John Gardner (public domain photo)
The American novelist John Gardner, author of fiction such as The Sunlight Dialogues and Grendel, also wrote books of literary criticism and writing. He was only 49 when he died suddenly in 1982, in a motorcycle accident. Robert Shea used to read a lot of literary fiction, and books about writing, and he noticed that Gardner had praised Robert Anton Wilson.
In his newsletter No Governor issue No. 9 (I have all of them available via a link on this page, on the right, under "Robert Shea Resources"), Shea writes, "I've been reading On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner, a very fine writer whose life was cut short a few years ago by a motorcycle accident. (Some time I must vent some of my feelings about motorcycles). To my surprise and pleasure I ran across a nice compliment to two of my friends, one being our own BobW, on page 94. Talking about science fiction (and tell your snobby friends John Gardner refers to it is "sci-fi") he lists a number of writers he likes and winds up with, 'One finds a fair amount of literary merit in Algis J. Budrys' Michaelmas or the work of Robert Wilson whose novels (for instance Schroedinger's Cat) out-Barth John Barth without sacrificing the primary quality of good fiction, interesting storytelling.' One could do worse than out-Barth Barth. I look forward to the day when a literary critic remarks that some work by John Barth 'almost out-Wilson's Robert Anton Wilson'."
Shea published some science fiction short stories in the 1950s and was invited to join the Hydra Club. He knew various science fiction figures and was friends with Budrys and science fiction magazine editor Larry T. Shaw. I read a Barth novel, The Floating Opera, when I was in college. I've read two John Gardner novels, Grendel and Mikkelson's Ghosts.
Gardner was using RAW as a stick to beat Barth with. He conducted a jihad against “books about books” vis-à-vis “books about life.” Like a narc, Red Squadder, or men’s room entrapper going native, he let more and more metafiction into his own work.
Love RAW, but comparing to Barth is a mistake. They had very different goals with their work. Barths nonfiction is nowhere near as interesting as RAW. 😁 But, RAWs novels do not have the technical excellence or genius of Barth’s.
Giles Goat-Boy is my favorite 20th century novel. Everyone should read it. It requires more attention and commitment than anything in RAWs works I think, but for me it pays off like no other book. Hilarious and profound.
Just my opinion, don’t come for me.
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