On Moral Fiction is actually two books: One is a philosophical and aesthetic study of literature—in fact, of all forms of art—which attempts to define its purpose, explain its effects, and establish its values. In maintaining that fiction is at its basis serious and important, Gardner’s work is squarely in the tradition of texts as old as Aristotle’s De poetica (c. 335-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705) and Sir Philip Sidney’s masterpiece of English Renaissance prose and thought, The Defense of Poetry (1595).
The second book, which is much shorter and is actually a series of illustrative examples, consists of Gardner’s evaluation of contemporary American writers, nearly all of whom he brusquely dismisses as having failed to adhere to the moral and artistic standards that he champions. In examining the work of such highly regarded authors as John Barth, John Updike, Norman Mailer, and E. L. Doctorow, Gardner is unsparing in his criticism and perhaps intemperate in his tone. It was this aspect of On Moral Fiction—especially its polemical style—which caused such controversy about the book and which clearly damaged Gardner’s reputation with many in the literary establishment.
The philosophical and artistic arguments of On Moral Fiction are certainly not new, and while they might strike some readers as old-fashioned, they are clearly within a Western literary tradition that is thousands of years old, dating back to the ancient Greeks. True art, according to Gardner, is moral art, moral in the sense that it affirms and reinforces the dignity and purpose of human life, without falling into the trap of easy sentimentality. In the face of inevitable death—of individuals, civilization, perhaps of the world itself—true art finds and celebrates that which is worthwhile. Gardner maintains that in doing this, art is didactic—that is, it teaches its beholders to become better human beings....
(The entire section is 815 words.)