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On Moral Fiction set off a firestorm of controversy when it was first published in 1978. With a daring not obscured by the author’s extraordinary humaneness of spirit, the book argued that contemporary literature suffers first and foremost from a basic failure of the test of “morality.” By “moral fiction” the author meant fiction that attempts to test human values, not for On Moral Fiction set off a firestorm of controversy when it was first published in 1978. With a daring not obscured by the author’s extraordinary humaneness of spirit, the book argued that contemporary literature suffers first and foremost from a basic failure of the test of “morality.” By “moral fiction” the author meant fiction that attempts to test human values, not for the purpose of preaching or peddling a particular ideology or mode of conduct, but in a honest and open-minded effort to find out what best promotes human fulfillment. Such writing does so, as great artists beginning with Homer have always known, by the kind of analysis of characters and actions that brings both the writer and the reader to a fuller understanding, sympathy, and vision of human possibility. Because so much contemporary fiction fails to be moral in this sense, John Gardner argued, it undermines our experience of literature and our faith in ourselves. This bold argument is driven forward as the author subjects the work of his most celebrated contemporaries, such as Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, John Updike, and Donald Barthelme to his sharp-eyed and relentless analysis. Although the last three decades have seen the rise of new generations of writers, and the ascendancy of postmodern modes of composition, On Moral Fiction still sets out the terms of a more ancient sense of the novelist’s calling. It is a salutary counterweight to prevailing trends. Praise for On Moral Fiction: “On Moral Fiction is criticism with both eyes open, fearless, illuminating, proving that the concern of thecritic is with art, that true art is moral and not trivial, that it and the discussion of it can give pleasure—of a sort that lasts and re-echoes.”— Robert Kirsch, Los Angeles Times “Because Gardner’s anger is honest and wholesome, the criticism of his contemporaries never descends to mere vindictiveness or gossip.”—Max Apple, The Nation “A thoughtful, amusing and arrogant little book, designed to pick fights."—Webster Schott, The Washington Post Book World


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On Moral Fiction set off a firestorm of controversy when it was first published in 1978. With a daring not obscured by the author’s extraordinary humaneness of spirit, the book argued that contemporary literature suffers first and foremost from a basic failure of the test of “morality.” By “moral fiction” the author meant fiction that attempts to test human values, not for On Moral Fiction set off a firestorm of controversy when it was first published in 1978. With a daring not obscured by the author’s extraordinary humaneness of spirit, the book argued that contemporary literature suffers first and foremost from a basic failure of the test of “morality.” By “moral fiction” the author meant fiction that attempts to test human values, not for the purpose of preaching or peddling a particular ideology or mode of conduct, but in a honest and open-minded effort to find out what best promotes human fulfillment. Such writing does so, as great artists beginning with Homer have always known, by the kind of analysis of characters and actions that brings both the writer and the reader to a fuller understanding, sympathy, and vision of human possibility. Because so much contemporary fiction fails to be moral in this sense, John Gardner argued, it undermines our experience of literature and our faith in ourselves. This bold argument is driven forward as the author subjects the work of his most celebrated contemporaries, such as Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, John Updike, and Donald Barthelme to his sharp-eyed and relentless analysis. Although the last three decades have seen the rise of new generations of writers, and the ascendancy of postmodern modes of composition, On Moral Fiction still sets out the terms of a more ancient sense of the novelist’s calling. It is a salutary counterweight to prevailing trends. Praise for On Moral Fiction: “On Moral Fiction is criticism with both eyes open, fearless, illuminating, proving that the concern of thecritic is with art, that true art is moral and not trivial, that it and the discussion of it can give pleasure—of a sort that lasts and re-echoes.”— Robert Kirsch, Los Angeles Times “Because Gardner’s anger is honest and wholesome, the criticism of his contemporaries never descends to mere vindictiveness or gossip.”—Max Apple, The Nation “A thoughtful, amusing and arrogant little book, designed to pick fights."—Webster Schott, The Washington Post Book World

30 review for On Moral Fiction

  1. 4 out of 5

    Brynn

    This is a must read for anyone interested in art or interested in the creative process. Gardner calls a spade a spade in his book, drawing a clear line between what art is and what it is not. Gardner is about a million times more intelligent and articulate than I am, but what I gleaned from Gardner is essentially this: Art is motivated by love. Art is not pointing to the black abyss and describing how black and deep and dark it is (which, from what I understand, were what most of the movies nomi This is a must read for anyone interested in art or interested in the creative process. Gardner calls a spade a spade in his book, drawing a clear line between what art is and what it is not. Gardner is about a million times more intelligent and articulate than I am, but what I gleaned from Gardner is essentially this: Art is motivated by love. Art is not pointing to the black abyss and describing how black and deep and dark it is (which, from what I understand, were what most of the movies nominated for best picture this year were saying). Art, as Gardner quotes Tolstoy as saying, makes people good by choice. This is an incredible book, and I'd say, keep foraging through it even if it feels dense. It is full of treasures.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Nathan "N.R." Gaddis

    On June 10, 1976 Jonathan Franzen wrote the following about the then newly published novel by William Gaddis, J R:We may expect that such a long and long-awaited book as JR will fall into one of two categories; either some work intellectually and emotionally gargantuan, like Don Quixote, War and Peace, Remembrance of Things Past, or The Magic Mountain, or else some huge and magnificent, generous, ingenious, and memorable entertainment, like Our Mutual Friend or Old Wives’ Tale. If one judged by On June 10, 1976 Jonathan Franzen wrote the following about the then newly published novel by William Gaddis, J R:We may expect that such a long and long-awaited book as JR will fall into one of two categories; either some work intellectually and emotionally gargantuan, like Don Quixote, War and Peace, Remembrance of Things Past, or The Magic Mountain, or else some huge and magnificent, generous, ingenious, and memorable entertainment, like Our Mutual Friend or Old Wives’ Tale. If one judged by the reviews that have appeared so far, one would imagine JR to be the former kind of work: obscure and full of boomings, perhaps even a true work of genius, which normally means pretentiously exclusive, turgidly self-indulgent, and awesomely unreadable, like Finnegans Wake. According to George Steiner in The New Yorker (and there are signs that Gaddis would like to think it’s true) JR is indeed that fashionable monster “the unreadable book.” Steiner scornfully quotes some passages, and to any one who hasn’t read JR, they’re persuasive. But if one has read the novel, one can only hop on one foot, spluttering in confusion and rage (like young JR), yelling “Crazy! holy shit!”—because Steiner’s right in a way. JR is, finally, bad art, but despite what Steiner thinks, it’s wonderfully and easily readable. Except for the last two hundred pages or so, where the novel takes a turn toward rant—filling the reader with an indignation he would never feel at a writer’s betrayal of some lesser fiction—JR is a delightful, large and various, technically brilliant entertainment. But it is also false, in the end, because the novel’s self-righteous, emotionally uncontrolled last movement poisons what went before it, casting suspicion on what seemed at first basically generous and fairminded, genially satiric or justly sardonic. [thus breaks off the review before the MIGHT of the NYRB's paywall. I would be interested in seeing the rest of this calamity] So one must ask why John Gardner, whom I had confused with Jonathan Franzen in my opening line, who has written a book entitled On Moral Fiction, could write such an IMMORAL review. And one also asks how such a one, having written such a book with such a title, would totally fail to have recognized a MORAL FICTION when he is paid to read and review one. These two CLOWNS, because I WILL NOT advocate the BURIAL of a book, shall be righteously left on the side of our Literary Landscape, perhaps choking on their own incompetence, for the CRIME of attempting and wishing the BURIAL of one of the greatest NOVELISTS our twentieth century has known. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archi...

