‘How do I become a good person?’ is a boring question, because we already know the answer (be kind; don’t make other people responsible for your suffering; don’t be responsible for other people’s suffering), and because we already know why we are not always good (there are various rewards, including money and attention, for ignoring the rules; sometimes people hurt too much to care about anything except their pain; our systems corrupt us). ‘Can art make me become a good person?’ is a more interesting question, because neither ‘Yes’ nor ‘No’ is an adequate answer; the only viable answer, really, is ‘It depends.’ Nevertheless, people will persist in saying simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.
In 1978 a book appeared that argued, ‘by reason and by banging the table’, that art had a duty to make us good. It was called On Moral Fiction. An American book, you will say at once; and you will of course be right. The author of On Moral Fiction was the novelist John Gardner, who is now chiefly remembered for two canonical books about the teaching of creative writing (On Becoming a Novelist  and The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers ), and perhaps for Grendel (1971), a short novel that retells the Beowulf story from the monster’s point of view.
In The Art of Fiction, Gardner argued that ‘fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind […] if the effect of the dream is to be powerful, the dream must probably be vivid and continuous […] One of the chief mistakes a writer can make is to allow or force the reader’s mind to be distracted, even momentarily, from the fictional dream.’ Gardner’s concept of fiction as a vivid and continuous dream is still orthodoxy in most university creative writing classes, even if no one, inside or outside the university, now has much interest in reading Gardner’s own fiction.
When On Moral Fiction appeared, Gardner’s career was flourishing. Two of his novels, The Sunlight Dialogues (1972) and October Light (1976), were New York Times bestsellers. His boozy, messianic public appearances stirred controversy. His personal life was chaotic. He was physically striking – a short man, potbellied, with long blonde hair, he smoked a pipe, and rode a motorcycle recklessly. (One interviewer described him as ‘a rumpled gnome’; another as ‘a pregnant Hell’s Angel’.) When he spoke, he delivered uninterruptable paragraphs in tones of sweet reason. His awestruck writing students – Raymond Carver among them – called him a guru, a preacher, a rebel. In other words, Gardner, in 1978, gave every appearance of having barged his way into a comfortable nook in postwar American literature. And then On Moral Fiction appeared.
We live, says On Moral Fiction, in ‘a world where nearly everything that passes for art is tinny and commercial and often, in addition, hollow and academic’. Against this, Gardner argues for the ‘traditional view’: that ‘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.’ This view strikes people nowadays, says Gardner, as ‘strange news’.
‘True art,’ he says, ‘is by its nature moral. We recognise true art by its careful, thoroughly honest search for and analysis of values […] moral art tests values and rouses trustworthy feelings about the better and the worse in human action.’
Moral art is opposed to ‘[t]hat art which tends toward destruction, the art of nihilists, cynics, and merdistes’, which ‘is not properly art at all. Art is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy.’ By merdistes, Gardner meant artists who used their art to say that everything was shit. According to On Moral Fiction, this included most of the American novelists who happened to be publishing at the same time as Gardner.
Alfred A Knopf, the firm that published Gardner’s novels, wouldn’t touch On Moral Fiction. It was brought out by Basic Books, which had no novelists on its list. Knopf’s qualms had to do with how Gardner’s polemic went about its business. In other words, Gardner named names.
‘Most art these days,’ Gardner asserted, ‘is either trivial or false.’ And: “[W]e are living, to all intents and purposes, in an age of mediocre art […] wherever we look it’s the same: commercial slickness, misplaced cleverness, posturing, wild floundering – dullness […]our serious fiction is not much good […] For years fiction has been generally unsatisfying[.]’
Chapter and verse: Giles Goat-Boy by John Barth is ‘all but unreadable – arch, extravagantly self-indulgent, clumsily allegorical, pedantic, tiresomely and pretentiously advance guard’. Saul Bellow is guilty of ‘stylistic fiddling’ – ‘his language, instead of sharpening effects, distracts the reader, calls attention to the writer and thus away from the story unfolding like a dream in the reader’s mind’. Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘moral energy is forever flagging, his fight forever turning slapstick’. John Updike ‘appeals, intentionally or not, to the two chief heartwarmers of the mindless in America, religion and sex’. Joan Didion’s novels ‘present fashionably pained characters who express fashionable opinions and black peeves’. Gaddis, Welty, Barthelme, Coover, Pynchon, Doctorow, Malamud, Heller … Gardner summarily executes them all, leaving only Joyce Carol Oates (‘for a few excellent short stories’) and ‘possibly Salinger’. Otherwise, ‘what I’ve typed above is a list of inflated reputations’.
