John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction

John Gardner’s 1977 book, On Moral Fiction, argues far eloquently what I have been trying to grasp at in previous essays. Writing in the late seventies, Gardner’s thesis is that fiction has slipped from its place as art. He defines quality art as morally instructive, and that the criticism of art should be based on its adherence or exploration of morality.

John Gardner, 1933-1982

Gardner was a writer in the mid-twentieth century, but one who has unfortunately fallen down the memory hole. His most famous work is the novel Grendel, a retelling of Beowulf from the perspective of the titular monster. He was also a creative writing teacher and taught Raymond Carver for a time.

I had previously read Gardner’s book, The Art of Fiction: Notes on the Craft for Young Writers which is one of the few of these kinds of books that has good advice. I extremely happy when my university library had a copy of On Moral Fiction. The first chapter is Gardner’s definition of morality as it relates to art, and what good art is. I was immediately struck by the breadth of knowledge and quality of the prose. Books of this type can often be overly dense and academic, but Gardner does not fall into this trap.

The book addresses the issue of the difference between his definition of moral fiction and didactic or polemic works.

We recognize true art by its careful, thoroughly honest search for and analysis of values…instead of teaching by authority and force, it explores, open-mindedly, to learn what it should teach. (p. 19)

According to Wikipedia, the book drew the ire of public intellectuals at the time of its publication mostly because Gardner named names; he critiques the fiction of William Gass as being purely intellectual, without the emotion art should bring. He argues that the work of John Updike as focusing too much on the sex lives the characters, and even goes so far to say that William Faulkner is a “clumsy” artist (an accurate view, as much as I like Faulkner). The shock at the time, I think, came not from the assessments in Moral Fiction, but Gardner’s direct critique of individuals.

On Moral Fiction also serves as an exploration of how literary art ought to be judged. Critical standards based on the idea that art is primarily technique, and that the substance of it cannot be judged each artist’s conceptions are equally valid. Such a system of criticism, Gardner asserts, cannot stand up to the “clumsy” artists like Faulkner or “limited men who are masters of technique (Pound and Roethke)” (p.145).

Gardner loathes what he calls “the cult of cynicism and despair” present in fiction. I too loathe this trend in art, but there is good reason for this trend in Western literature. Ezra Pound called artists the antennae of the race; perhaps we must, culturally, see cynicism and despair in order to climb out of it. I must confess that I do not know whether or not contemporary fiction is trapped in the “cult.” The culture industry seems more concerned with, on the one hand, cheap mass entertainment packed with gratuitous sex and violence, and on the other pushing bourgeois identity politics. It is certainly hard to say who the antennae of the race are, when most of writers and artists foisted upon the masses are the antennae of a small minority wealthy patrons.

The last chapters of the book are on artists himself, and how they relate to the world around them. While this was interesting, it did not seem to fit with the overarching theme in the book. Another point of weakness is Gardner’s philosophical tangents, especially on Jean-Paul Sartre. They are well written and show off the author’s breadth of knowledge, but do little to add to the book.

On Moral Fiction is a relatively quick read at 200 pages. While it is not the best treatment of its driving argument, it struck a chord with me. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys literary criticism or the philosophy of art.

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