  3. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth Andrew

    This book is a breath of fresh moral air in what often feels to me to be a polluted cultural atmosphere—not because I agree with everything Gardner says but because I'm relieved that he's willing to raise questions about morality and art-making in the first place. The word "moral" is a major stumbling block. But if you put aside your assumptions about the word, Gardner has lots to teach: “What the writer understands, though the student or critic of literature need not, is that the writer discover This book is a breath of fresh moral air in what often feels to me to be a polluted cultural atmosphere—not because I agree with everything Gardner says but because I'm relieved that he's willing to raise questions about morality and art-making in the first place. The word "moral" is a major stumbling block. But if you put aside your assumptions about the word, Gardner has lots to teach: “What the writer understands, though the student or critic of literature need not, is that the writer discovers, works out, and tests his [sic] ideas in the process of writing. Thus at its best fiction is…a way of thinking, a philosophical method.” He goes on to call “first-class propaganda” that writing that results when writers know what they want to say before they write—when they don’t allow the “mind to be changed by the process of telling the story.” This writing is moralistic, and quite different from writing Gardner calls moral. The art of moral works is “not merely ornamental: it controls the argument and gives it its rigor, forces the writer to intense yet dispassionate and unprejudiced watchfulness, drives him—in ways abstract logic cannot match—to unexpected discoveries and, frequently, a change of mind.” Finally: “Moral fiction communicates meanings discovered by the process of the fiction’s creation.” In other words, a significant factor in making a work of literature moral is whether or not the writer is open to surprise during its creation. “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” wrote Robert Frost. Or Gardner again: “We recognize true art by its careful, thoroughly honest search for and analysis of values. It is not didactic because, instead of teaching by authority and force, it explores, open-mindedly, to learn what it should teach.” The artist’s honest exploration of reality through story-telling is what makes work moral—and what makes it art. I find all three of these ideas (art should have internal integrity; art should “make people good by choice,” as Tolstoy put it; and art should be created in a spirit of inquiry) downright radical in today’s cultural environment. When was the last time you read an article in Poets & Writers or heard an AWP panel discussion on literature as “a force bringing people together, breaking down barriers of prejudice and ignorance, and holding up ideals worth pursuing”? Sure, it’s cool to teach writing as a means of breaking down barriers, but not to use the art-making itself as the means. Writers these days are supposed to be above the moral imperative. Gardner criticizes contemporary art (which for him was the art of the sixties and seventies—although I suspect he’d find today’s art doubly worthy of this critique) for not struggling as artists have traditionally struggled “toward a vision of how things ought to be” or toward an understanding of what has gone wrong. I understand this as the prophetic voice. “There can be no truly moral art that isn’t social, at least by implication; and on the other hand, there can be no moral social art without honesty in the individual—the artist—as a premise for just and reasonable discussion.” True art is morally and socially engaged. And loving: “Great art celebrates life’s potential, offering a vision unmistakably and unsentimentally rooted in love. … It is for the pleasure of exercising our capacity to love that we pick up a book at all.” Writers must care about their characters; they must care about the reader. The morality Gardner is talking about is a morality of love, and inquiry, and vision. “True art…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 designs visions worth trying to make fact. It does not whimper or cower or throw up its hands and bat its lashes. It does not make hope contingent on acceptance of some religious theory. It strikes like lightning, or is lightning; whichever.” Wow! I am hugely grateful to Gardner for fearlessly taking a stand with this book.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Shane

