OLD BOOKS, Part IV: On Moral Fiction, by John Gardner

In this series on Old Books, I’m choosing books with these questions in mind:

What questions do they answer?

What problems do they correctly diagnose?

What wisdom do they provide that is lacking in today’s discourse?

What metaphysics do they propose or expose?

Every book I’m examining may not necessarily answer each of those questions, but they generally raise questions and propose arguments that I think we need to consider today. (At the risk of being cheeky, I’m considering an “old book” to be any one that was written before I was born —or around that time.) For the sake of orientation, I begin with a short introduction to the work, then list a number of important quotes from it, and conclude with my response to the work. 

When John Gardner published On Moral Fiction in 1977, he lit a fuse. The book threw the literary establishment into an uproar, generating a great deal of consternation and controversy. Superficial readers of the work said he was being too moralistic, though I believe they missed or misunderstood the depth and nuance of his ideas of what moral art is and isn’t. (Could it be that many writers, artists, and critics were enraged at feeling themselves to be suddenly and publicly disrobed?)

In his treatise, “Gardner drew upon Leo Tolstoy’s essay, What is Art, to advocate for fiction that “attempts to test human values, not for the purpose of preaching or peddling a particular ideology, but in a truly honest and open-minded effort to find out which best promotes human fulfillment” (https://blog.bookstellyouwhy.com/john-gardner-and-the-art-of-fiction).

Before we dive right in to hearing from Gardner himself, a word about why you should care (i.e., why you should keep reading this, and why you should read literature at all). 

Literature and art form us. As Karen Swallow Prior says, they are formative, as opposed to merely informative. Gardner argues that in art, “as well as in politics, well-meant, noble-sounding errors can devalue the world.” 

So what? Well, friends, art and literature work on us, change the way we see things—particularly ourselves and humanity—for good or ill. Walker Percy said, “Bad books always lie. They lie most of all about the human condition.” Is there a way to see—and therefore live—that benefits and enriches both ourselves and those around us? That is truer to the way things are? Oughtn’t we to consider carefully how we are changed, and what we are becoming?

At the end, I’ll list some resources for further reading, including voices both for and against Gardner’s “manifesto.” (But I hope you read the book itself alongside those critiques.) As C-span’s tagline says, make up your own mind!

Quotes from the Book

On what art should do:

“The traditional view [from ancient times and throughout Western civilization] 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.” 

“But my experience is that in university lecture halls, or in kitchens at midnight, after parties, the traditional view of art strikes most people as strange news.”

“Art rediscovers, generation by generation, what is necessary to humanness. Criticism restates and clarifies, reenforces the wall.” 

“[A]rt is essentially and primarily moral—that is, life-giving—moral in its process of creation and moral in what it says. If people all over Europe killed themselves after reading Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, then either Goethe’s book was false art or his readers misunderstood…. If art destroys good, mistaking it for evil, then that art is false, an error; it requires denunciation.” 

“Despite the aha’s of some modern philosophers, metaphysical systems do not, generally speaking, break down, shattered by later, keener insight; they are simply abandoned…like drafty old castles. [Which is to say] they are no longer understood or have fallen out of style…. The victorious positions of existentialists, absurdists, positivists, and the rest are not demonstrably more valid but only, for the moment, more hip.”

“Art, in sworn opposition to chaos, discovers by its process what it can say. That is art’s morality…. Hence the old but important commonplace: the meaning of a work of art is the work of art.”

“The true artist is one who…can distinguish between conventional morality and that morality which tends to work for all people throughout the ages.”

“[M]oral art tests values and rouses trustworthy feelings about the better and the worse in human action.”

“True art…clarifies life, establishes models of human action, casts nets toward the future, carefully judges our right and wrong directions, celebrates and mourns. It does not rant. It does not sneer or giggle in the face of death, it invents prayers and weapons. It designs visions worth trying to make fact. It does not whimper or cower or throw up its hands and bat its lashes. It does not make hope contingent on acceptance of some religious theory. It strikes like lightning, or islightning; whichever.” (bold emphasis mine)

“[A]rt is in one sense fascistic: it claims, on good authority, that some things are healthy for individuals and societies and some things are not.”

