John Gardner -- part one: On Moral Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist
I’ve been reading Gardner and originally I was going to do a monster post on everything, but decided instead to break it up into two parts. For one thing, reading Gardner takes a while -- I really liked The Sunlight Dialogues, for instance, but it took a couple of weeks to get through it, and October Light looks to be the same.
But another reason is that Gardner is best known nowadays not for his novels, which are the most interesting things about him, but rather these two, to my mind rather silly, books. (Well, and Grendel, to those High School students unfortunate enough to be forced to read it. We’ll tackle that one next time.)
Gardener is known in the literary world mostly as a teacher, and these two along with another book, The Art of Fiction, are distillations, apparently, of what he taught. (I’m skipping over The Art of Fiction because I read it once in the past and it seems to me now to basically be On Becoming a Novelist with a bunch of exercises -- ie, duplicative in effort. ) On Moral Fiction apparently was so controversial when it came out that Gardner actually got invited onto the “Dick Cavett Show” to defend it, and that it (apparently at least Gardner thought so) adversely affected his career
It goes to show you how times have changed -- in 1978 this nervous, halting critique of the status quo obviously was some kind of bombshell. But now? It seems nervous and halting.
Gardner obviously means well. Who could disagree with this?
The traditional view 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. I do not deny that art, like criticism, may legitimately celebrate the trifiling. It may joke, or mock, or while away the time. But trivial art has no meaning or value except in the shadow of more serious art, the kind of art that beats back the monsters and, if you will, makes the world safe for triviality…. Art is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy
We meet that early in the first chapter of this and I agree. I particularly agree that the various avante garde fripperies only exist in the wake of serious, traditional art, and that art is, essentially, a serious sort of business. Gardner also deserves credit for saying these things right in the middle of the Seventies, when people still cared what John Barth thought, for instance.
But Gardner never goes beyond it. Did you read that quote? That is On Moral Fiction, sorry to spoil it for you. The rest of the book is hesitant critiques of Pynchon and Barth -- again, Gardner gets full props for launching these critiques before it was cool -- and a lot of backfilling to try to justify a semi-religious view of art without actually invoking God’s name. This involves long, labored readings of Sartre and mythology and philosophy to justify things that seem pretty obvious me -- Gardner’s critique essentially is a religious one, one that seeks to invoke the transcendent and values that which celebrates and partakes of it.
The fact that Gardner tries to do that without actually getting religious makes On Moral Fiction pretty silly, frankly. Artists are not generally good thinkers -- to the extent that they’re good artists, anyway, they tend to be incoherent thinkers. Such ideas that are here are better presented in The Sunlight Dialogues and October Light.
On Becoming a Novelist is probably better known, maybe because there’s an ever-present audience in this country for “how to make it as a writer” advice. That’s a subject worthy of an essay or three in and of itself, and I might just think through that one of these days. Add to that Gardner’s previous teaching post, and the status of his students (my edition has a preface from Raymond Carver, of all things), and we account for it’s current prominence.
It’s a pointless book. Writing is such an ineffable thing, the ways people achieve however they define “success” so varied, that I’m immediately skeptical of writing advice books -- either they’re not general enough (Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, which mainly suggests lifestyle issues that few people really seem to raise is a good book for this) or not specific enough (I still look for a book that really, in a nuts and bolts way, handles the intricacies in storytelling like Robert Graves’s esteemable The Reader Over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writer’s of English Prose handles the intricacies of clear style). Gardner simply relays his experiences, fair enough but I see no particular reason why I should consider them applicable to my life, or my problems. I’m not in a writing class, for example, don’t intend on going to one, and am bored by labored justifications of them. Chapter one is a very long chapter outlining Gardner’s ideas of what a writer needs, only to conclude that if you’re gonna do it, you’re gonna do it, no matter what anybody says.
Are you kidding me? Even if I’m supposed to take this as some kind of self-deprecating bit of humor, who’s gonna pay me for the time I wasted reading that chapter, trying to get something out of it?
Avoid this. Gardner’s importance to art lies in his art, not his ideas about art, which are as typically incoherent and confused as, well, artists’ tend to be. Read the best of him, not this tripe he did to pay the bills.