    John Gardner’s controversial book takes no prisoners in the literary firmament. He has a barb or a laurel for everyone from Aristotle to Vonnegut; rather sassy for a relatively less acclaimed author known more for his academic experience than his literary genius. I was expecting the logical approach of the academic who takes one subject at a time, lays out its pros and cons and then sums up before moving onto the next topic. Instead, I found his approach to this book like a dog attacking a piece John Gardner’s controversial book takes no prisoners in the literary firmament. He has a barb or a laurel for everyone from Aristotle to Vonnegut; rather sassy for a relatively less acclaimed author known more for his academic experience than his literary genius. I was expecting the logical approach of the academic who takes one subject at a time, lays out its pros and cons and then sums up before moving onto the next topic. Instead, I found his approach to this book like a dog attacking a piece of fleshy meat: ravenously tossing it this way and that in no coherent order, unearthing morsels of value in the struggle and then leaving it a shapeless mass in the end. I tried to come up with some distinct topics within his rambling treatment of this book, and thought I would lay them out in an order that made sense to me: Art: Gardner claims that art builds, instructs, never stands pat, tells the truth, and destroys only evil. He quotes Tolstoy: “art expresses the highest feelings of man.” He claims why so much art in the world is bad today is because the artist is not well-educated, wise or careful, cannot find beauty in the world, and is thus expressing his disappointment, pain and anger. Trivial artists reflect society’s trivialities. The intermediate artist reflects his time but hints to something greater. The great artist breaks through his reality, makes a new one, a better one, and makes it stick. Gardner gives the great artist permission to drink and womanize in reaction to bad artists. Sanctimonious? Morality: True art is moral. Morality is doing what is unselfish, helpful, kind and noble hearted, and doing it with an expectation that we won’t be sorry for what we have done. He then goes onto separate moral writers from those who have failed his test. Tolstoy, Hemingway, Faulkner, Henry James and Malamud make his cut while Mailer, Doctorow, Coover, de Maupassant, Barthelme, Updike, Vonnegut (trash culture elevated to art, per Gardner), Heller and Bellow don’t. He explains the debilitating guilt that the failed ones suffer from is caused by (a) the determinism of Freud, (b) the pessimism of Sartre, and (c) the logical and linguistic cautiousness of Wittgenstein. Love is the missing ingredient here; the moral writer needs to share affirmations of love with his reader through his characters. Modernism vs. Post-Modernism: Being a writer and academic during the period when these two forms intersected and overlapped, Gardner sides with modernism over post-modernism. He claims that the post-modernists seem to favour language over plot, texture over structure. He levels the same charge against other art forms, i.e. drama and music of the period. I found this a bit hypocritical given Gardner’s rambling arguments delivered through complex sentences, digressions and sub clauses that go on forever. He too seems to be in the trap of the post-modernists, indulging in their Linguistic Sculpturing, as he calls it. Fiction: This subject permeates the entire book and gets his most attention. He considers “serious fiction,” i.e. that which the writer starts off knowing what he wants to say and will not be changed in the writing of it, to be propaganda. He prefers the artist to work out of his imagination and have the work change, and change the writer upon completion, allowing him to alter course as he receives new epiphanies. Literary art is not mere language, but language plus the writer’s experience and imagination and the whole literary tradition he knows. The Critic: “The words of a confident critic can lock up museums, keeps books from publications, and enhance the sale of things unworthy.” He claims that criticism is easier to read as it doesn’t engage as many faculties of the mind. And yet it is incumbent upon a critic to highlight the noble aspects of a work as well as to point out what has gone wrong in that work—(I hope I am doing that here!) Most critics would agree, at least privately, that an “important work of art” needs to be (a) aesthetically interesting, (b) technically accomplished, and (c) intellectually massive. The Artist: He is kind and makes allowance for the creative artist, claiming that creativity has to do with an obsession, a wound. It is the pain of the wound that spurs the artist to do his work, and it is the universality of the woundedness in the human condition that makes the work significant. Displacement and the moving of homes, be it across countries or across the city, is common among artists and a pre-condition for success. Displacement leads to “a healthy doubleness of vision, to disorientation and emotional insecurity, the anxiety and ambivalence of the neurotic.” This argument than leads onto a discussion on “the artist and madness,” and Gardner quotes psychotherapist Jay Haley who says, “the artist is too complicated to choose a convenient madness.” The true separation between art and madness seems to be that the artist can wake up and psychotic cannot. Overall, this is a difficult book to get through. Gardner seems comfortable in his world of moral art with nary a thought for his reader who has to drag himself along for the ride, navigating a maze of convoluted ideas and arguments, arriving exhausted and somewhat enlightened at the end.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Nyssa Silvester

    The first half of this book was an eye-opening perspective for an English major ensconced in literary theory for the majority of her college education. But the second half was downright pernicious--willing to put up with the supposed madness of artists who have so much moral rectitude that they can scorn the way other people live. And it descended into mediocre philosophy while it was at it, departing for the most part from the realm of concrete literature. And I worry about how he interprets lit The first half of this book was an eye-opening perspective for an English major ensconced in literary theory for the majority of her college education. But the second half was downright pernicious--willing to put up with the supposed madness of artists who have so much moral rectitude that they can scorn the way other people live. And it descended into mediocre philosophy while it was at it, departing for the most part from the realm of concrete literature. And I worry about how he interprets literature in the first place. He made much reference to the Iliad, but I feel like he got it all wrong. He saluted Achilles, disparaged Priam, said that the Greek military ethos should be something we still hold to today. Excuse me? That is perhaps the weakest reading of the poem that I've encountered, and he would have it be prescriptive in life today. Though this book had a consistent goodness to the first half, it was moments like this that made me worry about it.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Xavier

    On Moral Fiction: Review “True art is moral. We recognize true art by its’ careful, thoroughly honest search for an analysis of values. It is not didactic because, instead of teaching by authority and force, it explores, open-mindedly, to learn what it should teach. It clarifies like an experiment in a chemistry lab, and confirms.” - John Gardner I have of late been on a kick of reading whatever I can about writing, expanding… ah, better, reviewing my sparse understanding of art and craft, the On Moral Fiction: Review “True art is moral. We recognize true art by its’ careful, thoroughly honest search for an analysis of values. It is not didactic because, instead of teaching by authority and force, it explores, open-mindedly, to learn what it should teach. It clarifies like an experiment in a chemistry lab, and confirms.” - John Gardner I have of late been on a kick of reading whatever I can about writing, expanding… ah, better, reviewing my sparse understanding of art and craft, the business of it. Seeking ten best lists to guide me in the right direction, avoiding pitfalls of the trite and repetitive, looking for the seminal work, the singularity. Those lists more often than not holding up On Moral Fiction as a must read. With little previous knowledge of Gardner, having only read Grendel in high school, I gleaned what I could from general sources, Okay. The title was at once revolting and enticing, expectations of a preachy diatribe, subjective, anachronistic values; then again taken in morbid curiosity as to what that proposed morality might represent, at least in its’ entertainment value. It was not what I expected. Gardner’s definition of "moral" was not constrained in context of religious or cultural "morality," but rather that fiction should aspire to discover, and inspire, those human values that are universally sustaining. Values he believed innate in the human animal, values necessary for our advancement. His statements, his very beliefs (and he always said what he believed) were disturbing to many of his people, readers, friends and followers alike, agreed or disagreed, often displayed to their exasperation… Poor brilliant Gardner! What will he say next? Yet, he’s described as warm and generous with his time, willingly engaged in debate. Against the grain of the old adage - It’s not what you say that counts; it’s how you say it. To Gardner it was indeed what you say that counted, and it better be honest. The ‘what’ was the construct, and vice versa. He longed for “a return to the discussion of rational morality that his (Sartre’s) outburst interrupted.” I typically skip introductions, forewords and prologues. I’m glad I didn’t. Lore Segal’s introduction is a far cry from the typical patronage, trivial and uninteresting anecdotes, mushy accolades raising the author to deity sprung full grown from the head of Zeus. Instead, taking the occasion to point out positions faithfully held by Gardner proven flawed by more than thirty years of inconvenient history. Specifically his attitudes toward modern art and music, and predictions of their ultimate demise, a natural selection of sorts, victims of their own hollowness and disingenuousness, their celebration of the trivial and nihilistic, “the freak”, victims of their own immorality. Her personal relationship with Gardner gives her a special insight into his beliefs about what constituted moral art, and as importantly what didn’t, to which he would rail, captured in his words - “Honest feeling has been replaced by needless screaming, pompous foolishness, self-centered repetitiousness, and misuse of vocabulary!” Does that sound mad, or is it just me? (I added the exclamation mark, it deserves it.) I will not be so presumptuous to put in a few words what Gardner expounds on. But I will say Gardner believed it was an artist’s, and critic’s, responsibility, even obligation to society and its’ betterment that they zealously pursue morality in the process and the product. “Good art is always in competition with bad art.” – J.G. Moral art exerts influence on society, proposing, holding up models of behavior. The artist has intuition in place of scientific hypothesis, but it has to be as carefully examined within integral laws and tradition, “the morality of art… is far less a matter of doctrine than of process.” –J.G. Gardner’s writing voice solicits sympathy, irresistible, at the same time despairing and hopeful, enraged and joyous, controversial and reaffirming, and always immediate. Mind you, it is not to say I could swim in the depths of his philosophy, missing much nuance, but his ideas, skillfully argued, guided and textured, will take you as far you can or want to go, whether limited by capacity or disagreement. There is something for everyone, artist, critic and enthusiast. If Gardner were alive today he would very surely dismay with society’s trend toward the devaluation, even demonization of critical thinking. The state of personal communications, bits (a descriptive he would have certainly got a kick out of) of data exchanged poorly formatted, the rise of a didactic morality happier in provocative sound bites and expedient answers: Instead of one welcoming of a thoughtful, and civil, discourse aspiring to genuine solutions, to truth itself. John Gardner we miss you, and your brutal honesty.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Jordan

