On Moral Fiction Critical Context - Essay

John Gardner

Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In 1978, the critical response to On Moral Fiction was deeply divided. Having just suffered through a decade or so of widely praised literary innovations, beleaguered devotees of the “traditional novel” embraced Gardner as the champion of their own conservative tastes (an odd fact, given Gardner’s own reputation as one of the innovators, especially as the author of the widely popular novel Grendel, 1971). Others reacted in just the opposite fashion, judging On Moral Fiction nothing more than (in John Barth’s words) “a shrill pitch to the literary right.” Surely, the title Gardner chose played right into his opponents’ hands; during the late 1970’s Jerry Falwell’s religiously Fundamentalist and politically archconservative Moral Majority was making headlines in the United States. Conceived in 1965, On Moral Fiction deserves to be read in the context of both the rise of innovative postmodern fiction in the 1960’s and 1970’s and the reaction that began to manifest itself in the late 1970’s not only in religion and politics but also in academic circles. Numerous other works reflected the reactionary trend: for example, The Culture of Narcissism (1978), Christopher Lasch’s exhaustive critique of “American life in an age of diminishing expectations,” and Literature Against Itself: Literary Ideas in Modern Society (1979), Gerald Graff’s conservative but cogently argued study of the ways in...

(The entire section is 410 words.)