A book as wide-ranging as this one needs a governing metaphor to give it a least an illusion that all is well:
It was said in the old days that every year Thor made a circle around Middle-earth, beating back the enemies of order. Thor got older every year, and the circle occupied by gods and men grew smaller. The wisdom god, Woden, went out to the king of the trolls, got him in an armlock and demanded to know of him how order might triumph over chaos.
"Give me your left eye," said the king of the trolls, "and I'll tell you."
Without hesitation, Woden gave up his left eye. "Now tell me."
The troll said, "The secret is, watch with both eyes!"
With that, John Gardner kicks off one of the greatest literary rants of the latter half of the 20th century, On Moral Fiction: one by one taking on his peers, past and present, all the while calling for all artists to embrace the battle between order and chaos, beauty and malevolence, and to fight the good fight against an all-encompassing entropy predestined to win. Baldly he states that "art should be moral" but he's also keen to point out that the kind of morality he's talking about is "...infinitely complex, too complex to be knowable and far too complex to be reduced to any code, which why it is suitable matter for fiction, which deals in understanding, not knowledge." In other words, art (for him, specifically fiction) is the only way we can successfully get at morality: the story, not the sermon; the painting, not the propaganda poster; the dance, not the lock-step march. Gardner says it best himself: "True art is too complex to reflect the bottom line."
The novelist who gave us Grendel, The Sunlight Dialogues, Nickel Mountain, October Light and The Art of Living, had decided by the late 70's that the arts were in an especially alarming period of decline and demoralization, and it wasn't like this shaggy headed professor of Medieval Literature to take things lying down.
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, cast 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.
Gardner asserts that many who occupy the then current list of literary lions: Mailer, Updike, Pynchon, Heller, Vonnegut, Barth, etc. will die the death of the rag doll as history inexorably grinds on. As he predicts future tastes, only Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, John Fowler, and John Cheever are spared from the trash heap, though a very little bit of Updike might be worth saving.
According to Gardner, though openly open-minded, John Barth is a secret bully for his agenda of "life-hate"; his writing suffering from "... a curious oscillation between fascination with the cruel and ugly, on the one hand, and on the other, an inclination toward mush... . An odd thing about Barth is that he always seems to know what's wrong with his fiction but never fixes it."
Thomas Pynchon, carelessly praises "the schlock of the past (King Kong, etc.)" while howling "...against the schlock of the present..." and dallying with "platonic inexpressibles."
Kurt Vonnegut is the "cool-hearted" purveyor of "first-class comic books" whose "moral energy is forever flagging, his fight forever turning slapstick.... His lack of commitment— ultimately a lack of concern about his characters— makes his writing slack."
In general, Gardner asserts that, "Our more fashionable writers feel, as Chekhov and Tolstoy did not, that their art is unimportant: and they're correct... . Bad art is always basically creepy; that is its first and most obvious identifying sign." He then points to the likes of Warhol for example. "When Duchamp said, 'Art is whatever I say it is,' he was telling the truth. When Andy Warhol says it, he's putting us on."
Unsurprisingly, he made few new friends and plenty of new enemies among his comrades-at-letters with this high-spirited salvo. Mickelsson's Ghosts, his next published novel after On Moral Fiction was savaged by the critics with much more gusto than the somewhat bloated but altogether enjoyable ramble deserves.
I had already read a couple of pieces of Gardner's fiction—Freddy's Book and Grendel as I half-recollect—when I picked up a copy of On Moral Fiction; bought it actually, which was rare for me in those days. As soon as I read the first paragraphs, I knew it was money well spent. As arrogant and overwrought as it can seem in retrospect, back then it opened my eyes for the first time to the notion that art could be a gunfight, where blissfully no one really gets hurt, but the stakes are nevertheless the highest of all.
For Gardner, it's a rather simple litmus test for whether your art is good. After experiencing it would a person contemplating suicide be more or less inclined to off themselves? Granted, things might not be a simple as that, but then again, what if they are?