    A bracing polemic, even if Gardner gets into some arcane territory in the second half. His essential arguments are that 1) art must by its nature be moral, that is, oriented toward or built upon truth, though not necessarily didactic, with instilling or affirming life and goodness as its purpose; and 2) by this criterion most “art” in the twentieth century deserves those scarequotes. Gardner’s thesis is more complex and nuanced than this, and he’d probably quibble with every word of this summary A bracing polemic, even if Gardner gets into some arcane territory in the second half. His essential arguments are that 1) art must by its nature be moral, that is, oriented toward or built upon truth, though not necessarily didactic, with instilling or affirming life and goodness as its purpose; and 2) by this criterion most “art” in the twentieth century deserves those scarequotes. Gardner’s thesis is more complex and nuanced than this, and he’d probably quibble with every word of this summary, but it should suffice to convey his purpose. No small part of the book’s appeal is Gardner’s willingness to name names, and some of the purported greats of mid-twentieth century literature come in for criticism. Gardner predicts that the hollowness, nihilism, and/or plumb meanness of some of his critically well-regarded contemporaries will lead to the virtual disappearance of their work within a generation or two, and with one or two notable exceptions (e.g. John Updike, enjoyable as Gardner’s criticisms were) his predictions are mostly accurate. Anybody picked up any William Gass or Robert Coover lately? The first half of the book is the meat of Gardner’s argument. The second half gets abstract, esoteric, even mystical, and is harder to follow. Some of Gardner’s chosen exempla (e.g. autohypnosis and the debunked link between XYY chromosomes and criminality) also date his arguments here, and the book feels very 70s as a result. But the first half is vintage Gardner, strikingly similar in tone to his On Becoming a Novelist, and well worth the read. I have to agree with Gardner’s theses, especially after reading through his detailed arguments and in light of the 40 years that have elapsed since. Art must have purpose, that purpose must be goodness, and if we lose both, we are in danger of losing our civilization at a minimum. Gardner does not shrink from implying that we are in even greater danger of losing our souls. Recommended.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jon Beadle

    Reading this collection of essays on moral fiction was like reading The Gospels on the Kingdom of God: the unearthing of the true earth as its true reality is concealed by false realities trying in vein to pose as true reality. Gardner is fair, funny, and incredibly down-to-earth. Of course, he is brilliant - which helps in his observations, which no one would dare call "ordinary - but his brilliance is used in the service of the reader. What he finds "immoral" about a work of art is not based o Reading this collection of essays on moral fiction was like reading The Gospels on the Kingdom of God: the unearthing of the true earth as its true reality is concealed by false realities trying in vein to pose as true reality. Gardner is fair, funny, and incredibly down-to-earth. Of course, he is brilliant - which helps in his observations, which no one would dare call "ordinary - but his brilliance is used in the service of the reader. What he finds "immoral" about a work of art is not based on objectionable subject matter in polite society, but the very attempt of the artist to honor only one "ism" at the expense of reality, which he claims literature is uniquely equipped to overcome. I not only recommend this book to people who love to read; I recommend it to truth-seekers; modern, post-modern, and behinds

  9. 5 out of 5

    Sean Pagaduan

    Most of the force behind Gardner's arguments evidently lies on misreadings of Freud (now all but debunked as useful anyway, making this a straw man argument) and misinterpretations of Sartre, not to mention completely disregarding anything Wittgenstein wrote after his famed Tractatus. He fails to identify ideas on morality from John Rawls or Immanuel Kant, ideas on morality that don't require any religion to arrive at. He dismisses post-modernism (sic) as inherently pointless or immoral, somehow f Most of the force behind Gardner's arguments evidently lies on misreadings of Freud (now all but debunked as useful anyway, making this a straw man argument) and misinterpretations of Sartre, not to mention completely disregarding anything Wittgenstein wrote after his famed Tractatus. He fails to identify ideas on morality from John Rawls or Immanuel Kant, ideas on morality that don't require any religion to arrive at. He dismisses post-modernism (sic) as inherently pointless or immoral, somehow failing to understand the true morality and messages behind "post-modernism." It's a sorry excuse for a long essay, and should probably only be read by people who want to know why John Gardner's criticism fails.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Sydney Avey

    Gardner challenges readers to think deeply about truth, beauty, and goodness in their relative and absolute forms. The nature of literary criticism is to hold a work up to a standard and consider whether it hits the mark. To read critically, one must know what the standards are, a challenge in our pluralistic world. Gardner deals with that issue also, and in a satisfying way. Gardner writes with punch. Consider this statement: "...telling familiar lies does not make them true. Art is our way of Gardner challenges readers to think deeply about truth, beauty, and goodness in their relative and absolute forms. The nature of literary criticism is to hold a work up to a standard and consider whether it hits the mark. To read critically, one must know what the standards are, a challenge in our pluralistic world. Gardner deals with that issue also, and in a satisfying way. Gardner writes with punch. Consider this statement: "...telling familiar lies does not make them true. Art is our way of keeping track of what we know and have known, secretly, from the beginning." In today's world, where we consume fiction more often than we savor its truth, this book can help readers become more discerning and writers make more carefully considered decisions about how and what they write.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Matt Gaither

    If you think writing can and should make people better, read this book. I found that it gave words to a vague feeling I'd had about what writing can do. Gardner isn't talking about moral fiction like you'd see in a morality play from the 15th century, his interests are much more applicable to the current state of fiction than the title might suggest. If you think writing can and should make people better, read this book. I found that it gave words to a vague feeling I'd had about what writing can do. Gardner isn't talking about moral fiction like you'd see in a morality play from the 15th century, his interests are much more applicable to the current state of fiction than the title might suggest.