On what “moral art” does not mean:

“By ‘moral’ I do not mean some such timid evasion as ‘not too blatantly immoral’…”

“In the long run, of course, cornball morality leads to rebellion and the loss of faith.”

“I do not mean, either, that what the world needs is didactic art.”

“Didacticism inevitably simplifies morality and thus misses it.”

On the acknowledgement that this is a ‘tough sell’:

“Given our usual embarrassment in the presence of words like ‘morality,’ this may seem a foolish way to speak about art. I hope to make it seems less so…. Partly this involves explaining why sophisticate modern free society tends to be embarrassed by the whole idea of morality and by all its antique, Platonic- or scholastic-sounding manifestations—Beauty, Goodness, Truth; in other words, it involves explaining how false philosophers, and sometimes misunderstandings of true philosophers, have beclouded educated but sequacious minds, obscuring truths once widely acknowledged; and partly it involves sketching out a way of thinking that might supplant the Laodicean habits into which Americans have in recent times fallen.”

“[T]he only thing wrong with morality, it seems to me, is that it’s frequently been used as a means of oppression, a cover, in some quarters, for political tyranny, self-righteous brutality, hypocrisy, and failed imagination…. Let us say for the moment that morality means nothing more than doing what is unselfish, helpful, kind, and noble-hearted, and doing it with at least a reasonable expectation that in the long run as well as the short we won’t be sorry for what we’ve done, whether or not it was against some petty human law. Moral action is action which affirms life. In this wide sense there is no inherent contradiction between looking with sympathetic curiosity at the unique and looking for general rules that promote human happiness.”

“[We have to examine the] secret morality of our time and culture—the invisible and largely unnoticed phantom morality which seems to be subtly, perhaps inexorably driving us toward the cliff.”

“[W]e begin to praise writers themselves for their oddity, not for their wisdom, universality, or even art.”


An extended illustration: “We praise Beckett partly because his extraordinary despair is brilliantly dramatized and therefore ‘communicates,’ even though, at all his darkest jokes, the audience does not in secret cry out with tragic recognition, ‘Alas, that’s true!’ but only laughs with the recollection, ‘I remember one time when I felt as miserable as that.’ In Beckett the worst the universe can do becomes normative, and our worst impulses are made comically standard, while our best are shown to be ambiguous if not absurd. We laugh with decadent delight at the proofs, partly because Beckett is an authentic genius whose compassion and comic sense sharply undercut the nihilism, but we continue about our daily business—feeding our children, counting out honest change—as if they were false.”

Examples of the “secret morality of our times”:

On Freud: “Except for the early books and the general thesis on human imperfectability, most of Freud’s thought has proved inadequate, yet we’re all, to some extent, Freudians.” 

On Sartre: “And though Sartre’s mistakes (as well as his right answers) are now fairly clear, almost no one dares return to the serious discussion of rational morality his outburst interrupted.”

Gardner argues that to assent to the idea of moral art doesn’t necessarily have to be based on a religious metaphysic (e.g., Dante and Tolstoy); he tells us to consider the Romantics, for whom “The absolute Good becomes not a bearded figure on a heavenly throne but an impression of what might be, an ardent wish…. We belong today to the same church, though the liturgy has changed…. God still exists, in other words [or something like what he represents], but we’ve swallowed him.”

Other examples

“[Stanley Elkin] has proclaimed repeatedly that art is only art; but his fiction is forever urgently leading us—bullying us, and his characters—toward what seems to Stanley Elkin the right way to live.”

“One could name others, secret propagandists both good and bad, profound and ridiculous, for women’s liberation, honesty in politics, sexual promiscuity—what have you. Few critics praise or attack what these propagandists say. A writer’s truths, we tell ourselves, are matters of opinion.

But we are mistaken…. [T]he moral position is still popular with writers, however loudly they claim it’s not so: art instructs.”

On blind spots (or what has gone wrong):

“[I]n our pursuit of the greater truth [than sanitized works before] we have fallen to the persuasion that the cruelest, ugliest thing we can say is likely to be the truest. Real art has never been fooled by such nonsense: real art has internal checks against it.