From his cull, Gardner exempted also John Cheever, praising the ‘optimistic Christian vision’ of novels like Bullet Park (1969) and Falconer (1977).
Some of the writers Gardner attacked were, like Gardner, published by Knopf. Some of them, doorstepped by journalists, took the trouble to respond. Barth: ‘He’s making a shrill pitch to the literary right wing that wants to repudiate all of modernism and jump back into the arms of their 19th-century literary grandfathers […] He’s banging his betters over the head with terminology and, when the smoke clears, nobody is left in the room but Mr. Gardner himself.’ Updike: “‘Moral” is such a moot word. Surely, morality in fiction is accuracy and truth.’ Joseph Heller also weighed in: ‘He writes dull novels and dull carping criticism.’ Gardner was unmoved: ‘I am absolutely sure that my ideas will prevail.’
John Gardner was born in 1933 in Batavia, in upstate New York. His parents owned a farm. One day in 1945, John and his younger brother Gilbert were using the cultipacker – a piece of heavy equipment that flattens soil to create a firm seedbed. Gilbert was riding on the cultipacker. John was driving the tractor that pulled it. Gilbert was seven years old. John was twelve. The cultipacker weighed two tonnes; when Gilbert fell under it, John kept driving, ‘reacting as he would to a half-crushed farm animal’. Gilbert was killed.
In On Becoming a Novelist, Gardner wrote: ‘A psychological wound is helpful, if it can be kept in partial control, to keep the novelist driven. Some fatal childhood accident for which one feels responsible and can never fully forgive oneself; a sense that one never quite earned one’s parents’ love …’
‘A half-crushed farm animal’: the phrase comes from a short story that Gardner published in The Atlantic in 1977, which transparently fictionalises Gilbert’s death and its aftermath. ‘Their father was nearly destroyed by it,’ the story tells us. The children’s mother, ‘a woman of strong religious faith’, is ‘able to move step by step past disaster and in the end keep her family from wreck’. Jack, the Gardner character, ‘raged inside his mind’ for years after his brother’s death; again and again he sees his brother crushed by the cultipacker. Jack’s mother insists that he take music lessons. His instrument is the French horn, his instructor a cynical old Russian general. One day Jack hears the general play a brand-new horn: ‘it was as if, suddenly, a creature from some other universe had appeared, some realm where feelings became birds and dark sky, and spirit is more solid than stone’. Jack asks the general: ‘You think I’ll ever play like that?’ The general laughs. ‘Play like me?’ But he gives Jack his lesson as usual, and says, ‘Next Saturday?’ On the bus home, Jack weeps. He has seen a new world in which feelings might be transmuted into something better. He has hope. The story is called ‘Redemption’.
‘Redemption’ is supposed to show us that art can redeem the guilty, give solace to the bereaved, replace loss with beauty. But what it actually shows us is that art cannot do any of these things. To read the story is to confront the unredeemed horror of Gilbert’s death, and the agony of John’s lifelong sorrow about it; and to be moved to pity, not by the words on the page, but by the appalling need of the man who wrote them.
Gardner was myth-minded. By academic training a medievalist, he interested himself also in Homer, Gilgamesh, the Norse sagas. In 1973 he published a verse-novel about Jason and Medea, based on the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius. (It is not good.) On Moral Fiction begins with a parable about Thor’s hammer, ‘abandoned beside a fence post in high weeds’: the double-headed hammer of art and criticism, ‘the last sure hope of gods and men’. One myth that Gardner never mentions: Orpheus and Eurydice. Which tells us that art – Orpheus’s lyre – cannot bring the dead back to life.
But Gardner needed it to. In a 1979 interview with the New York Times Magazine, he said: ‘I agree with Tolstoy that the highest purpose of art is to make people good by choice.’ Highest, good, moral: the language is Christian. So is the thought. His first novel was called The Resurrection; it’s about an academic philosopher who learns that he has three months to live. (I cannot tell you how the story ends because, in a pattern that has defined my encounters with Gardner’s fiction, I have not been able to get past page 100.) The echo of Tolstoy in the title is deliberate. On Moral Fiction, too, echoes Tolstoy – though perhaps parrots would be the apposite verb.