  12. 4 out of 5

    D.M. Dutcher

    A strong book curiously diluted by too much attention paid to authors of his time. The point is excellent, but could have been told with more force in a magazine article. The asides on authors on how they succeed or mostly fail at such loses power the less familiar you are with the literary fiction a 1970's author would count as the canon of his time. Important, but in spite of itself. A strong book curiously diluted by too much attention paid to authors of his time. The point is excellent, but could have been told with more force in a magazine article. The asides on authors on how they succeed or mostly fail at such loses power the less familiar you are with the literary fiction a 1970's author would count as the canon of his time. Important, but in spite of itself.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Iola

    On Moral Fiction was first published in 1976, and is author and critic John Gardner’s view on the necessity for morality in fiction, arguing that fiction displays the beliefs of the author. I don't agree with his view on religion, but I suspect his view is tainted by the accident that killed his younger brother, that he apparently felt responsible for. His opinion of many of the foremost 'literary' authors of his day (the 1970’s) is nothing short of scathing, and I can't help wondering what he wo On Moral Fiction was first published in 1976, and is author and critic John Gardner’s view on the necessity for morality in fiction, arguing that fiction displays the beliefs of the author. I don't agree with his view on religion, but I suspect his view is tainted by the accident that killed his younger brother, that he apparently felt responsible for. His opinion of many of the foremost 'literary' authors of his day (the 1970’s) is nothing short of scathing, and I can't help wondering what he would say about the fictional giants of our century, authors like EL James, James Patterson, Stephenie Meyer and George RR Martin. He is also critical of the ‘professional reviewer’, who follows the nineteenth century model “which avoided talking about the work by talking, instead, about the man who created it”. I suspect he would both applaud and decry Amazon in the same breath: applaud for the ability of the Amazon review to reflect the opinion of the reader rather than some ivory tower critic, but decry because of the lack of insight of some of those opinions (I doubt Gardner would be a fan of the OMG Best Book EVA!!! review, even on his own titles). He says: “Writers do communicate ideas. What the writer understands, though the student or critic of literature need not, is that the writer discovers, works out, and tests his ideas in the process of writing.” This is why rewriting and editing is vital—any worthwhile writing will change both the reader and the writer. If the writer is changed by the writing, the purpose of revising is to clarify and bring out this new understanding, to ensure consistency of thought and theme throughout. Self-published authors: take note. While I don't agree with everything Gardner says, I do have to acknowledge that his arguments are intelligent, well researched, well written and coherently argued. It’s not an easy read but it is well worth reading, both to understand his point of view and, perhaps, to understand why we read fiction. Thanks to Open Road Media and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review. I actually reviewed the 2013 edition of this, but can't find it on Amazon or Goodreads. If you can post a link to the correct edition, I'll move my review.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Amy Gonzalez

    This book was featured on a list of books to inspire writers in Paste magazine. It is basically a critique of how literature should be judged based on the writer's exploration of morality. Gardner argues through most of this book that both Art and Art criticism are filled with jargon and removed from discussing anything on an intellectual or emotional level. He credits his examples of what art should be by drawing from the likes of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, and Dante. He thinks their work represe This book was featured on a list of books to inspire writers in Paste magazine. It is basically a critique of how literature should be judged based on the writer's exploration of morality. Gardner argues through most of this book that both Art and Art criticism are filled with jargon and removed from discussing anything on an intellectual or emotional level. He credits his examples of what art should be by drawing from the likes of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, and Dante. He thinks their work represents universal truth, such as "The traditional view of art is moral. It seeks to improve life, not debase it (5)." Already my main reaction against this is all of Gardner's heroes are too traditional. Not one woman! Not one person who isn't white. I do agree that art should feel more constructive than destructive though. Gardner does make some interesting points. He makes a wonderful case for criticism, [The critic] knows art loses in the translation but also gains: people who couldn't respond to the work can now go back to it with some idea of what to look for, and even if all they see is what the critic has told them to see, at least they've seen something (8)." However, Gardner rants for the majority of the book. He makes his best points early on and then repeats himself. He also comes across as a snob. His sense of morality seems flowery. He thinks social issues are sort of trite to focus on because once they are "solved" what else is there. As if these issues are easy to fix and don't point to making us all better people.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    I give this book cinco estrellas because it is one of the most thought provoking reads that I have come across. Sometimes you have to sift through some relatively extreme views on certain authors or artists, but this book makes clear that Gardner has not arrived at these positions arbitrarily. He has developed a strong personal criteria for those elements that he believes essential to art, and to the process of creating it. Whether or not you agree with those elements is almost immaterial. He pu I give this book cinco estrellas because it is one of the most thought provoking reads that I have come across. Sometimes you have to sift through some relatively extreme views on certain authors or artists, but this book makes clear that Gardner has not arrived at these positions arbitrarily. He has developed a strong personal criteria for those elements that he believes essential to art, and to the process of creating it. Whether or not you agree with those elements is almost immaterial. He puts them across so articulately, so colorfully, that you are forced to wrestle with them and come out the other end with your own belief system regarding what makes art art, or more specifically, what makes fiction art. In addition to the substance of the book, it is without question one of the most quotable works of modern times that I've read. There are some gems in there, e.g. "In corpses, entropy has won; the brain and the toenails have equal say," and "Nevertheless, the revolutionary artist has a great advantage over the society which, if he is right, stands like a high-pocketed pig surveying its ladies magazines and decorator lamps and styrofoam chairs, unaware of the butcher on the landing." This is a must read if you are a writer.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Adrienne

    Although I don't agree with all of Gardner's criteria for "moral fiction" (he almost acts as though there are only three authors who have the ability to write such literature), this book made me think about the importance, role, and value of literature more than many books I've read. Gardner is very concerned with the process of writing (discovering as he/she goes) and is frustrated with authors (and critics) who only focus on technique. He feels that literature (and all art) always affects us, Although I don't agree with all of Gardner's criteria for "moral fiction" (he almost acts as though there are only three authors who have the ability to write such literature), this book made me think about the importance, role, and value of literature more than many books I've read. Gardner is very concerned with the process of writing (discovering as he/she goes) and is frustrated with authors (and critics) who only focus on technique. He feels that literature (and all art) always affects us, whether for good or bad, and that authors have a duty to discover through writing the Good, True, and Beautiful. I found it interesting that these qualities are sort of "intuitive," and are felt by the authors and readers--that we will sense truth when we see it. Authors need to be true to their emotions and are just more sensitive to their emotions than the average bear.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Jeremy

