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On Moral Fiction

3.82  ·  Rating details ·  631 ratings  ·  71 reviews

On Moral Fiction set off a firestorm of controversy when it was first published in 1978. With a daring not obscured by the author’s extraordinary humaneness of spirit, the book argued that contemporary literature suffers first and foremost from a basic failure of the test of “morality.” By “moral fiction” the author meant fiction that attempts to test human values, not for

Paperback, 234 pages
Published October 5th 1979 by Basic Books (first published 1978)
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Nathan "N.R." Gaddis
Mar 17, 2013 marked it as goldfinch-in-juice
On June 10, 1976 Jonathan Franzen wrote the following about the then newly published novel by William Gaddis, J R:
We may expect that such a long and long-awaited book as JR will fall into one of two categories; either some work intellectually and emotionally gargantuan, like Don Quixote, War and Peace, Remembrance of Things Past, or The Magic Mountain, or else some huge and magnificent, generous, ingenious, and memorable entertainment, like Our Mutual Friend or Old Wives’ Tale. If one judged by
Feb 26, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: everyone
Recommended to Brynn by: my mom
This is a must read for anyone interested in art or interested in the creative process. Gardner calls a spade a spade in his book, drawing a clear line between what art is and what it is not. Gardner is about a million times more intelligent and articulate than I am, but what I gleaned from Gardner is essentially this: Art is motivated by love. Art is not pointing to the black abyss and describing how black and deep and dark it is (which, from what I understand, were what most of the movies nomi ...more
Elizabeth Andrew
Jan 23, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: books-on-writing
This book is a breath of fresh moral air in what often feels to me to be a polluted cultural atmosphere—not because I agree with everything Gardner says but because I'm relieved that he's willing to raise questions about morality and art-making in the first place.

The word "moral" is a major stumbling block. But if you put aside your assumptions about the word, Gardner has lots to teach: “What the writer understands, though the student or critic of literature need not, is that the writer discover
Dec 31, 2018 rated it liked it
John Gardner’s controversial book takes no prisoners in the literary firmament. He has a barb or a laurel for everyone from Aristotle to Vonnegut; rather sassy for a relatively less acclaimed author known more for his academic experience than his literary genius. I was expecting the logical approach of the academic who takes one subject at a time, lays out its pros and cons and then sums up before moving onto the next topic. Instead, I found his approach to this book like a dog attacking a piece ...more
Nyssa Silvester
Jan 28, 2013 rated it liked it
The first half of this book was an eye-opening perspective for an English major ensconced in literary theory for the majority of her college education. But the second half was downright pernicious--willing to put up with the supposed madness of artists who have so much moral rectitude that they can scorn the way other people live. And it descended into mediocre philosophy while it was at it, departing for the most part from the realm of concrete literature.

And I worry about how he interprets lit
Aug 15, 2012 rated it really liked it
On Moral Fiction: Review
“True art is 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, open-mindedly, to learn what it should teach. It clarifies like an experiment in a chemistry lab, and confirms.” - John Gardner

I have of late been on a kick of reading whatever I can about writing, expanding… ah, better, reviewing my sparse understanding of art and craft, the
Feb 20, 2009 rated it really liked it
Although I don't agree with all of Gardner's criteria for "moral fiction" (he almost acts as though there are only three authors who have the ability to write such literature), this book made me think about the importance, role, and value of literature more than many books I've read. Gardner is very concerned with the process of writing (discovering as he/she goes) and is frustrated with authors (and critics) who only focus on technique. He feels that literature (and all art) always affects us, ...more
Sean Pagaduan
Nov 30, 2011 rated it did not like it
Most of the force behind Gardner's arguments evidently lies on misreadings of Freud (now all but debunked as useful anyway, making this a straw man argument) and misinterpretations of Sartre, not to mention completely disregarding anything Wittgenstein wrote after his famed Tractatus.

He fails to identify ideas on morality from John Rawls or Immanuel Kant, ideas on morality that don't require any religion to arrive at.

He dismisses post-modernism (sic) as inherently pointless or immoral, somehow f
Sydney Avey
Jan 22, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: writing-books
Gardner challenges readers to think deeply about truth, beauty, and goodness in their relative and absolute forms. The nature of literary criticism is to hold a work up to a standard and consider whether it hits the mark. To read critically, one must know what the standards are, a challenge in our pluralistic world. Gardner deals with that issue also, and in a satisfying way.

Gardner writes with punch. Consider this statement: "...telling familiar lies does not make them true. Art is our way of
Jul 05, 2013 rated it liked it
On Moral Fiction was first published in 1976, and is author and critic John Gardner’s view on the necessity for morality in fiction, arguing that fiction displays the beliefs of the author. I don't agree with his view on religion, but I suspect his view is tainted by the accident that killed his younger brother, that he apparently felt responsible for.

