On Moral Fiction

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Category: Classic
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Date Published: October 1, 1979
Number of Pages: 234
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“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 awhile, the twilight of the gods and us. I do not deny that art, like criticism, may legitimately celebrate the trifling. It may joke, or mock, or while away the time. But trivial art has no meaning or value except in the shadow of more serious art, the kind of art that beats back the monsters and, if you will, makes the world safe for triviality” (5).

The basic arguments set forth in John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction seek to prove the point of the quote above. In essence, the entire book is an excoriation of, at the time of its publication, contemporary fiction or, rather, post-modernist fiction. Gardner’s primary focus is to proclaim the necessity of morality, or truth, within fiction. Not necessarily in a religious sense (though religion tends to place higher importance upon its moral standards in all aspects of life), but in the functions of what a story intends, or should intend, to achieve. Gardner clarifies his definition of morality by stating, “Moral action is action which affirms life” (21). His definition of what morality in fiction should strive for is in direct conflict with the post-modernist view on fiction. By ‘post-modern,’ Gardner is focusing more on the act of writing rather than the writing itself. Gardner argues that post-modernism “accidentally raises the issue of art’s morality and takes the wrong side” and, unwittingly, causes critics to “judge cynical and nihilist writers as characteristic of the age…and thus supports, even celebrates ideals no father would wittingly teach his children” (51). 

It is the post-modernists focus on the physical act of writing rather than the moral purpose that seems to rub Gardner the wrong way. He frequently accuses William Gass and others of “intellectualizing” art to a point where truth and morality are negated by the academic, experimental nature of the post-modern writer, thus the prevalence of metafiction or fiction designed to comment on the act of writing or reading fiction. For Gardner, these attempts at aesthetic experimentation are empty of any expatiation on morality or truth in the traditional sense of the terms.

Besides the post-modern writer, Gardner places as much blame on literary criticism. He feels it is the critics duty to find the “Truth, Good, and Beauty” in art and, at the time of On Moral Fiction’s publication, criticism failed to evaluate art such as music, painting, and drama under this specific type of lens. In Gardner’s exhaustive and snippy style, he devotes pages to this perceived injustice from both writer and reader. In summation, Gardner believes, “the true artist’s purpose, and the purpose of the true critic after him, is to show what is healthy, in other words sane, in human seeing, thinking, and feeling, and to point out what is not” (166). For Gardner, post-modernism, both critic and writer, has lost the plot when it comes to morality. His axiom he preaches is, “Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are…in varying degrees, the fundamental concerns of art and therefore ought to be the fundamental concerns of criticism” (133).

Though Gardner’s views on morality are neither secular nor religious, the importance of ethics and grace are, needless to say, the fundamentals of fiction. If we look at Flannery O’Connor or Ron Hansen, we can see the crux of Gardner’s thesis from On Moral Fiction displayed in novels like Atticus or Wise Blood. Even Cormac McCarthy’s brutal novel The Road exhorts us to “carry the fire” within us in the face of anarchy and degeneration. Despite his didacticism, biting critiques, and pretentious style, John Gardner’s criticism is relevant for all writers today. The bare essentials of “Truth, Goodness, and Beauty” required of fiction, even bad fiction, provide a means for which we are to live and, as critics, writers, and readers, we should adhere to Gardner’s doctrine. Even if he does annoy us sometimes.

Publisher:
ISBN-13: 978-0465052264
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 5 x 0.5 x 8 inches


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N.T. McQueen is the author of the novel, Between Lions and Lambs, The Disciple, and the children's book, Moses Jones and the Case of the Missing Sneaker. He received his MA in Creative Writing from CSU-Sacramento under the direction of Douglas Rice. He has won two Bazzanella Literary Awards and his work has appeared in issues of The Kentucky Review, Gold Man Review, Camas: Nature of the West, West Trade Review, and others. He lives in Northern California with his wife and three children.


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