On Moral Fiction
by John Gardner
Basic Books, 214 pp., $8.95
In Aldous Huxley’s Antic Hay there is a painter named Casimir Lypiatt much given to denouncing the pusillanimity of modern art. Evoking the passionate titans of the past, seeing himself as a suffering, latter-day Michelangelo surrounded by trifling artists and petty critics, he endlessly proclaims the nobility of his own vision and writes about it at length in a preface to the catalogue of his latest show. The problem, of course, is that Lypiatt is a pathetic figure, a painter of singular ineptitude.
John Gardner, luckily, is a much better novelist than Lypiatt was a painter. But there are occasions in On Moral Fiction when I was irresistibly reminded of poor Lypiatt—occasions when Gardner’s tone becomes not merely hortatory but rhetorically inflated and full of grievance. As most interested readers must know by now, Gardner claims that “art is essentially and primarily moral—that is, life-giving—moral in its process of creation and moral in what it says.” By morality he means “nothing more than doing what is unselfish, helpful, kind, and noble-hearted…. Moral action is action which affirms life.” These are indeed large claims, worthy of close scrutiny, definition, and discussion. Unfortunately, the evangelistic voice is not conducive to disinterested questioning.
The fact remains that our serious fiction is quite bad. The emphasis, among younger artists, on surface and novelty of effect is merely symptomatic. The sickness goes deeper, to an almost total loss of faith in—or perhaps understanding of—how true art works. True art, by specific technical means now commonly forgotten, clarifies life, establishes models of human action, casts nets toward the future, carefully judges our right and wrong directions, celebrates and mourns. It does not rant. It does not sneer or giggle in the face of death, it invents prayers and weapons…. It does not whimper or cower or throw up its hands and bat its lashes.
Here Gardner not only sounds like Lypiatt on the subject of art but St. Paul on the subject of charity. In the sweep and inclusiveness of his rhetoric he flows right over several obdurate stones in his course. True art never rants? Is there no considerable proportion of rant in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? True art never sneers or giggles in the face of death? Troilus and Cressida?… Vile Bodies? It is the essentially Protestant and sometimes scolding quality of Gardner’s approach that is likely to put off readers of On Moral Fiction. A similarly intrusive moralism has, I think, weakened Gardner’s fiction (always excepting the magical Grendel); even in the often admirable October Light the thematic concern tends to show as distractingly as a bra strap.
We have some reason to be suspicious of evangelists of whatever stamp: the Billy Grahams too frequently consort with the Richard Nixons; the hypnotically persuasive TV bishop may be interested primarily in the conversion of the Very Rich; the austere and charismatic figure in the pulpit may at any moment abandon …