His opinion of many of the foremost 'literary' authors of his day (the 1970’s) is nothing short of scathing, and I can't help wondering what he wo
A bracing polemic, even if Gardner gets into some arcane territory in the second half.

His essential arguments are that 1) art must by its nature be moral, that is, oriented toward or built upon truth, though not necessarily didactic, with instilling or affirming life and goodness as its purpose; and 2) by this criterion most “art” in the twentieth century deserves those scarequotes. Gardner’s thesis is more complex and nuanced than this, and he’d probably quibble with every word of this summary
Amy Gonzalez
Sep 06, 2010 rated it it was ok
Shelves: books-on-writing
This book was featured on a list of books to inspire writers in Paste magazine. It is basically a critique of how literature should be judged based on the writer's exploration of morality. Gardner argues through most of this book that both Art and Art criticism are filled with jargon and removed from discussing anything on an intellectual or emotional level. He credits his examples of what art should be by drawing from the likes of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, and Dante. He thinks their work represe ...more
Jul 26, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I give this book cinco estrellas because it is one of the most thought provoking reads that I have come across. Sometimes you have to sift through some relatively extreme views on certain authors or artists, but this book makes clear that Gardner has not arrived at these positions arbitrarily. He has developed a strong personal criteria for those elements that he believes essential to art, and to the process of creating it. Whether or not you agree with those elements is almost immaterial. He pu ...more
Doug Wykstra
Dec 18, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I don't agree with Gardner's premise that returning to the objectives of classical literature is going to improve the output of literature, and I tend to have more positive reactions to many of the big midcentury novelists than he does, but I found his book refreshing, because I think too much criticism today doesn't engage with the moral stance a book (or any work of art, really) takes--there are critics who will look at a book through the lens of social justice (and Gardner, to his credit, see ...more
Jon Beadle
Dec 30, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Reading this collection of essays on moral fiction was like reading The Gospels on the Kingdom of God: the unearthing of the true earth as its true reality is concealed by false realities trying in vein to pose as true reality.

Gardner is fair, funny, and incredibly down-to-earth. Of course, he is brilliant - which helps in his observations, which no one would dare call "ordinary - but his brilliance is used in the service of the reader.

What he finds "immoral" about a work of art is not based o
Sep 05, 2009 rated it liked it
First, I like it because it offers immense insight into some decent writing (Gardner's fiction). I mean decent.

However, the guy is an asshole. He pans better authors (Gass, Elkin--ELKIN! He dastn't). He is so small and such a shallow reader (I am no great reader of difficult books, but I understand Elkin's work, and see clearly that he has a stringent ethical/moral paradigm) that he must label these other authors--whose only offense is to play with language, to attempt to find exciting new modes
This seemed a little dated, and also very obstreperous. Gardner really doesn't like lots of writers, and he's very very convinced that he's right about almost everything. Still, he's a great advocate for the importance of literature, and for the value of the poet, I'm just not positive that I agree with his difinition of what constitutes "the moral" and that so many people fail at it. The last couple of chapters were my favorite, perhaps because I know so little about Wittgenstein and the Greeks ...more
Gregory Rothbard
Dec 22, 2010 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Critically Minded
Recommended to Gregory by: Librarian

This little book is a great defense against crap in fiction. Gardner argues against the postmodern flotsam that is today considered high art. Its high art all right, but it is not morally straight.

The book is very helpful to create clarity in the haze that has been created by the ivory towered tenured writer who instead of making art that is clearly understood, makes art that is just confusing or plain gibberish at its best.

