The Art of Fiction:
Notes on Craft for Young Writers
by John Gardner
“To write with taste, in the highest sense, is to write [...] so that no one commits suicide, no one despairs; to write [...] so that people understand, sympathize, see the universality of pain, and feel strengthened, if not directly encouraged to live on.
If there is good to be said, the writer should say it. If there is bad to be said, he should say it in a way that reflects the truth that, though we see the evil, we choose to continue among the living.
The true artist [...] gets his sense of worth and honor from his conviction that art is powerful--” ― John Champlin Gardner Jr., The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers
This is a helpful, enlightening, and highly opinionated handbook on the craft of writing fiction. That being said, I suggest it is also useful for a reader who is interested in what good authors have to say about selected works of fiction. Fortunately, John Gardner provides many examples of texts that are worth reading and rereading.
The book is divided into two part: the first, "Notes on Literary-Aesthetic Theory"; and the second, "Notes on the Fictional Process". Gardner begins by stating "This is a book designed to teach the serious beginning writer the art of fiction", and I would suggest that you could insert the word reader for writer if you are viewing it from this reader's perspective.
You may wonder about where he is going when he begins the first chapter of Part I with the injunction that there are no absolute aesthetic rules for writing fiction. This, however, does not stop Gardner from offering many opinions that sound a lot like absolutes. Whether you agree with him or not, his process is helpful and thought-provoking. I found myself questioning books I have previously read based on his commentaries. One example of this is his disdain for John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath which he criticizes as being one-sided in its portrayal of good versus evil. And I discovered books I have not read (for example, those by Calvino or Gaddis) that sound appealing based on his recommendations to potential writers through examples demonstrated by those books.
The second part of the book is more practical with regard to the craft of writing, but it still provides suggestions and thoughts for the reader to consider when choosing, reading, and (possibly) rereading fiction. Overall I would recommend this book based on the comments that throughout the book reveal the experience of one of our great modern writers.