    First, I like it because it offers immense insight into some decent writing (Gardner's fiction). I mean decent. However, the guy is an asshole. He pans better authors (Gass, Elkin--ELKIN! He dastn't). He is so small and such a shallow reader (I am no great reader of difficult books, but I understand Elkin's work, and see clearly that he has a stringent ethical/moral paradigm) that he must label these other authors--whose only offense is to play with language, to attempt to find exciting new modes First, I like it because it offers immense insight into some decent writing (Gardner's fiction). I mean decent. However, the guy is an asshole. He pans better authors (Gass, Elkin--ELKIN! He dastn't). He is so small and such a shallow reader (I am no great reader of difficult books, but I understand Elkin's work, and see clearly that he has a stringent ethical/moral paradigm) that he must label these other authors--whose only offense is to play with language, to attempt to find exciting new modes of expression well within the bounds of a lay reader's comprehension and pleasure--amoral. Pathetic. Don't read this if being pissed-off at an author ruins your pleasure in their good work.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Patrick Faller

    Gardner argues that moral fiction is life-affirming, the product of an author's discovering the truths his or her characters embody by faithfully engaging a fictional process he lays out in greater, more accessible detail in "The Art of Fiction." Pointed, terse, and confrontational, this book, as do all of Gardner's treatises on the art, challenges the would-be writer to think honestly and carefully about craft. Gardner argues that moral fiction is life-affirming, the product of an author's discovering the truths his or her characters embody by faithfully engaging a fictional process he lays out in greater, more accessible detail in "The Art of Fiction." Pointed, terse, and confrontational, this book, as do all of Gardner's treatises on the art, challenges the would-be writer to think honestly and carefully about craft.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Grace T

    Gardner is not writing from a Christian worldview, nor is he writing in the contemporary era, but he nonetheless makes some very good, timeless points on how any form of art should not degrade or degenerate its audience. The section towards the end on the old role of poet-priest was especially interesting. Overall, I enjoyed seeing how an artist outside Christianity could still see and affirm some of its values.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Sharon

    Gardner proposes a strong moral stance for authors to follow if we are to produce good writing. He moves into ethical territory that few critics dare enter and states his views with conviction. Even though I have not seen him follow his ethical definitions in his own novels, he puts forth good and solid principles about how to judge a classic. Fascinating reading.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Amanda Woodlee

    Dense writing—I had to read many passages aloud multiple times before I could get a handle on Gardner’s meaning—but well worth the read. It is not for art dabblers, but for artists who have already spent some time in the trenches and want some guidance to steer their further progress. I read it because I wanted to consider some arguments about art’s—GOOD art’s—purpose. And what makes art good, anyway? I don’t pretend to have understood everything the author said, especially his many historical r Dense writing—I had to read many passages aloud multiple times before I could get a handle on Gardner’s meaning—but well worth the read. It is not for art dabblers, but for artists who have already spent some time in the trenches and want some guidance to steer their further progress. I read it because I wanted to consider some arguments about art’s—GOOD art’s—purpose. And what makes art good, anyway? I don’t pretend to have understood everything the author said, especially his many historical references, but I was able to glean a good deal from this first reading. I can imagine I would get even more from a second perusal in a few years’ time.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Greg

    I started reading On Moral Fiction because of a quote and a comment by a newspaper editorialist whose work I have enjoyed. Literary criticism is a ways outside of my education and experience, but I was intrigued, and decided to pick up a copy of the book and read it. In the end, I did not read the whole book, only a little past the middle, but I read the part that was of most interest to me, and that addressed issues in which I am interested. Some of my thoughts (and quotes from Gardner’s work) I started reading On Moral Fiction because of a quote and a comment by a newspaper editorialist whose work I have enjoyed. Literary criticism is a ways outside of my education and experience, but I was intrigued, and decided to pick up a copy of the book and read it. In the end, I did not read the whole book, only a little past the middle, but I read the part that was of most interest to me, and that addressed issues in which I am interested. Some of my thoughts (and quotes from Gardner’s work) follow. There is much in this world that is ugly and damaging to the spirit, but also much in the arts that helps to keep that darkness at bay. Much of music uplifts and the best of it can almost transport us to the heavenly realm. Literature has that power as well…the best of literature transforms us, makes us better, empathetic to the human condition, and inspired to act to make the world a better place. Early on, Gardner makes his case for the power of art to ennoble. “The traditional view is that true art is moral; it seeks to improve life, not debase it. It seeks to hold off, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us…trivial art has no meaning or value except in the shadow of more serious art, the kind of art that beats back the monsters…that art which tends toward destruction, the art of nihilists, cynics, and merdistes, is not properly art at all.” Nonetheless, there must be a correctness to the arts, and we may go astray from the artful purpose if we are not careful. For those who write, this is partly accomplished in wordsmithing, which is necessarily the tool of that trade. “In art, as in politics, well-meant, noble-sounding errors can devalue the world.” The act of creating literature, and the use of the tools (words and sentences and plot and etc.) by which we do so is important because real “art builds; it never stands pat; it destroys only evil. If art destroys good, mistaking it for evil, then that art is false, an error; it requires denunciation.” Pulitzer-prize winning historian Barbara W. Tuchman has made this point with regard to the leaders of countries and peoples: “When it comes to leaders we have, if anything, a superabundance—hundreds of Pied Pipers…ready and anxious to lead the population. They are scurrying around, collecting consensus, gathering as wide an acceptance as possible. But what they are not doing, very notably, is standing still and saying, ' This is what I believe. This I will do and that I will not do. This is my code of behavior and that is outside it. This is excellent and that is trash.' There is an abdication of moral leadership in the sense of a general unwillingness to state standards….Of all the ills that our poor…society is heir to, the focal one, it seems to me, from which so much of our uneasiness and confusion derive, is the absence of standards. We are too unsure of ourselves to assert them, to stick by them, if necessary in the case of persons who occupy positions of authority, to impose them. We seem to be afflicted by a widespread and eroding reluctance to take any stand on any values, moral, behavioral or esthetic." Art also must stand for the best of the world, not for that which is least, the lowest common denominator. Stephen R. Covey has referred to enduring principles as “true north” principles, those that are so fundamental that they exist as bedrock, and remain no matter what else changes, through time and cultural evolution and any other movement. I believe Gardner refers to the same when he says “Either there are real and inherent values, “eternal verities,” as Faulkner said, which are prior to our individual existence, or there are not, and we’re free to make them up…If there are real values, and if those real values help sustain human life, then literature ought sometimes to mention them.” We need heroes. We learn from them, emulate them, and they embody and symbolize that which is most noble and worthy of preservation. Artists of all sorts are the chroniclers of heroism. “…the business of the poet…is to celebrate the work of the hero, pass the image on, keep the heroic model of behavior fresh, generation on generation.” Yet when art celebrates that which is immoral, or that which is not eternal truth, then it promotes and preserves and encourages that which in time will destroy all that is good in us. “The gods set ideals, heroes enact them, and artists or artist-historians preserve the image as a guide for man…” This idea of art as a promoter and preserver of truth is central to what we must understand about art to know what to celebrate and what not. “The true critic knows that badness in art has to do not with the artist’s interest or lack of interest in “truth” but with his lack of truthfulness, the degree to which, for him, working at art is a morally indifferent act.” And the artist him- or herself is probably not the best judge of the truth of his or her work. “Never judge the age of a horse by the smile of the farmer.” We must make our own decisions about the truth (or lack thereof) to be found in art, and those decisions must be grounded in eternal verities.