If we can’t fully accept the religious version of the theory because we’re uncomfortable with the idea of God; and we can’t fully accept the secular version because we’re not convinced one man’s intuition of truth can be proved over another’s: “We are aware that our devotion to individual freedom, our anxiously optimistic praise of pluralistic society, since other societies are always unjust—hence our carefully nurtured willingness to sit still for almost anything—may tend toward the suicidal; but when we ask whom we should trust, we find ourselves, predictably, in the position Yeats described: ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are filled with passionate intensity.’ In the name of democracy, justice, and compassion, we abandon our right to believe, to debate, and to hunt down truth.” (emphasis mine)

“[A]rt’s incomparable ability…to make us understand…ought to be a force bringing people together, breaking down barriers of prejudice and ignorance, and holding up ideals worth pursuing…. [But] what we generally get in our books and films is bad instruction: escapist models or else moral evasiveness, or worse, cynical attacks on traditional values such as honesty, love of country, marital fidelity, work, and moral courage. This is not to imply that such values are absolutes, too holy to attack. But it is dangerous to raise a generation that smiles at such values, or has never heard of them, or dismisses them with indignation, as if they were not relative goods but absolute evils.” (emphasis mine)

Gardner asserts that we value “sincerity” more than “honesty”—“the one based on the moment’s emotion, the other based on careful thought…” 

He says that we’ve assumed that because all of us are flawed, “then no models of goodness, for life or art, exist; moral art is a lie.”“

We are rich in schools which speak of how art ‘works’ and avoid the whole subject of what work it ought to do.

“For the most part our [contemporary] artists do not struggle…toward a vision of how things ought to be or what has gone wrong; they do not provide us with the flicker of lightning that shows us where we are. Either they pointlessly waste our time, saying and doing nothing, or they celebrate ugliness and futility, scoffing at good.”

“Though it’s disguised by criticism concerned with the nonessential, the truth is that, in general at least, our serious fiction is not much good. The same is true [in new music and theater]. Texture is king in all the arts.” (emphasis mine)

“[In America we] do trivia so extraordinarily well….[Our] cinematography is so far ahead of our cinema.”

“[Plays are] brilliantly staged and performed but not carefully thought out”—that collapse under scrutiny “in philosophical and moral confusion”

On artists’ lack of love as a key issue:

“Great art celebrates life’s potential, offering a vision unmistakably and unsentimentally rooted in love.”

Gardner admits that love is another embarrassing word: “Misused as it may be by pornographers and the makers of greeting-cards, it has, nonetheless, a firm, hard-headed sense that names the single quality without which true art cannot exist.” (He lists as good examples John Irving, Toni Morrison, Italo Cavino, and Thomas Mann.)

“Without love we get the ice-cold intellectual style of most academics or the worst fiction in The New Yorker.” 

“The artist who has no strong feeling about his characters—the artist who can feel passionate only about his words and ideas—has no urgent reason to think hard about the characters’ problems, the ‘themes’ in his fiction. He imitates human gesture in the movements of his puppets, but he does not worry as a father worries about the behavior of his son; and the result is a fictional universe one would not want one’s loved ones forced to inhabit.”

“[Novelists without love for their characters don’t care] enough about [their] characters to use them as anything but examples in a forced proof.”

On what art is for (its telos):

“[A]ll true works of art…can exert their civilizing influence century after century, long after the cultures that produced them have decayed.”

“It is a fact of life that noble ideas, noble examples of human behavior, can drop out of fashion though they remain as real and applicable as ever—can simply come to be forgotten, plowed under by ‘progress.’”

“[I]n what I am describing as true moral fiction, the ‘art’ is not merely ornamental: it controls the argument and gives it its rigor, forces the writer to intense yet dispassionate and unprejudiced watchfulness, drives him—in ways abstract logic cannot match—to unexpected discoveries and, frequently, a change of mind.”

Real art creates myths a society can live instead of die by, and clearly our society is in need of such myths.”

“[T]rue art treats ideals, affirming and clarifying the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Ideals are art’s ends; the rest is methodology.” (emphasis mine)

“Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are thus, in varying degrees, the fundamental concerns of art and therefore ought to be the fundamental concerns of criticism.”

