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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 815

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).

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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. Once again, his line of reasoning follows traditional thought, and in this case the line reaches back to Aristotle and his theories of the effects of art on the spectator.

In Gardner’s words, “Art rediscovers, generation by generation, what is necessary for humanness.” In the process of rediscovery, art conveys the necessary information as elegantly as possible to those who hear it, see it, or read it. Art teaches while it entertains. In one sense art, especially literature, can be seen as exhausted, because there are no new stories, no truly original characters left; however, Gardner spurns the despair some of his contemporaries have over this fact because it is basically unimportant. The real value of art is in its restatement of essential and timeless truths which should never be forgotten but which, ironically, would be if not for art:Insofar as literature is a telling of new stories, literature has been “exhausted” for centuries; but insofar as literature tells archetypal stories in an attempt to understand once more their truth—translate their wisdom for another generation—literature will be exhausted only when we all, in our foolish arrogance, abandon it.

Gardner’s most trenchant and even vitriolic criticism of his fellow writers was based upon this very premise: They had abandoned traditional writing—traditional not necessarily in the stylistic sense but traditional in its central concerns. The two aspects, however, content and technique, are linked, because Gardner believed that writers as different as Barth and Donald Barthelme, or J. P. Donleavy and William Gass, had become enamored of language for its own sake, neglecting its fundamental role as a vehicle for the presentation of character and archetypal truths. Gardner dismissed the vast majority of modern American writing as “toy fiction,” and in doing so, he incurred the wrath of the cultural establishment that had accepted and validated the writers and works he attacked.

Gardner’s conception of what constituted moral art in practice, however, almost required such an unsparing critique as he made in On Moral Fiction. In his view, the essential method of literary art had been abandoned. That method was the process of art: As the writer comes to understand his or her characters, their values, their points of view, then truth is revealed. In this way, the real artist breaks through the illusion of isolation and subjectivity which has weakened so much of modern writing.

“Nothing in the world is universal anymore; there is neither wisdom nor stability, and faithfulness is dead.” So laments a despairing character in Gardner’s novel The Sunlight Dialogues. This is the point that Gardner claims far too many modern writers have accepted. Their response has been to trivialize literature, to make it only a game of words and word play, irony for its own sake. Gardner rejected this view, and in On Moral Fiction he set forth a philosophical and artistic program for the redemption of literature, a program that would affirm not only art but what art itself affirms: human life.

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