  23. 5 out of 5

    S.W. Gordon

    This book should have been entitled, "Thor's Hammer: The Quest for Literary Perfection." The word "moral" carries too much baggage to convey what Gardner meant for it to mean in regards to Art. Similarly, Ayn Rand's use of the words "selfish" and "ego" didn't mean the same thing to her that they did to her detractors. Nevertheless, if you can wade through Gardner's dense, over-wrought arguments, there are many pearls hidden in this ugly oyster. Gardner laments the Postmodernist trend in literary This book should have been entitled, "Thor's Hammer: The Quest for Literary Perfection." The word "moral" carries too much baggage to convey what Gardner meant for it to mean in regards to Art. Similarly, Ayn Rand's use of the words "selfish" and "ego" didn't mean the same thing to her that they did to her detractors. Nevertheless, if you can wade through Gardner's dense, over-wrought arguments, there are many pearls hidden in this ugly oyster. Gardner laments the Postmodernist trend in literary fiction that today's good book is a bad read. He challenges the fools (who fail to understand) and the boors (who pretend to understand) to shun decadent fiction that is linguistically opaque (texture over structure) in favor of life affirming clarifying fiction that discovers and passes on the values of a free society. Gardner contends that the true artist must be a master at observing and scrutinizing real people in order to write permanent/timeless fiction, and should not limit themselves to a historical perspective (holding up a mirror to their age) or getting involved in social justice (the cause du jour). Gardner maintains that we read in order to attain sublime communion with the writer or to fall in love with the characters with plot existing only to give the characters a way of revealing themselves and setting existing only to give the characters somewhere to stand. Gardner shoots down several prominent writers like Gass, Pinchon, Vonnegut, Bellow and Barth. I liked Gardner's description of good writing as giving the reader "the queer experience of falling through the print on the page into something like a dream…" I was intrigued by the metaphorical 20 Questions Game called "Smoke" played by the Iowa Writer's Workshop crowd. Gardner argued that "the medium of literary art is not language but language plus the writer's experience and imagination and, above all, the whole of the literary tradition he knows." Gardner warned against focusing too much on cynicism and despair, sex and violence, or staring too long into the "black abyss." A good book, according to Gardner, "is one that, for its time, is one that is wise, sane and magical, one that clarifies life and tends to improve it." Art is made up of Truth (intellectual pursuits of the mind), Goodness (ethical, moral pursuits of society) and Beauty (aesthetic pursuits of the soul). Ezra Pound defined beauty as a particular feeling of release, of "freedom from the limits of Time and Space." Gardner defines Art as "civilization's single most significant device for learning what must be affirmed and what must be denied." In essence, "Art affirms value." Art is Thor's Hammer which keeps the trolls away and remains civilization's chief defense. Powerful stuff!

  24. 4 out of 5

    Nicole

    While I may not agree with all the statements Gardner makes, I agree with the majority. And with the statements I don't agree with, he argues them so well that I can completely understand why he states them. The book is about artist and criticism. Gardner focuses how on work should be critiqued and how so many fail to properly criticize. He points out several authors, those he favors and those he does not, and uses their work, most of them popular works, to show how critics don't always know wha While I may not agree with all the statements Gardner makes, I agree with the majority. And with the statements I don't agree with, he argues them so well that I can completely understand why he states them. The book is about artist and criticism. Gardner focuses how on work should be critiqued and how so many fail to properly criticize. He points out several authors, those he favors and those he does not, and uses their work, most of them popular works, to show how critics don't always know what they are doing, or rather how they usually don't know. He also talks about art and artist, while his main focus is on literature you can relate, as he does, his standard for good art to any form of creativity. Good art to Gardner is art that stand for something, a belief, an experience, an emotion, it is moral art. Bad art is everything else, more or less. Gardner makes me laugh at the artist that I do like and makes me admire the ones that I may not have before. For those who value traditional art or art that holds some deeper connection to humanity, I recommend this book. I began reading this book in hopes it would help me with a paper I was working on, it did not. But what it did do was help in a project I was working on. It helped me more as an artist. And for that I believe that this book is really for those of us who create whether it is in literature or in photography or in printing, and etc…. You probably won’t agree with all Gardner states, as I haven’t. However even with what I disagree with, I can’t entirely argue against. I disagree based upon personal experience but I cannot make an argument based upon that. This book was absolutely wonderful beginning with his style of writing, his statement/belief, and finally with it being a text that has helped me as a creative being. I think everyone should read this, well perhaps not everyone, but all those who are wondering about a particular project or piece or about their work in general. What are you trying to say? What is the point? I recommend this book to those individuals.

  25. 4 out of 5

    H

    YES!! I've been going on about this sort of thing for months now. This is one of the most important books I've read in years. "What we see around us is, for the most part, dramatization without belief or else opinion untested by honest drama. William Gaddis has named the problem in JR, though he himself doesn't escape it: 'believing and shitting are two different things.' "... Insofar as literature is a telling of new stories, literature has been 'exhausted' for centuries; but insofar as literatur YES!! I've been going on about this sort of thing for months now. This is one of the most important books I've read in years. "What we see around us is, for the most part, dramatization without belief or else opinion untested by honest drama. William Gaddis has named the problem in JR, though he himself doesn't escape it: 'believing and shitting are two different things.' "... 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." I'm upset I didn't find this book earlier. It precedes On Becoming A Novelist and is much more potent b/c it argues his bias for this degree of what some would oversimplify as realism. This is controversial and absolutely necessary anti-absurdism from '77 and is still just as true today. Gardner's arguments explain why Ender's Game and Life of Pi--two popular novels past his time--remain steadfast as pop classics today: they both teach us heroes. Even Life of Pi, in its postmodern dichotomy of "here's my truth, here's another truth, now believe which one you like", takes a stance and affirmation. Possibly (but less so) also explains the popularity of books like Twilight, which I would see as an extreme rubberbanding back from the objective intellectualism of our art; people looking for traditional values of storytelling now need to look for it in the insipid.