In What is Art? (1898), Tolstoy complained that most nineteenth century art took the form of trivial diversions for elites: “having only a small circle of people in mind, it lost beauty of form; became fanciful and unclear [and] ceased to be sincere and became artificial and cerebral.’ Decadent artists like Oscar Wilde, Tolstoy said, ‘choose as the theme of their works the denial of morality and the praise of depravity’. (Great writers are not necessarily great readers.) In the late nineteenth century, art, according to Tolstoy, had lost ‘the infinitely diverse and profound religious content proper to it’. By religious, Tolstoy means Christian. Genuine art, he says, ‘must make it so that man’s peaceful life together […] should be achieved by the free and joyful activity of men. Art should eliminate violence.”
By 1898, of course, Tolstoy was deep in his radical Christianity phase: dressing like a peasant, renouncing his own novels, making Sonya’s life a misery. He now believed that the good had been revealed to us; that it was identical with God; that our task, and therefore the task of art, was to work together to serve the good. What is Art? rather spectacularly misses the point, not just of the art of Tolstoy’s own time, but of art tout court. Tolstoy wants all buildings to be churches, all paintings to be crucifixions, all novels to be the New Testament. But art is, forgive the pun, a broad church. Then again, I wonder if we can successfully generalise about ‘art’ at all. What is art? Many things. Art is plural – to say the least. (Every time I catch a glimpse of What is Art?’s spine on my bookshelf, I think of Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy in 30 Rock saying: ‘We know what art is. It’s paintings of horses.’)
It is easy to mock Tolstoy for saying, straight up, that art should eliminate violence – what a utopian hope! What nineteenth century innocence! We would never be so gauche!
Or would we?
Both On Moral Fiction and What is Art? are examples of what Pauline Kael once called ‘the literature of “What went wrong and how do we find our way back?’” (Chapter 5 of On Moral Fiction begins ‘What has gone wrong?’) Kael’s being the sort of question that you might ask if you come from a country that believes in destiny. It is difficult, for instance, to imagine an Irish novelist asking this question (we know what went wrong and we’d rather not find our way back, thanks). Like many another American, or indeed Russian, novelist, Gardner was a seeker – a hunter after meaning. The world, for such writers, is not given; it has to be made, and, if the job has been done badly, remade. From such a postulate, error often follows. The theosophy sections of Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift come to mind.
Tolstoy’s polemic, at least, is avowedly Christian. Gardner’s is crypto-Christian. As a young lecturer at Chico State University in California, ‘Gardner had a crewcut, dressed like a minister or an FBI man, and went to church on Sundays’ wearing ‘dark, severe-looking clothes’ – the description is Raymond Carver’s. In a long essay, ‘A Writer’s View of Contemporary American Fiction’, which rehearsed some of the arguments of On Moral Fiction, Gardner wrote: ‘The effect of the best art is to humanise by offering descriptions of just behaviour, positive models.’ ‘Humanise’, ‘just’, and ‘positive’: these words require definition. But the drift is clear. Gardner too wanted every novel to be the New Testament – supplying an exemplum of good behaviour. It’s significant that he praised Cheever for his ‘optimistic Christian vision’; to my mind, the emptiness of Cheever’s novels is closely related to their inability to take suffering seriously. The best Christian art, precisely, takes suffering seriously; as in the beauty of Giotto’s crucifixion in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua; as in Dante, whom Gardner idolised. In Cheever’s novels, we are always already redeemed, no matter how grave our crimes (and Farragut, the protagonist of Falconer, has murdered his brother). This was the fiction that Gardner needed.
Gardner’s arguments about individual writers in On Moral Fiction would have more force if his own fiction were better. Over the years my curiosity about him has led me to track down most of his novels and give them a go: The Resurrection (1966), October Light (1976), The Sunlight Dialogues (1972), Freddy’s Book (1980) and Mickelsson’s Ghosts (1982). Some of these novels are monsters: Mickelsson’s Ghosts, which is about an academic philosopher having a crisis and meeting some Mormons in the woods, bears down on you for 610 pages; The Sunlight Dialogues, which is about a nihilistic faux-hippie called the Sunlight Man and the small-town sheriff who arrests him for vandalism, is, in my 1973 Ballantine paperback edition, 746 pages of closely-printed text. I have never managed to get past page 100 of any of these books. They are – even the shorter ones – ludicrously, metastatically long, untreated tumours of the will. The feeling they give you is of being browbeaten, hectored, shouted at. The feeling they do not give you is of being immersed in a vivid, continuous dream, from which you awake only reluctantly.
