In On Moral Fiction, a classic volume of aesthetic theory written in defense of true art, John Gardner argues that art in its highest form imposes order on a chaotic universe by rendering it in terms that the human mind can comprehend. He asserts that human life and thought stand in opposition to chaos. “Art,” he maintains, “rediscovers, generation by generation, what is necessary to humanness.”
Gardner’s book, published in the early 1980s, is a response to a kind of writing that he regards as trivial and the critics who defend and promote it. His specific quarrel is with fiction that fails to do what he believes art is supposed to do, which is to help us discover what it means to be human. In recent years he had been disturbed to witness the ascendance of fiction that gazes inward rather than looks outward, that is concerned only with itself, that treats the artistic struggle as the be-all and end-all and relegates the rest of humankind (ie, the non-artists) to the scrap heap. The kind of fiction he is attacking deals in puzzles and plays games. It uses empty intellectualism, wordplay and trickery to hoodwink the reader into thinking they’re reading something momentous. This kind of fiction, he believes, is mean rather than generous and stands staunchly and defiantly, but without really caring (because it doesn’t care about anything but itself), against what art is meant to do.
Gardner takes his argument further. Art’s morality, he says, is founded in the fact that true art has nothing to prove: no agenda, no ax to grind, no doctrinal motivation. Art emerges, innocently enough, from a genuine impulse to explore: to see where ideas will lead, not to lead those ideas in a pre-determined direction. “Art is as original and important as it is precisely because it does not start out with clear knowledge of what it means to say.” And finally, he makes the point that art is life-affirming. It adds to our collective self-awareness. It strives to open doors rather than close them. It stimulates our curiosity. It gets us thinking and challenges us to agree or disagree. It questions without necessarily providing answers. It does not repel us; rather, it draws us to it. Art illuminates and enriches our experience of being alive. "True art," he claims, "is by its nature moral. We recognize true art by its careful, thoroughly honest search for and analysis of values."
I admit that I don’t normally obsess over questions about what fiction is and does. Where aesthetic theory is concerned, I’m an amateur. But as I set out to write yet another book (one that may, or may not, ever be completed or see the light of day), I find it encouraging to be reminded that there are people out there, like John Gardner, who feel and write passionately about precisely these matters, and who have thought long and hard about the fiction writer’s role in society.
It is especially heartening when a writer of Gardner’s stature admits (in print no less) that the experience of writing a novel does not begin with absolute clarity. The novelist discovers the novel he or she wants to write during the act of writing it. Novelists are magpies when it comes to ideas. Something grabs our attention (an image, a news item, an overheard conversation) and we stash it away for future reference. Maybe we’ll make use of it, maybe not, because novelists discard ideas as blithely and casually as they acquire them. Sifting through an accumulation of ideas when she embarks on a new project, the novelist discovers which have floated to the top, which have grown in urgency, which have become the most compelling. With luck, one or two of those ideas will spawn characters and dramatic situations and begin to generate a story: without necessarily trying to, at odd times during the day or night, the novelist will see her character going about his business, doing mundane things like feeding the cat, or surprising things like spying on his neighbours, and, again with luck, these incidents will not only give the character dimension and complexity, they will suggest further actions and events, and possibly additional characters and dramatic situations. If things are going well, the novelist will make fresh and startling connections. Characters, events, situations that at the outset stood discretely apart from one another in the writer’s mind will suddenly and inexplicably become linked, creating a pattern or design that the writer never anticipated but which, now that it’s there, seems inevitable. At this point the story has taken on a life of its own. The necessary elements are present; it’s the writer’s job to assemble them.
In this way, with a solid idea as its foundation, a novel is built, brick by brick, from the ground up.
This makes it sound like writing a novel depends on luck more than anything else. Undoubtedly luck plays a part. But when it comes to creative writing, there is no substitute for hard work. The successful writer makes his own luck. Each and every day the successful writer learns, once again, how to write, by taking up the pen or sitting at the computer and getting the words down. Reading manuals on the craft of writing will get you only so far. Eventually, you have to do the work. This requires commitment and a willingness to take risks. Your idea might be ground-breaking, guaranteed to have the publishers lining up at your door, but the only way to test the viability of an idea is to set out on the creative journey and see where you end up. The best idea in the world won’t take you anywhere if you can’t transform it into the building blocks of a story.
Writers are open-minded, willing to consider anything, and fiction that aspires to the state of art is open to every paradoxical and contradictory possibility that human nature can throw at it. This is where Gardner’s concept of moral fiction comes from. The novelist who sets out to create a work of art will let his idea roam freely and discover a path toward a resolution that is natural and true. Think of it this way: if a writer harbours a deep-seated prejudice of some kind and allows that prejudice to impose limits on his writing, it’s impossible for him to create true art because he must always shape or twist his work to accommodate that prejudice. This prejudice or bias can be conscious or unconscious, benign (nothing bad can happen on a sunny day) or pernicious (women are weak). It can even be something that many people unthinkingly accept as the truth (politicians are corrupt). It doesn’t matter. If the writer can’t free his writing from the shackles of a pre-conceived notion or ingrained belief, his novels, stories and poems will fail to address entire categories of human behaviour and be closed to storytelling avenues that do not support that notion or belief. The result will be work that is narrow and mean-spirited and possibly even morally repugnant. If it is well written, maybe it will appeal to readers who share the same belief or ideology. But any reader who approaches the work unburdened by its author’s predisposition will see it for what it is and toss it aside in disgust. It will simply not ring true. John Gardner would call it trivial. If it survives at all, it will be as an object lesson on how not to go about creating art.
I have read On Moral Fiction, mulled it over, and decided that, for the most part, it makes sense. It is not consciously on my mind every time I sit down to write, but I suppose it has pushed me to isolate my assumptions and biases and render these non-factors in my fiction, thus keeping it as true as I can make it.
Gardner’s book is much more complex and layered than this summary makes it sound. Written from the perspective of someone who sees the barbarians at the gates and is doing his utmost to buttress the ramparts, it is filled with extreme views and provocative assertions. It is also wise and profound. Occasionally cranky but never strident, it offers hope for those of us who sometimes need to be reminded that what we do is worthwhile and that fiction writers have a vital role to play in human society.