mickelsson’s Ghosts, The Sunlight Dialogues, Nickel Mountain, October Light, and Grendel — I would rank all but October Light (because it seems a failed experiment to me) and Grendel (because it is great in a far different way) as the best novels in the Faulknerian tradition between when Faulkner himself died and Cormac McCarthy published Suttree (though I concede that there might be more than a few who would dispute this evaluation). Still, his work was influential enough while he was alive and is of a caliber even still that it deserves far better recognition than the occasional inclusion of Grendel on some university syllabus to serve as a modern comparison to Beowulf.
The reason for this neglect, I think (and I do absolutely mean to cast some shade here), is that readers, even those who read so-called literary books, are too often unwilling to read books that take work. I have been told over and over again, by otherwise “good readers”, that certain writers — like Faulkner and Lowry and Bolano and Pynchon and Llossa and McCarthy (his Suttree and The Orchard Keeper especially) and yes, Gardner — are too difficult. They move slowly. Their sentences are unwieldy. Their formal experimentation is off-putting. Their description is excessive. Their plots are ambiguous. And so on.
What most readers want, even in their literary books, is something easy on the palette. They want to be able to say, “It was a real page-turner. I couldn’t put it down. Stayed up half the night to finish it.” They want obvious motivation and character. They want easily recognizable plot structures. They want minimal description and reflection, maximum action and snappy dialogue. In other words, they want the print version of a Hollywood film.
All of which is fine, I guess, but it means that most readers are missing out on some of literature’s great books. A little patience, a little effort, would open up some truly wonderful literary experiences. You might be okay with that, but you shouldn’t be. You should read Gardner, at least once a year, and savor each one until there are no more.