On Moral Fiction


On Moral Fiction, by John Gardner, New York: Basic Books, 1978, 214 pp., $8.95.

John Gardner's On Moral Fiction is a book that will warm the cockles of a number of hearts, but not many of even that happy number will make it through the first section of the book, entitled "Premises on Art and Morality." This is unfortunate, since the end of the first section and some parts of the second are well worth reading.

Gardner is at his best when addressing directly the fiction he knows best, that of the 20th century. To Vonnegut and Mailer he extends a sad and critical kindness. He deals with Barth and Bellow with insight, respect, and a kind of searching sadness. His quotations are from the best of their writing, when, without being unfair, he could easily have arranged for them to appear at a disadvantage. And if he is nasty to the rest of the current brood, his criticisms hit home with stinging accuracy. Gardner is no ranting reactionary, denouncing 20th-century literature as a whole because it is hard to read, is dark in its message, and leads its practitioners to take summary leave of life. His appreciation for the novels of Burroughs and the poetry of Ann Sexton is genuine and informed.

That is what is good about On Moral Fiction. What is bad about it is that it is an elaborate and inferior rewriting of Tolstoy's What Is Art? This is a debt that Gardner freely acknowledges. What surpasses understanding is his apparent belief that What Is Art? needs rewriting.

Tolstoy's work is a powerful and clear argument for the claim that art is genuine only when it expresses true feeling and good only to the extent that it expresses the highest religious perceptions of its age. Gardner obviously believes both of these claims, but he has not the faintest sense of how to connect or ground them. The argument he thinks he has rests on a shaky equation of the Good (a "relative absolute" that has to do with the ideal conditions of human existence), the True (which in art is "that which does not feel like lying") and the Beautiful ("the truth of feeling"). So defined, the notions may indeed coincide. The reader, faced with no argument and an overlong stream of rhetoric, is hard put to say whether they coincide or not—or even whether Gardner thinks they do.

Gardner generously attributes most of his views to other thinkers, and this is another point of negative comparison with Tolstoy. When Tolstoy quotes and analyzes philosophers, he is precise and nearly always accurate. When Gardner does so, he achieves, as might have been expected, "that which does not feel like lying." It would be easier to convict Gardner of outright inaccuracy if he were more precise. But suffice it to say that Aquinas never, to my knowledge, acknowledged it to be a defect of logic that it, "however rigorously applied, could support opposite conclusions."

Gardner is equally capricious in his dealings with older literature. Poseidon does not give way to Zeus because "the gods like men desire order"; he retreats because Iris warns him that Zeus, backed by the "justice" of the Furies, will smack him in half. The gods of the Iliad are a crew of disorder-dealing shrews and cranks whose ill-spirited meddling gives men an inadvertent chance to be heroes by making a mortal, if doomed, stand. And though Gardner is certainly welcome to his own personal and existentialized view of Dante as author, he is assuredly not welcome to reduce the principles of construction of The Divine Comedy to Dante's wondering to himself what he could say without shame or embarrassment in the presence of Beatrice. Tolstoy dignified a great deal of what is undeniably great art by damning it to hell; he never trivialized it.

On Moral Fiction is not a bad book. It is a work that is borrowed from one essentially finer. Readers who are interested in a theory of moral fiction ought instead to buy a copy of What Is Art? It's a better book, and it's much cheaper.