  26. 5 out of 5

    J.C.

    Looking back on what I've read I feel Gardner ranted the entire time instead of clearly divulging into this ideas, as if he'd rather talk about how awesome Homer is and how bad Vonnegut and Heller and many others are. I disagree on many aspects of what I did understand, mainly that I don't properly understand what he means by moral art. If Slaughterhouse 5 isn't moral, then why is it considered an anti-war novel? Isn't "hey, war is bad and this is why" a moralistic stance? Maybe I'm just a big d Looking back on what I've read I feel Gardner ranted the entire time instead of clearly divulging into this ideas, as if he'd rather talk about how awesome Homer is and how bad Vonnegut and Heller and many others are. I disagree on many aspects of what I did understand, mainly that I don't properly understand what he means by moral art. If Slaughterhouse 5 isn't moral, then why is it considered an anti-war novel? Isn't "hey, war is bad and this is why" a moralistic stance? Maybe I'm just a big dummy head, but Gardner here comes off as quite a literary snob. But yes, I do agree that art, in all its forms, should be to enlighten us, to help better us. But the way in which that is done takes many forms, and not all of it done by white europeans. I just feel like I have more questions than answers. So writing traditionally is good, but why is it that all the "good" artist he mentioned went against the grain of their contemporaries? Shakespeare wrote nothing like Ben Johnson. Anyway, it's an interesting take on art, I think English majors should all read these and get in groups and start debates over it. Who knows, maybe if I do that I'll better understand everything Gardner meant in it...

  27. 5 out of 5

    Lee

    Great book. I've been working on a movie review blog that comments on the moral value of movies, and Gardner's book has added a lot of value to my critical analysis process. The first part of the book was most valuable to what I needed, subtitled, "Premises on Art and Morality." He says that all art should to some extent promote good. A few quotes from his book, "If art destroys good, mistaking it for evil, then that art is false, an error; it requires denunciation." "To Plato it seemed that if a Great book. I've been working on a movie review blog that comments on the moral value of movies, and Gardner's book has added a lot of value to my critical analysis process. The first part of the book was most valuable to what I needed, subtitled, "Premises on Art and Morality." He says that all art should to some extent promote good. A few quotes from his book, "If art destroys good, mistaking it for evil, then that art is false, an error; it requires denunciation." "To Plato it seemed that if a poet showed a good man performing a bad act, the poet's effect was corruption of the audience's morals. Aristotle agreed with Plato's notion that some things are moral and others not; agreed, too, that art should be moral; and went on to correct Plato's error. It's the total effect of an action that's moral or immoral." "True art...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 designs visions worth trying to make fact."

  28. 4 out of 5

    Mike

    Strong-willed, a bit Athenian in its language, and passionate, Gardner is arguing here more than anything else for art to uplift the spirit of its audience. This seems to be an important stand to take when critically approaching literature. This book, I believe, is important for educators to study so as to more effectively lead their students in developing their critical thinking skills. Moral judgments, I agree, should be made towards our literature -- and not, as Gardner makes clear, in some wea Strong-willed, a bit Athenian in its language, and passionate, Gardner is arguing here more than anything else for art to uplift the spirit of its audience. This seems to be an important stand to take when critically approaching literature. This book, I believe, is important for educators to study so as to more effectively lead their students in developing their critical thinking skills. Moral judgments, I agree, should be made towards our literature -- and not, as Gardner makes clear, in some weary dogmatic fashion. He makes no bones about recognizing talent; he sees, for example, Pound as a gifted writer, even as he rejects the negative aspects inherent within Pound's work. Is the book easy? No. The book is difficult and demands an incredible amount of focus. It is, however, worth the effort. Interestingly, it also has had an effect on my view of some classics. _Lord of the Flies_, for example, I will now freely claim as destructive in its worldview. Do I think it still needs to be part of the high school canon? Of course. But primarily to get the students to develop their arguments for or against its nihilistic view of humanity. An important work.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Doug Wykstra

    I don't agree with Gardner's premise that returning to the objectives of classical literature is going to improve the output of literature, and I tend to have more positive reactions to many of the big midcentury novelists than he does, but I found his book refreshing, because I think too much criticism today doesn't engage with the moral stance a book (or any work of art, really) takes--there are critics who will look at a book through the lens of social justice (and Gardner, to his credit, see I don't agree with Gardner's premise that returning to the objectives of classical literature is going to improve the output of literature, and I tend to have more positive reactions to many of the big midcentury novelists than he does, but I found his book refreshing, because I think too much criticism today doesn't engage with the moral stance a book (or any work of art, really) takes--there are critics who will look at a book through the lens of social justice (and Gardner, to his credit, sees that as a worthwhile objective, if a bit limited in its scope compared to what he wants to do), but even those criticisms seem to be concerned with appearances above content. Reading this book felt like having an argument with someone whose ideas and intelligence made his arguments enjoyable, even during the parts when I disagreed with them (and it helps that the later chapters show him to be not nearly as absolutist in his thinking as he initially appears.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Max

    This is a book for artists primarily, especially those starting to wonder if there is any actual purpose to their work. Rilke writes to the artist uncertain of how to relate to himself, while Gardner writes to the artist uncertain of what good his art can do. Gardner sketches an outline of a philosophy that art is life-affirming and helps instruct, not so much by providing examples of conduct as by providing examples of emotional development and choice. His vision resonates with my search for so This is a book for artists primarily, especially those starting to wonder if there is any actual purpose to their work. Rilke writes to the artist uncertain of how to relate to himself, while Gardner writes to the artist uncertain of what good his art can do. Gardner sketches an outline of a philosophy that art is life-affirming and helps instruct, not so much by providing examples of conduct as by providing examples of emotional development and choice. His vision resonates with my search for something civilizing and more than civilizing - transcendent, maybe divine - in good art. This can be a difficult book to read, though, if one isn't familiar with most of the traditional Western canon, and some of the references to 70s avant garde literature may be hard to get for younger readers.

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