Hayden's Ferry Review


Two for One: Great Companion Volumes on Writing

New innovative book on the subject of writing:
Such Stuff as Dreams: the Psychology of Fiction, by Keith Oatley
Wiley-Blackwell 2011
West Sussex, United Kingdom

Classic book on the subject of writing:
The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, by John Gardner
Alfred A. Knopf, 1984
New York and Toronto, Simultaneously

Reviewed by Debrah Lechner

Keith Oatley’s Such Stuff as Dreams begins with Chapter 1, Fiction as Dream: Models, World-Building, Simulation, and it takes as its inspiration the work of Shakespeare. He cites in particular Shakespeare’s A Mid-Summer’s Night Dream, in which the playwright asks the audience to imagine a world that might exist “as if in a dream:” to “suspend disbelief,” that famous, awkward phrase used to avoid using the simple word “believe.” It’s the difference between a child and an adult: children believe a tale, adults suspend disbelief. But Oatley asserts that for a work of fiction to be successful it must be deeply believed, even when written for adults, and his predecessor, John Gardner, would agree. In fact, these two volumes are in perfect harmony and both should be on a writer’s bookshelf.

In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner gives no indication of why he insists that a work of fiction must function as “an unbroken dream” except his own experience and opinion. In Chapter 2, Basic Skills, Genre, and Fiction as a Dream, Gardner insists that this dream must not be broken by inconsistencies in plot, characterization, style or any element that tends to wake us up from the story’s reality. Regardless of the genre of the story, he sees the ordinary waking reality that we all experience as the ground the reality of story is sown in, and from which it grows, just as the dreams we have in sleep are. At the end of the chapter he says, “Somehow the fictional dream persuades us that it’s a clear, sharp, edited  version of the dream all around us.” Gardner discusses Shakespeare several times as well, the first time on page 5 and 6, when in discussing Hamlet and how that plot progresses, he says, “the center of every Shakespearean play, as of all great literature, is character.”

Keith Oatley would certainly agree with that, and Such Stuff as Dreams delves into character and its effect on fiction expansively. Research into how human beings express character is presented throughout the book: in Chapter 2, The Space-in-Between: Models, World-building, and Simulation, he discusses first how story telling has its roots in childhood play, and then visits Hamlet, as Gardner did, and shows how metaphor and metonymy (the way sentences are arranged) turn the mapping of Denmark into a poetic description of confinement. “Models, world-building, and simulation” are not terms that would have been familiar to Gardner in literature as they are now, but he would have intuited their meaning immediately. They are welcome modern iterations of ideas Gardner was well-acquainted with.

Oatley goes much farther in his exploration of the human psyche and story telling. He cites ancient examples and modern studies of the potency of the imagination in building worlds, both real and less real, and in the process covers icharacter, arc, setting and the act of writing, as books on writing necessarily do. Oatley’s writing on these subjects is scholarly and he has no particular method to advocate, whereas in all probability it never occurred to Gardner to include many scholarly sources aside from his own academic experience. His focus is more on practical applications, and he is rigorous in his demands on new writers to the point of being more than a little intimidating, even discouraging.

To be challenged is a good thing, though.To take the time to think through what might be happening in your brain and the brain of your readers through your fiction is also a very good thing. Both books are chock-full of ideas that you will find necessary in your thinking as soon as you are introduced to them.

A particularly interesting section of Oatley’s Such Stuff as Dreams covers memory, and its extraordinarily important effect on story-telling, whether the intent is to fictionalize or to tell the truth.

Gardner, concentrating on form, does not have a particular section that deals with memory. But it is worth noting his observation on Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. Both books were based on actual events. “Of course, the fact that the story is true does not relieve the novelist of the responsibility of making the characters and events convincing,” Gardner wrote.

Both Oatley’s and Gardner’s book on writing fiction reverberate into the world of non-fiction and creative non-fiction, a can of worms that need not be opened here, except to repeat that these books should be read by all writers.

It is also worth noting that Oatley’s Such Stuff as Dreams has two extraordinarily valuable sections of endnotes and bibliography, as well as an index.

Gardner’s Art of Fiction includes a section of exercises, and also has an index.

John Gardner was an academic scholar and critic who wrote, among others, the imaginative works Grendel and October Light.

Keith Oatley is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto, and has written three works of fiction, winning the 1994 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Novel.
Beth Staples