I haven’t read John Gardner’s fiction, though I have a copy of Grendel now (a ratty, cheap used copy from the bookstore where I work, with this sublimely horrible blurb: “…warm, friendly, compassionate….a kind of Medieval King Kong!”), but I really enjoy his writing advice. This book is no exception. I won’t be able to do justice even to my own thoughts, but, since I love biting off more than I can chew, I’ll not only list some disagreements and takeaways but also compare it to a couple books I’ve talked about here before, Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just and Elizabeth Ammons’ Brave New Words: How Literature Will Save the Planet. For simple pleasure of reading I’d take it over either of those books, which have almost the same goal: defending traditional the good, the beautiful, and the true while divorcing those timeworn concepts from the oppressive politics their detractors (and some of their defenders) associate them with, but I’m not sure I agree with it more. As such, despite my basic enjoyment of the book, I’ll be commenting mostly on my disagreements.

Amusingly, perhaps, On Moral Fiction strikes me as the least moral of the three books. This is not because of any hypocrisy on Gardner’s part but because of an explicit disagreement between my conscience and Gardner’s: he thinks bad art should be torn down mercilessly by critics and other artists, while I am (somewhat) more of a relativist than he, not to mention considerably less idealistic about art’s power in society (more on this later), so I think that not being a jerk about things people love and pour their lives into actually matters, though I suspect I am capable of being just as scathing as he is. Precisely what Gardner describes as moral about his and his ideal critics’ criticism is what I find to be a guilty pleasure — his disgust for and condemnation of art he hates. (Note: I make art he would hate if he were still alive and for some reason knew it existed. Hypocrisy doesn’t stop pleasure, though.)

First, though, Gardner’s central argument: art and criticism are the two heads of Thor’s hammer, ideally to be used in a heroic but doomed effort to beat off the forces of chaos and darkness (his opening and closing metaphor). “True” art affirms what ought to be affirmed, denies what ought to be denied, and is a way for both artists and readers to intuitively discover moral truths too subtle and situation-specific to be captured, proved, or disproved by rational argument. He sees in much of the art of his time (in this book, 1977) various pernicious combinations of nihilism, cynicism, despair, inanity, sentimental falsification and oversimplification, and obsession with the trivial (technical skill, “texture”).

Still, he tries to avoid aligning himself with a conservative position, politically or aesthetically: he comes out in favor of civil rights and gender equality and thinks it would be “frigidity” (in his craft books a serious flaw) to ignore society’s concern with these things. He expresses, however, an intense dislike of art that uses these concerns as a crutch. He also mentions that formal innovation and dramatic statements such as Duchamp’s urinal can have real artistic value, but that true artists must rely on their emotions to tell them when such things do.

I mentioned, and I might as well dive in by expanding on, my impression that Gardner is too optimistic about art’s power, especially about “good” art’s power — either optimistic, I would argue, or solipsistic. He suggests that nihilism and cynicism are a disease of his time (1977, for this book) because of art that propounds them, not the other way round. Either he thinks that most people’s minds are heavily conditioned by “elite” creations that will reach only a fraction of them (optimistic) — or he would call my concern with numbers mere statistics rather than moral reality (solipsistic, since the any period’s supposed intellectual zeitgeist is only a fraction of the thought and feeling out there).

Yes, I am fairly sure, the number of people who read things he would respect is slim, let alone actually connect to them in a way he thinks would allow them real influence. He is openly but misguidedly elitist; I think people who don’t appreciate the degree of honesty, complexity, and sophistication he seems to think all art should have — still really like art, and still deserve to read/watch/listen to things they like. Let’s talk about Twilight, for an infamous example. I am very glad Twilight exists, if nothing else because so many people loved it so much (@#^, I loved it enough to write little snippets of fanfiction about it past college). Gardner would consider it beneath contempt, because it’s bad art: sentimental, clumsy, and trite. Other critics might hate it because it exerts a bad influence on girls (I agree, with qualifications). Here’s where I get weird. I think that something as beloved as Twilight is powerful in that it brings light and love and joy into people’s lives, and that the pleasure and love it brings are worth its real detrimental effects, detrimental both in Gardner’s airier sense and in feminist critics’ more earthbound senses. I suspect those detrimental effects can get so bad that the work is no longer “worth it,” but I’m not even sure of that, and I am fairly sure that Twilight doesn’t rise to that level.

Intuition of the good may be at least to a significant degree shit, though, instinctively, it’s my first go-to, and I’d guess it’s a lot better than most theory in practice; also intuition is often not something mystical but rather discursive thought without words, or discernible words, or else …. I tend (instinctively, intuitively, if you will) to agree with him that it’s worth pursuing and helpful, but I don’t think he defends it at all well to people who do not share his intuitions; in fact, it sounds a lot like really bad religious argument, and it lets him set himself up as infallible without having to back up any of his claims. I trust him, I think, not to use this pulpit (an almost literal pulpit; he suggests art and religion spring from the same roots) in bad faith, but I wouldn’t trust all of his hypothetical adherents not to, and I definitely think a lot of people won’t trust him.

In the meantime, he’s a very good writer (wordy, dense, and difficult, some reviewers complain, but I think it’s important that society hold open a place for complex writing alongside the “invisible” and streamlined writing advocated in many sets of Rules of Writing). Scarry, in On Beauty and Being Just, certainly writes lyrically, and expresses and defends a lot of surprising insights (many, as I mentioned in that review, questionable), with great elegance and succinctness, but by comparison I find her book tortuously artificial — largely, I think, because of the effort she expends to avoid polemic. It feels like there’s a ton she’s not saying, arguments she refuses to directly refute, and I just want to hear it said instead of having to piece it together from hints. At the same time, though, her work strives to be a work of art, starting with the lovely cover, and her obliqueness, while frustrating, stretches my mind in, perhaps, the same way Gardner’s density does those reviewers’ who protest his prose style. What’s more, if her aesthetic matched mine better, I suspect these difficulties would feel like a point in her favor, not the reverse.

Ammons, meanwhile, writes quite clearly and makes excellent points. Her work does the most in “walking the walk” of being more liberal and inclusive. She writes about actual writers, both creative and critical, who are not privileged (carefully choosing them, I get the sense, to be complex and interesting as well as vehement, without discounting the power of, say, Uncle Tom’s Cabin); she powerfully rejects postmodern relativism regarding both truth and morality, and I do not think Scarry adequately answers her implication (at least as I seem to recall) that beauty, traditionally conceived, is an ivory-tower concern that should be decentralized. I appreciate especially that Ammons recognizes that social justice doesn’t get along with relativism and constructivism. I suspect (and half-agree, if my suspicion is correct) that she would consider Gardner’s non-rational “relative absolute” (his term) morality a lot of fuss about the specifics of a system that is fundamentally broken. But I only half-agree with her. Art helps people help each other, it can (not always should) have immense positive impact in the world; but it’s also one of the goals, one of the things we want a perfect world to have space for. I find it too austere to ask people to forego all irrelevant beauty and intellectual play until the globe’s problems are solved, though I suspect most people (including me, to a power of ten) could stand to focus more on making things better.