Gardner had a sort of anti-knack for the simile. The first paragraph of The Sunlight Dialogues gives you ‘a house as black as dinosaur bones’. But dinosaur bones are the colour of – well, bones. Even fossilised, they are at best the colour of the rock in which they’ve been preserved. Three sentences in, and Gardner has already ruptured the flow of his fictive dream – given us an image that simply doesn’t work.
The books that Gardner said were ‘important’, that would last: John Fowles’s Daniel Martin; John Cheever’s Falconer; Joyce Carol Oates’s Bellefleur; Bernard Malamud’s Dubin’s Lives; William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice … There isn’t, at this distance, much point in refuting Gardner’s specific judgements. Simpler to say that Gardner mistook annoyance at his rivals’ work (a feeling known to all artists) for proof of his thesis about moral fiction.
The problem with On Moral Fiction is, ironically, that it operates in bad faith. What Gardner really wants to say is that fiction should be Christian. Performing in public as a good secular postwar intellectual, he cannot say this. Instead he disclaims any specifically religious brief for moral fiction, and tries, like many a secular intellectual before him, to build a Christian morality without Christ’s divinity to hold it up. (He insists that moral fiction ‘does not make hope contingent on acceptance of some religious theory’.) The name of Friedrich Nietzsche appears just once in On Moral Fiction; it is quickly dismissed. Perhaps Gardner knew that to invoke Nietzsche more directly would be to remind his readers of how devastatingly he saw through all attempts to have Christianity without Christ.
Gardner’s quarrel, like Tolstoy’s, was partly with overtly cynical or nihilistic art. But cynicism and nihilism are human postures; they are therefore entirely legitimate bases for the making of art (nothing human is alien to art). Christian faith too is an entirely legitimate basis for the making of art. As the stand-up comedians say, it’s all in the delivery.
In full polemical flight, Gardner could be electrifying. ‘For the most part our artists do not struggle – as artists have traditionally struggled – 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.’ Reading this with the etiolated nature of much twenty-first century literary fiction in mind, one is tempted to assent. But the flicker of lightning that shows us where we are is rare at all times, in all places. (Though not so rare as all that.)
On Moral Fiction contends that fiction should not advocate for social justice. ‘[M]ountains of unspeakable books, paintings, symphonies, and so on, have been dumped on long-suffering humanity in recent years because mediocre critics have wrongly claimed for them astute perceptions on the problems of, for instance, blacks and women.’ (When Gardner was on shaky ground, his prose went hard for op-ed boilerplate: long-suffering humanity, in recent years, wrongly claimed …) To agitate via fiction is, Gardner says, ‘humane and praiseworthy’, but ‘in the long run unfruitful’; the agit-prop writer ‘celebrates important but passing concerns, such as social justice for particular minorities (dated and thus trivial once the goal has been achieved)[.]’ A sanguine view. Minorities will eventually receive social justice, so there’s no point writing novels pleading on their behalf. Not for Gardner the artistic activity that used to be called ‘consciousnes-raising’.
Nowadays we would call this view crypto-reactionary, and if Gardner is out of fashion, it is partly because he has long since been dismissed as a spokesman for fiction’s arrière-garde. We have our own myths of progress. We too are sure that our ideas will prevail.
Nowadays, we like activist art. We tend to assert, loudly or softly, that politics is the final ground on which art can best be judged. The novelist Lucy Ives, writing recently in The Baffler on ‘the weak [i.e. experimental-subversive] novel’, articulated the consensus view when she said: ‘the weak novel is, at its core, a political art form, a mode of writing that continually reaffirms that the relationship between language and what exists remains eternally open to debate and revision’. You get this a lot these days. One of our unexamined axioms is that fiction opens up a space for possibilities, that it promotes empathy, that it stimulates the utopian imagination, and that these things constitute political activity. These ideas may be true or they may not. Certainly something like this set of ideas is how many writers currently justify their work. It is almost as if we believe that fiction should be moral; that it should make the world, and us, better. The difference between us and Gardner is that Gardner was talking about content, and we, in our sophistication, are talking about form.
