On Moral Fiction

Mike Parish

John Gardner is a legend. He is touted as perhaps the best writer who has ever written about fiction, and the three main books in which he does this are The Art of Fiction, On Becoming a Novelist and On Moral Fiction.

On the back cover of On Moral Fiction, in the spot where a general category for the book is written so that workers in a bookstore or librarians in a library have some idea where to shelf it, the words, “LITERARY CRITICISM,” appear. Do not let the words turn you off: this book is literary criticism about literary criticism.

(If you’ve ever taken a survey course of literary criticism, you know it is like sifting through mountains of garbage in search of something that you’re not sure you’re even looking for. Literary criticism is overly complex and uses unnecessary language, as if trying to be written as a 200-page manual on something very simple like making a peanut butter sandwich.)

From what I have read thus far, Gardner would probably be on the side of the fence with those who don’t take criticism as seriously as those who mistake it for the word of God.

On Moral Fiction is broken up into two parts, “Premises on Art and Morality” and “Principles of Art and Criticism.” I found the first part to read like an interesting conversation.

Though it has taken a long time to be ready for this book (I ordered the book on Amazon in 2006 and the words in the spot where a general category for the book was written turned me off) I am really enjoying it. I recommend it for anyone wanting to get deeper into reading (and especially writing) fiction.

I’d say this book has more to say than teach. The Art of Fiction or On Becoming a Novelist has more to teach if one is looking for a book about the mechanics of writing.

There are some great passages regarding what Gardner believes to be great fiction and great art and what criticism does to both.

From the chapter entitled, “Moral Criticism”:

“It is precisely because art affirms values that it is important. The trouble with our present criticism is that criticism is, for the most part, not important. It treats the only true magic in the world as though it were done with wires.”

Throughout, Gardner makes reference to contemporary artists of his time, such as John Cage and Cage’s chance compositions, and by weaving these artists into his discussion of fiction, I get the impression that Gardner was a well-rounded individual, interested and knowledgeable not only about writing, but about the arts in general.

Some interesting questions which arose out of my thoughts while reading this book: Whatever happened to simply reading a novel because it was enjoyable to read? Shouldn’t reading novels, above anything else, be pleasurable? In my favorite fiction, what makes it pleasurable to me?

From the end of Part I:

“True art, by specific technical means now commonly forgotten, 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 is lightning; whichever.”

It is clear to me from reading this book that John Gardner has strong opinions about fiction. If you like reading books about fiction in which the writer writes in a compelling, understandable, and knowledgeable style, in which metaphors are utilized and there’s an unmistakable passion for the content and the writing, you will enjoy this book.

A paragraph that really struck me early on in Part II:

“The writing of a fiction is not a mode of thought when a good character and a bad one are pitted against each other. There is nothing inherently wrong with such fiction. It may be funny, or biting, or thrillingly melodramatic; it may be unspeakably witty, or grave, or mysterious, or something else; but it can contain only cleverness and preachments, not the struggle of thought. When fiction becomes thought – a kind of thought less restricted than logic or mere common sense (but also impossible to verify) – the writer makes discoveries which, in the act of discovering them in his fiction, he communicates to the reader.”

I feel like this book has conceptualized subconscious thoughts about fiction that I was unable to put into words before reading it. Thinking about it now, I still can’t, but it has certainly illuminated something.

For further reading, check out Gardner’s 1979 interview in the Paris Review.

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