“Critical standards built on the premise that art is primarily a technique rather than correctness of vision—built on the premise that every artist has his own private notion of reality and that all notions are equal—cannot deal with important but clumsy artists (Dostoevski (sic), Poe, Lawrence, Dreiser, Faulkner) except by emphasizing what is minor in their work; and they cannot deal with limited men who are masters of technique (Pound, Roethke) except by bloating their reputations and hurrying them down the road to eventual oblivion.” (emphasis mine)

“Art, in short, asserts an ultimate rightness of things which it does not pretend to understand in the philosopher’s way but which it nevertheless can understand and show mankind. There are degrees of this showing.”

My Response

Few people today seem to be asking What is art? or What is it for? It strikes me that these neglected questions deserve serious consideration from artists, writers, teachers, students, and critics.

How can we evaluate anything unless we know what it is trying to be and what its purpose is? Is it passé or taboo to ask? Gardner thought so, but plowed ahead anyway. 

I believe he correctly diagnoses several things:

  1. The failure of our imagination and moral courage to deal with “the inexorable conflict at the heart of all free society, between the impulse toward social order and the impulse toward personal liberty.”
  2. The subversion of art to propaganda. On the left, everything must overtly deal with power structures, gender/sexuality issues, race, etc. On the religious right, “moral” art is didactic, formulaic, and lacking in realism—being true to the way human nature and the world actually are.
  3. “Texture is king” while content (i.e., ideas) are flat, confused, or absent. Even when I watch movies or shows that are highly acclaimed, I frequently notice light, clichéd language and dialogue. When weightier topics or existential questions come up, I feel a strong suspicion that there are places we fear to tread or that we lack the imaginative, moral capacity to handle. So, we settle for ultimately empty—but technically brilliant—works.
  4. We are morally paralyzed and self-censored because “we are unable to distinguish between true morality—life-affirming, just, and compassionate behavior—and statistics (the all but hopeless situation of most of humanity) or, worse, trivial moral fashion, [so] we begin to doubt morality itself…. Confusion and doubt become the primary civilized emotions.” Gardner writes that “even writers who profess a concern about truth do not often take the trouble to search out real understanding or dramatically earn their assertions.” (Note to self—in my own writing, am I earning my assertions?)
  5. We often know what is wrong in our culture—we writers and artists are good at holding a mirror up to it or documenting it as historians, but we often have “no clear image of, or interest in, how things ought to be.” Do we care enough to “search out an answer to the real question: What are we to do?”

This book was a heavy read, and I’m still chewing on all this. As a writer, I think it’s necessary to wrestle with Gardner’s ideas. I’m open to debating his arguments, but I do think they must be taken seriously. 

During most of my academic years studying literature in high school and college, I had a nagging sense that the most important questions and ways of approaching literature were going unmentioned, unasked—but I didn’t have the words to explain this absence. I was well into adulthood before my reading led me to the neglected questions What is it all for? What should it be? How does it do that? Is it true to the way things are? Diving into the deeps with these questions launched me into a creative and intellectual “Renaissance,” proving fruitful for my writing, reading, and thinking, and gifting me with a stronger understanding of my poetic vocation.

Gardner doesn’t propose any defined metaphysical framework to undergird his reasoning, but he does declare that “[e]ither 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,” he goes on, “and if those real values help sustain human life, then literature ought sometimes to mention them.”

Is that controversial? Should it be?

For further reading:

Reviews of On Moral Fiction:

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/08/moral-fiction/304128/ *(I disagree with many of her points; questions she asks rhetorically actually demand real answers, or at least the struggle to take them seriously; she seems to say that because we like or are affected by what Gardner would call “immoral” works, they are true art—disagree)


But for different treatment of Grendel, see: https://literariness.org/2018/06/03/analysis-of-john-gardners-novels/)

Most helpful unpacking and debate about what Gardner means: Gardner in defense of his thesis, and in opposition to William H. Gass*: https://medium.com/the-william-h-gass-interviews/william-h-gass-interviewed-by-thomas-leclair-with-john-gardner-1979-e6de4d424107

* In this debate with Gardner, Gass cheerfully and honestly admits he doesn’t know what he believes, what he really thinks, what he believes is really true, so he is content to enjoy ornamentation and experimentation (what Gardner calls “texture”).

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