I would add this book to my collection, because it would serve me well

Patrick Faller
Apr 08, 2011 rated it really liked it
Gardner argues that moral fiction is life-affirming, the product of an author's discovering the truths his or her characters embody by faithfully engaging a fictional process he lays out in greater, more accessible detail in "The Art of Fiction." Pointed, terse, and confrontational, this book, as do all of Gardner's treatises on the art, challenges the would-be writer to think honestly and carefully about craft.
Grace T
Mar 17, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Gardner is not writing from a Christian worldview, nor is he writing in the contemporary era, but he nonetheless makes some very good, timeless points on how any form of art should not degrade or degenerate its audience. The section towards the end on the old role of poet-priest was especially interesting. Overall, I enjoyed seeing how an artist outside Christianity could still see and affirm some of its values.
D.M. Dutcher
A strong book curiously diluted by too much attention paid to authors of his time. The point is excellent, but could have been told with more force in a magazine article. The asides on authors on how they succeed or mostly fail at such loses power the less familiar you are with the literary fiction a 1970's author would count as the canon of his time. Important, but in spite of itself.
Aug 16, 2007 rated it really liked it
Shelves: onwriting
Gardner proposes a strong moral stance for authors to follow if we are to produce good writing. He moves into ethical territory that few critics dare enter and states his views with conviction. Even though I have not seen him follow his ethical definitions in his own novels, he puts forth good and solid principles about how to judge a classic. Fascinating reading.
Matt Gaither
Nov 22, 2012 rated it it was amazing
If you think writing can and should make people better, read this book. I found that it gave words to a vague feeling I'd had about what writing can do. Gardner isn't talking about moral fiction like you'd see in a morality play from the 15th century, his interests are much more applicable to the current state of fiction than the title might suggest.
Sep 03, 2010 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Anyone interested in criticism of the arts.
I started reading On Moral Fiction because of a quote and a comment by a newspaper editorialist whose work I have enjoyed. Literary criticism is a ways outside of my education and experience, but I was intrigued, and decided to pick up a copy of the book and read it. In the end, I did not read the whole book, only a little past the middle, but I read the part that was of most interest to me, and that addressed issues in which I am interested. Some of my thoughts (and quotes from Gardner’s work) ...more
S.W. Gordon
May 10, 2014 rated it liked it
This book should have been entitled, "Thor's Hammer: The Quest for Literary Perfection." The word "moral" carries too much baggage to convey what Gardner meant for it to mean in regards to Art. Similarly, Ayn Rand's use of the words "selfish" and "ego" didn't mean the same thing to her that they did to her detractors. Nevertheless, if you can wade through Gardner's dense, over-wrought arguments, there are many pearls hidden in this ugly oyster. Gardner laments the Postmodernist trend in literary ...more
Mar 27, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
While I may not agree with all the statements Gardner makes, I agree with the majority. And with the statements I don't agree with, he argues them so well that I can completely understand why he states them. The book is about artist and criticism. Gardner focuses how on work should be critiqued and how so many fail to properly criticize. He points out several authors, those he favors and those he does not, and uses their work, most of them popular works, to show how critics don't always know wha ...more
Jan 01, 2010 added it
Shelves: theory-criticism
YES!! I've been going on about this sort of thing for months now. This is one of the most important books I've read in years.

"What we see around us is, for the most part, dramatization without belief or else opinion untested by honest drama. William Gaddis has named the problem in JR, though he himself doesn't escape it: 'believing and shitting are two different things.'
"... Insofar as literature is a telling of new stories, literature has been 'exhausted' for centuries; but insofar as literatur
Jul 07, 2013 rated it liked it
Looking back on what I've read I feel Gardner ranted the entire time instead of clearly divulging into this ideas, as if he'd rather talk about how awesome Homer is and how bad Vonnegut and Heller and many others are. I disagree on many aspects of what I did understand, mainly that I don't properly understand what he means by moral art. If Slaughterhouse 5 isn't moral, then why is it considered an anti-war novel? Isn't "hey, war is bad and this is why" a moralistic stance? Maybe I'm just a big d ...more
Jul 13, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Strong-willed, a bit Athenian in its language, and passionate, Gardner is arguing here more than anything else for art to uplift the spirit of its audience.

This seems to be an important stand to take when critically approaching literature. This book, I believe, is important for educators to study so as to more effectively lead their students in developing their critical thinking skills.

Moral judgments, I agree, should be made towards our literature -- and not, as Gardner makes clear, in some wea
Oct 29, 2009 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: sherrie
Recommended to Lee by: Orson Scott Card
Great book. I've been working on a movie review blog that comments on the moral value of movies, and Gardner's book has added a lot of value to my critical analysis process. The first part of the book was most valuable to what I needed, subtitled, "Premises on Art and Morality."

He says that all art should to some extent promote good. A few quotes from his book,

"If art destroys good, mistaking it for evil, then that art is false, an error; it requires denunciation."

"To Plato it seemed that if a
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John Champlin Gardner was a well-known and controversial American novelist and university professor, best known for his novel Grendel, a retelling of the Beowulf myth.

Gardner was born in Batavia, New York. His father was a lay preacher and dairy farmer, and his mother taught English at a local school. Both parents were fond of Shakespeare and often recited literature together. As a child, Gardner
“We need to stop excusing mediocre and downright pernicious art, stop 'taking it for what it’s worth' as we take our fast foods, our overpriced cars that are no good, the overpriced houses we spend all our lives fixing, our television programs, our schools thrown up like barricades in the way of young minds, our brainless fat religions, our poisonous air, our incredible cult of sports, and our ritual of fornicating with all pretty or even horse-faced strangers. We would not put up with a debauched king, but in a democracy all of us are kings, and we praise debauchery as pluralism. This book is of course no condemnation of pluralism; but it is true that art is in one sense fascistic: it claims, on good authority, that some things are healthy for individuals and society and some things are not.” 14 likes
“It was said in the old days that every year Thor made a circle around Middle-earth, beating back the enemies of order. Thor got older every year, and the circle occupied by gods and men grew smaller. The wisdom god, Woden, went out to the king of the trolls, got him in an armlock, and demanded to know of him how order might triumph over chaos.
"Give me your left eye," said the king of the trolls, "and I'll tell you."
Without hesitation, Woden gave up his left eye. "Now tell me."
The troll said, "The secret is, Watch with both eyes!”
More quotes…