Greg's Reviews > On Moral Fiction

On Moral Fiction by John Gardner
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's review
Sep 03, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: professional-development, personal-development, reference, thought-provoking
Recommended 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) follow.

There is much in this world that is ugly and damaging to the spirit, but also much in the arts that helps to keep that darkness at bay. Much of music uplifts and the best of it can almost transport us to the heavenly realm. Literature has that power as well…the best of literature transforms us, makes us better, empathetic to the human condition, and inspired to act to make the world a better place. Early on, Gardner makes his case for the power of art to ennoble. “The traditional view is that true art is moral; it seeks to improve life, not debase it. It seeks to hold off, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us…trivial art has no meaning or value except in the shadow of more serious art, the kind of art that beats back the monsters…that art which tends toward destruction, the art of nihilists, cynics, and merdistes, is not properly art at all.”

Nonetheless, there must be a correctness to the arts, and we may go astray from the artful purpose if we are not careful. For those who write, this is partly accomplished in wordsmithing, which is necessarily the tool of that trade. “In art, as in politics, well-meant, noble-sounding errors can devalue the world.”

The act of creating literature, and the use of the tools (words and sentences and plot and etc.) by which we do so is important because real “art builds; it never stands pat; it destroys only evil. If art destroys good, mistaking it for evil, then that art is false, an error; it requires denunciation.” Pulitzer-prize winning historian Barbara W. Tuchman has made this point with regard to the leaders of countries and peoples: “When it comes to leaders we have, if anything, a superabundance—hundreds of Pied Pipers…ready and anxious to lead the population. They are scurrying around, collecting consensus, gathering as wide an acceptance as possible. But what they are not doing, very notably, is standing still and saying, ' This is what I believe. This I will do and that I will not do. This is my code of behavior and that is outside it. This is excellent and that is trash.' There is an abdication of moral leadership in the sense of a general unwillingness to state standards….Of all the ills that our poor…society is heir to, the focal one, it seems to me, from which so much of our uneasiness and confusion derive, is the absence of standards. We are too unsure of ourselves to assert them, to stick by them, if necessary in the case of persons who occupy positions of authority, to impose them. We seem to be afflicted by a widespread and eroding reluctance to take any stand on any values, moral, behavioral or esthetic." Art also must stand for the best of the world, not for that which is least, the lowest common denominator.

Stephen R. Covey has referred to enduring principles as “true north” principles, those that are so fundamental that they exist as bedrock, and remain no matter what else changes, through time and cultural evolution and any other movement. I believe Gardner refers to the same when he says “Either there are real and inherent values, “eternal verities,” as Faulkner said, which are prior to our individual existence, or there are not, and we’re free to make them up…If there are real values, and if those real values help sustain human life, then literature ought sometimes to mention them.”

We need heroes. We learn from them, emulate them, and they embody and symbolize that which is most noble and worthy of preservation. Artists of all sorts are the chroniclers of heroism. “…the business of the poet…is to celebrate the work of the hero, pass the image on, keep the heroic model of behavior fresh, generation on generation.” Yet when art celebrates that which is immoral, or that which is not eternal truth, then it promotes and preserves and encourages that which in time will destroy all that is good in us. “The gods set ideals, heroes enact them, and artists or artist-historians preserve the image as a guide for man…”

This idea of art as a promoter and preserver of truth is central to what we must understand about art to know what to celebrate and what not. “The true critic knows that badness in art has to do not with the artist’s interest or lack of interest in “truth” but with his lack of truthfulness, the degree to which, for him, working at art is a morally indifferent act.” And the artist him- or herself is probably not the best judge of the truth of his or her work. “Never judge the age of a horse by the smile of the farmer.” We must make our own decisions about the truth (or lack thereof) to be found in art, and those decisions must be grounded in eternal verities.

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Reading Progress

September 3, 2010 – Started Reading
September 3, 2010 – Shelved
September 3, 2010 – Shelved as: reference
September 3, 2010 – Shelved as: professional-development
September 3, 2010 – Shelved as: personal-development
September 3, 2010 –
page 36
December 22, 2010 – Finished Reading
December 24, 2010 – Shelved as: thought-provoking

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