801: On Moral Fiction by John Gardner

by Gerard


801: Gardner, John. On Moral Fiction. Open Road, 2013. Approx. 210 pp. E-book.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 800: Literature
  • 801: Philosophy and theory of literature

John Gardner has opinions and he isn’t afraid to use them. In On Moral Fiction, he launches an invective against mediocrity and immorality in literature. Unfortunately, one almost immediately faces opposition when you throw around the term morality with respects to the arts. Gardner contends that literature, and art in general, must have both substance and a moral grounding. Without these two pieces, then the creation of the artist is nothing but vapid superficiality.

Gardner goes so far as to actually call specific authors out on their shortcomings. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Joseph Heller, and Normal Mailer should have apparently enrolled in Mr. Gardner’s seminar on remedial writing. In these authors’ works, he finds that the author in question seems to start with a moral statement and forms the story around it rather than allow the story to come a moral epiphany. Gardner believes that writing with such a design (moral first, story later) will almost certainly lead to uninteresting and didactic writing.

But Gardner’s ire is not simply reserved for authors alone; he indicts fellow critics as well. He explains that the critic has three simple tasks: to determine whether the art is moral, to explain its shortcomings, and to extol its virtues. When critics review a piece with obvious moral flaws and fail to point them out, then they have done a disservice to both their field and the public; when morality is properly upheld and they fail to ensure that everyone sees it, then they do a disservice to the artist who has worked so hard to perfect his craft.

This book was a very interesting one. It will get you thinking more about your reading. While I’m not entirely on board with the “art has to be moral” message, it did help me to maybe get a handle on why certain literature appeals to me while other writing does not. Perhaps we subconsciously register whether a work has met our moral standards or not. Or perhaps the writing is just bad. All in all, Gardner’s message is pithy and vigorous, and if you’re a writer, you should give this book a once over if only to see just where you stand. A short but demanding book.