Shane's Reviews > On Moral Fiction

On Moral Fiction by John Gardner
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review

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 of fleshy meat: ravenously tossing it this way and that in no coherent order, unearthing morsels of value in the struggle and then leaving it a shapeless mass in the end.

I tried to come up with some distinct topics within his rambling treatment of this book, and thought I would lay them out in an order that made sense to me:

Art: Gardner claims that art builds, instructs, never stands pat, tells the truth, and destroys only evil. He quotes Tolstoy: “art expresses the highest feelings of man.” He claims why so much art in the world is bad today is because the artist is not well-educated, wise or careful, cannot find beauty in the world, and is thus expressing his disappointment, pain and anger. Trivial artists reflect society’s trivialities. The intermediate artist reflects his time but hints to something greater. The great artist breaks through his reality, makes a new one, a better one, and makes it stick. Gardner gives the great artist permission to drink and womanize in reaction to bad artists. Sanctimonious?

Morality: True art is moral. Morality is doing what is unselfish, helpful, kind and noble hearted, and doing it with an expectation that we won’t be sorry for what we have done. He then goes onto separate moral writers from those who have failed his test. Tolstoy, Hemingway, Faulkner, Henry James and Malamud make his cut while Mailer, Doctorow, Coover, de Maupassant, Barthelme, Updike, Vonnegut (trash culture elevated to art, per Gardner), Heller and Bellow don’t. He explains the debilitating guilt that the failed ones suffer from is caused by (a) the determinism of Freud, (b) the pessimism of Sartre, and (c) the logical and linguistic cautiousness of Wittgenstein. Love is the missing ingredient here; the moral writer needs to share affirmations of love with his reader through his characters.

Modernism vs. Post-Modernism: Being a writer and academic during the period when these two forms intersected and overlapped, Gardner sides with modernism over post-modernism. He claims that the post-modernists seem to favour language over plot, texture over structure. He levels the same charge against other art forms, i.e. drama and music of the period. I found this a bit hypocritical given Gardner’s rambling arguments delivered through complex sentences, digressions and sub clauses that go on forever. He too seems to be in the trap of the post-modernists, indulging in their Linguistic Sculpturing, as he calls it.

Fiction: This subject permeates the entire book and gets his most attention. He considers “serious fiction,” i.e. that which the writer starts off knowing what he wants to say and will not be changed in the writing of it, to be propaganda. He prefers the artist to work out of his imagination and have the work change, and change the writer upon completion, allowing him to alter course as he receives new epiphanies. Literary art is not mere language, but language plus the writer’s experience and imagination and the whole literary tradition he knows.

The Critic: “The words of a confident critic can lock up museums, keeps books from publications, and enhance the sale of things unworthy.” He claims that criticism is easier to read as it doesn’t engage as many faculties of the mind. And yet it is incumbent upon a critic to highlight the noble aspects of a work as well as to point out what has gone wrong in that work—(I hope I am doing that here!) Most critics would agree, at least privately, that an “important work of art” needs to be (a) aesthetically interesting, (b) technically accomplished, and (c) intellectually massive.

The Artist: He is kind and makes allowance for the creative artist, claiming that creativity has to do with an obsession, a wound. It is the pain of the wound that spurs the artist to do his work, and it is the universality of the woundedness in the human condition that makes the work significant. Displacement and the moving of homes, be it across countries or across the city, is common among artists and a pre-condition for success. Displacement leads to “a healthy doubleness of vision, to disorientation and emotional insecurity, the anxiety and ambivalence of the neurotic.” This argument than leads onto a discussion on “the artist and madness,” and Gardner quotes psychotherapist Jay Haley who says, “the artist is too complicated to choose a convenient madness.” The true separation between art and madness seems to be that the artist can wake up and psychotic cannot.

Overall, this is a difficult book to get through. Gardner seems comfortable in his world of moral art with nary a thought for his reader who has to drag himself along for the ride, navigating a maze of convoluted ideas and arguments, arriving exhausted and somewhat enlightened at the end.
5 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read On Moral Fiction.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

Started Reading
December 31, 2018 – Shelved
December 31, 2018 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by SoManyBooks (new)

SoManyBooks SoLittleTime (Aven Shore) Three stars though??

Shane SoManyBooks wrote: "Three stars though??"

It took me a lot of time to parse out the points he was trying to make with his circulatory and repetitive narrative style. Writers should aim for clarity in non fiction, the ideas should stand out and the writing should be invisible. In Gardner's case it was in reverse. Pretentious, I thought. Definitely, not more than 3 stars.

back to top