book cover imageOn Moral Fiction,
by John Gardner.
Basic Books, 1977.

When you make up a story about America and say that we are the worst killers of all, that we are worse than Russia or China, then . . . well, I think you’ve made up an evil story.”

That evaluation of the integrity of artistic creation has been gaining considerable attention for its spokesman during the past year. The succinct, but too rarely heard, kind of common-sensical approach to literary criticism comes from the prize-winning novelist (and Old English and Chaucer scholar) John Gardner. And Gardner, who perhaps is best known to the reading public for his recent best-seller, October Light, has been arguing ever more strongly in both public lectures and interviews for a moral core at the heart of artistic creativity.

Although many of his fictional works—such outstanding novels as The Resurrection, The Sunlight Dialogues, Grendel, The Wreckage of Agathon, and Nickel Mountain—tackle moral and philosophical conflicts in the times they depict—his non-fiction work On Moral Fiction places Gardner squarely on the line as one of the few major American writers to challenge the recent philosophical direction of modern serious literature.

Great literature, Gardner argues (in both his new book and in interviews), developed because it fulfilled a deeply felt need in whatever society produced it. In other words, great art has always. been (and still should be, in Gardner’s view) an art based on the search for and the delineation of values.

But Gardner sees much of modern “serious” writing as repudiating all values: “There are,” he will tell you, “a lot of foolish notions that you find fairly frequently in modem fiction; you have all these people writing, and they say things like ‘hurrah for existentialism,’ or ‘hurrah for nihilism’ or ‘America is a terrible place.’” It is an idea he challenges directly in his new work. Early in On Moral Fiction, he states his premise:

In a world where nearly everything that passes for art is tinny and commercial and often, in addition, hollow and academic, I argue—by reason and by banging the table—for an old-fashioned view of what art is and does and what the fundamental business of critics therefore ought to be [p. 5].

Gardner admits the view of art as a moral force is not new with him:

My basic message throughout this book is as old as the hills, drawn from Homer, Plato, Dante, and the rest, and standard in Western Civilization down through the eighteenth century.… The traditional view is that true art is moral: It seeks to hold off, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us [p. 5].

From this basic idea, Gardner derives his view of the positive value of the creative story-telling process, the inherent worth of the narrative process of fiction-makers. He elaborated to me in an interview last year: “I see the narrative process—storytelling—as one of the pillars of civilization.”

Thus he sees too much of contemporary literature as trivial; indeed, much he views as fraudulent. He repudiates what he terms the “cheerful nihilism” of modern fiction.

“Some of my friends write these things too,” the novelist explains (his new critique dissects such contemporaries as John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, and Norman Mailer). But they are filled, I feel, with what are simply moronic ideas.” And Gardner has set himself, in both On Moral Fictionand in his own work, against that kind of writing. As he explained it in an interview last spring, “The effect of all art is to realize a way of seeing … but that sight must be accurate, true, to be moral.”

Explaining his own work in such a context, Gardner says “The notion of a coherent universe, you see, goes through all my books—the idea that all things are related, all connected.” And while Gardner will be quick to say that he is not particularly religious in any traditional sense, he admits that this moral interrelation of things forms for him “a kind of primitive religion.”

“Moral,” however, for Gardner, does not equal “didactic.” In both his new book and in conversation, he makes this important distinction. “No, art must not be didactic, but it should have a didactic purpose of effect.” It is that argument for “values” that he extends in On Moral Fiction when he writes:

Didacticism and true art are immiscible; and in any case, nothing guarantees that didacticism will be moral. Think of Mein Kampf. True art is by its nature moral. We recognize true art by its careful, thoroughly honest search for an analysis of values. It is not didactic because, instead of teaching by authority and force, it explores, openmindedly, to learn what it should teach [p. 19].

Of course, John Gardner’s views on the moral center of art are not new with him; in conversation (and occasionally in On Moral Fiction) he admits his indebtedness to an entire tradition of writers in Western literature. Tolstoi, whom he cites frequently, made these same assertions a century ago. In our own century, writers as varied as F. R. Leavis, D. H. Lawrence, Anton Chekhov, and E. M. Forster have sought to define the creative force by working out from this moral center. But as Gardner put it last year, “I just felt that these things needed to be said again.”

On Moral Fiction is not without flaws. Many will find it glib, while others may tend to get lost in the author’s abstractions. Nonetheless, it is a provocative book in that it raises some severe questions about the entire artistic process, about art as a metaphor for life. And as playwright Edward Albee recently asserted in a speech, “the only valuable function of art is to tell us who we are. Art is a defense against tyranny because the metaphor gets in the way of the conditioning process.” It is that kind of moral force that Gardner reaffirms both in his remarks and in On Moral Fiction. “Art asserts,” he writes at one point, “and reasserts those values which hold off dissolution, struggling to keep the mind intact and preserve the city, the mind’s safe preserve. Art rediscovers, generation by generation, what is necessary to humanness.”  

Jere Real (1934–2013) taught contemporary fiction at Lynchburg College.