In 2021, Ottessa Moshfegh caused a mild frisson when she responded, in Bookforum, to the question ‘What forms of art, activism, and literature can speak authentically today?’ by saying that art shouldn’t bother about activism. Art, she said, was about beauty. True formalism, this; also known as aestheticism. It is the best – though still an insufficient – answer to Gardner’s table-banging about morality. ‘There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.’ But books go out into the world, where they have unpredictable effects. And fiction – narrative art – is about people doing things, often with or to other people. It is therefore inescapably embroiled in questions of morality. You can’t outwit morality. But you can ironise about it. ‘No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved.’
Hannah Arendt, in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), notes that Adolf Eichmann was given Lolita to read as he awaited trial. Eichmann told his guard that he found it ‘quite an unwholesome book’. Gardner might have profited from meditating on the ironies that this anecdote encodes.
‘The etiolated nature of much twenty-first century literary fiction’: such an aside demands supporting argument. If I were, Gardner-like, to swing Thor’s hammer, what might I say? Oh, let’s not. Let’s just say that our literary novelists keep sending their protagonists into art galleries, where they wonder why they are unable to have ‘a profound experience of art’, or where base materiality intrudes (the narrator of Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation takes a shit on a gallery floor), or where they find themselves instantly distracted by social worries (has he texted??) – as if to say, why isn’t this working? As if the contemporary literary novel has a bad conscience about the whole idea of art as such. Where might this bad conscience have come from? (What went wrong, and how do we find our way back?)
Art enriches life, but it does so capriciously. You can’t depend on it to be moral, or beautiful, or – take your pick. You can’t depend on it to fight your corner. In Martin Amis’s The Rachel Papers (1973), the bratty, snobbish Charles Highway, who has ambitions to become a literary critic, applies to study English Literature at Oxford. He is interviewed by Professor Knowd (what does Professor Knowd know? He knows himself, for a start), who breaks down one of Highway’s ‘more pageant-like essays’, exposing his plagiarisms and inconsistencies. ‘I won’t go on,” Knowd says. ‘Literature has a kind of life of its own, you know. You can’t just use it … ruthlessly, for your own ends.’
Gardner wasn’t playing some banal careerist game. He was playing for higher stakes – the highest. Nobody gets away with this for long. (Nietzsche: ‘One is punished most for one’s virtues.’) His ends were not literary. He had more urgent needs. On Moral Fiction got him a lot of attention – the wrong kind, as it turned out. Step by step, in interviews, he climbed down from Mount Sinai; broke his tablets. He apologised to Bellow, Heller. But the damage was done. Mickelsson’s Ghosts, his last long novel, had middling reviews and middling sales. His marriage fell apart. He drank nonstop. All his life he had been physically reckless – courted death, it sometimes seemed, as if in penance for Gilbert’s accident. On September 14th, 1982, he crashed his motorcycle on a road near his house in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. The road was quiet. Gardner had been driving too fast. He died in hospital later that day. He was forty-nine years old.
A month previously, he had given a talk at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Middlebury College, Connecticut – the scene for him of past triumphs. He said this: ‘I’m not going to do a lecture about literature, because I’m not that interested in literature anymore. I’m not really interested in writing anymore. I’m sort of interested in politics now. I think that’s what all of us writers should be interested in now.’ According to his biographer, Barry Sileski, Gardner ‘went on to give a few examples of social injustice’, and concluded: ‘If you’re not writing politically, you’re not writing.’ Gardner was scheduled to speak for an hour. He lasted fifteen minutes. The poet Robert Pack, who attended the talk and who knew Gardner well, later said that Gardner ‘couldn’t develop an argument […] I remember it was a very distressing performance, and many of us were aware that there was something wrong, that we had seen a kind of breakdown there.’
A kind of breakdown. ‘If you’re not writing politically, you’re not writing.’ You could read this as an admission of defeat: Gardner’s crusade for moral fiction was over. The enemy had won. But if you look closely, you’ll see that all he had done was change his terms. He still thought fiction should improve us; should make the world a better place. By which he meant a place that was simple and good, in which things steadily improved, in which art persuaded us to do the right thing. It was the postulate he couldn’t do without. We no longer talk about morality in fiction, because we know, or think we know, how easily talk of morality slides into moralism, and because we know, or think we know, how often ‘morality’ serves as a fig leaf for power. What we talk about, instead, is politics, and form. But underneath the language, it’s the same old story. We want art to make us better. And we’re still waiting to see if it can.
Kevin Power’s The Written World: Essays and Reviews (The Lilliput Press) includes several pieces that first appeared in the Dublin Review of Books.