(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Gardner writes,In a world in which nearly everything that passes for art is tinny or commercial and often, in addition, hollow and academic, I argue—by reason and by banging on the table—for an old-fashioned view of what art is and does and what the fundamental business of critics ought therefore to be.

The chief issues as well as the chief strengths and weaknesses of On Moral Fiction are summed up in this passage: Gardner’s dissatisfaction with the present state of the arts, his vision of what the arts (the novel in particular) and criticism should be, and the table-pounding way in which he chooses to make his case. Both in tone and in effect, On Moral Fiction is a bold and ambitious indictment of the contemporary arts. Yet while it provokes, it does not persuade. Gardner’s fervor as critic frequently degenerates into mere stridency, his self-assurance into arrogance. Just as damaging, his high-minded views often seem either substanceless or carelessly supported; argument gives way to epigram, intellectual rigor to simple assertiveness.

For example, much of the practical advice offered in the “Principles of Art and Criticism” section amounts to nothing more than windy and sophomoric lectures on truth, beauty, goodness, knowledge, and understanding; on the difference between the sublime and the beautiful; and on tradition and the individual talent. Gardner’s own apparently deeply held convictions about these matters fail to convince, in part because the book is so inconsistent in its tone. At times Gardner appears to direct his argument toward novelists and critics and at other times he directs it toward the general audience that has, like Gardner, grown impatient with what those novelists and writers have been doing. The Gardner of On Moral Fiction, like the narrator of his fiction, appears in various guises and speaks in many voices: that of angry young novelist, concerned teacher-scholar, populist making a cross-of-postmodernism speech, romantic individualist, and lay preacher.

Without doubt, Gardner’s cleverness often gets the best of him. It is, however, equally true that Gardner is sincere in his convictions and that for all the seeming didacticism that his table-pounding rhetoric implies, he believes in an artistic process that in fact cannot be dogmatically defined—an artistic process that “values chance,” and “does not start out with clear knowledge of what it means to say” but instead discovers itself in the very act of its own composition. In his seminal essay “Technique as Discovery,” Mark Schorer made much the same claim in a more rigorous and less assertive manner. What On Moral Fiction lacks in intellectual rigor it attempts to make up for in stridency, and nowhere is this more obvious than in Gardner’s discussion of the true artist and in his remarks on the ways in which so many of his fellow contemporary writers (especially American writers) have failed to measure up to his high-minded standard.

Gardner’s true artist is “a man of maximum sensitivity,” so dedicated to the truth of his art that he must lash out against all that is trivial and, therefore, false. As for his own work, only the artist himself can determine whether it is true; in Plato’s Republic, according to Gardner, the artist occupies a high station indeed. In fact, he serves in a triple capacity: as his society’s “conscious guardian,” and, in his role as poet-priest, as “lawgiver...

(The entire section is 1425 words.)