Home >> Volume 2, Issue 02

Getting the Elephant off the Baby:
A Look Back at John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction

Beth Impson

First published in 1978 and still in print, John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction1 upholds the transcendence of art over time, place, and even the artist himself. Gardner has created a message which itself transcends its own particular examples to offer us a clear and compelling picture of the purpose of art, to challenge us both as artists and as critics to embrace its truth and follow its precepts. I regularly recommend Gardner to my own students of literature—alongside such critics from across the ages as Aristotle, Dante, Sidney, Pope, Coleridge, Arnold, C. S. Lewis, Thomas Howard—to help them understand that the moral principles on which we base our discussions are time-honored and valid, no matter how false artists and critics may attempt to convince them otherwise.

I have been reading G. Douglas Atkins’ work on the familiar essay lately, learning to better understand and articulate my love for that form. When I recently returned, then, to On Moral Fiction, the re-acquaintance came with an extra measure of delight as I realized, for the first time consciously, that my love for its message has always been heightened by my love for its form: it is a book-length familiar essay, in which Gardner has “taken a line out for a walk” and invited us to explore with him the nature of art.

The “line” is simple: true art by its nature is moral, affirming life, and true criticism judges whether art has fulfilled its nature. “I argue,” Gardner writes, “—by reason and by banging the table—for an old-fashioned view of what art is”: for this traditional view of its morality, which has been held throughout time, however unpopular it might be in any specific moment. Certainly it was unpopular when Gardner was writing in the 70s, and has made little headway since, it seems, against the “nihilists, cynics, and merdistes”—artists and critics alike—who dabble in destructive views of life and refuse to recognize those affirmative values which are a stay against chaos. In the first chapter, he lays out his purpose in strong language:

This book is an attempt to develop a set of instructions, an analysis of what has gone wrong in recent years with the various arts—especially fiction, since that is the art on which I’m best informed—and what has gone wrong with criticism.
The language of critics, and of artists of the kind who pay attention to critics, has become exceedingly odd: not talk about feelings or intellectual affirmations—not talk about moving and surprising twists of plot or wonderful characters and ideas—but sentences full of large words like hermaneutic, heuristic, structuralism, formalism, or opaque language, and full of fine distinctions—for instance those between modernist and post-modernist—that would make even an intelligent cow suspicious. Though more difficult than ever before to read, criticism has become trivial.
The trivial has its place, its entertainment value. I can think of no good reason that some people should not specialize in the behavior of the left-side hairs on an elephant’s trunk. Even at its best, its most deadly serious, criticism, like art, is partly a game, as all good critics know. My objection is not to the game but to the fact that contemporary critics have for the most part lost track of the point of their game, just as artists, by and large, have lost track of theirs. Fiddling with the hairs on an elephant’s nose is indecent when the elephant happens to be standing on the baby.
At least in America art is not thought capable, these days, of tromping on babies. Yet it does so all the time, and what is worse, it does so with a bland smile. […] “Art is play, or partly play,” [modern artists will] tell you with an engaging smile, serving up their non-nutritious fare with the murderous indifference of a fat girl serving up hamburgers. What they say is true enough, as far as it goes, and nothing is more tiresome than the man who keeps hollering, “Hey, let’s be serious!” but that is what we must holler.
Not that I want joy taken out of the arts; but even frothy entertainment is not harmed by a touch of moral responsibility, at least an evasion of too fashionable simplifications. My basic message throughout this book is as old as the hills, drawn from Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Dante, and the rest, and standard in Western civilization down through the eighteenth century; one would think all critics and artists should be thoroughly familiar with it, and perhaps many are. But my experience is that in university lecture halls, or in kitchens at midnight, after parties, the traditional view of art strikes most people as strange news.
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. I do not deny that art, like criticism, may legitimately celebrate the trifling. It may joke, or mock, or while away the time. But trivial art has no meaning or value except in the shadow of more serious art, the kind of art that beats back the monsters and, if you will, makes the world safe for triviality.

Part One sets out Gardner’s premises—how and why art is moral, and how and why art and criticism have fallen short of upholding that morality; Part Two explores in depth the principles of moral art and criticism that underlie the arguments of Part One. Within this basic plan, in true essay form, Gardner explores his ideas in a carefully structured but winding, sometimes circuitous, stroll through his subject. We amble with him through the forest of art’s morality, inspecting the effects of relativism and moral indifference on the process of creating art, then how criticism responds to these effects, on to a discussion of how art instructs, back to the effects of relativism on style and structure, and so on … looking at each tree and shrub from a variety of angles, showing their connections and deepening our understanding of the forest’s whole, the moral purpose which is their raison d’etre, never losing sight of either for contemplation of the other.

This exploratory essay form also suggests the process which, Gardner explains, is the morality of fiction. The fiction writer does not begin with an idea and force his story to demonstrate that idea—that is mere propaganda and will rarely rise to the level of art either aesthetically or morally. Rather, the fiction writer tests ideas in the process of creating characters, setting, and plot. The creation of fiction is thus a laboratory for ideas: the writer asks “what if …?” and explores various answers by testing them against his experience, his observations, and his moral sense. Readers, of course, are not privy to this process as the writer pursues it, but do find it within the story, in the actions of the characters—in art that thereby becomes, as Hawthorne once put it, “true to the human heart.”

Of course, there is always the question of what any writer means by “morality”: we cannot judge his judgment without knowing this. After making it clear in the first chapter that he means by moral art that which affirms and does not degrade life, in the second chapter Gardner offers this basic working definition of morality: “doing what is unselfish, helpful, kind, and noble-hearted, and doing it with at least a reasonable expectation that in the long run as well as the short we won’t be sorry for what we’ve done, whether or not it was against some petty human law.”

With Sidney2, Gardner claims that moral art inclines its readers to the practice of morality; it exercises and forms the imagination to develop empathy and pursue right action. Elsewhere he calls morality “life-affirming, just, and compassionate behavior.” Moral art holds up models of virtue; it “celebrates life’s potential, offering a vision unmistakably and unsentimentally rooted in love.” He “object[s] strongly to the cult of sex and violence, and more strongly yet to the cult of cynicism and despair.” The true artist, steeped in an ideal of good contained within that art which has lasted over time and across cultures, offers to the world “ideals which are true, not only for himself but for everyone.”

In his descriptions of morality, Gardner appeals to the universal human conscience: some actions and beliefs are good and some are bad … and we all really do know the difference. Lore Segal, in her introduction to the 2000 printing of the book, simply calls the positive values Gardner upholds “the Christian virtues,” though she makes clear that Gardner was not a “religious” man. Yet he despised angst, cruelty, and indifference paraded for their own sake or for the mere self-indulgence of the writer, and he held up, always, the need for goodness—the need to celebrate, demonstrate, and practice goodness—in order to hold off a permanent slide into the darkness and chaos which always threatens human culture. “Art is essentially serious and beneficial,” he writes, “a game played against chaos and death, against entropy.” It “asserts and reasserts those values which hold off dissolution”; it “rediscovers, generation by generation, what is necessary to humanness.”

Gardner’s criticism of the art of his day—which is, sadly, valid for much of what passes for art these three decades later—focuses on the loss of this sense of morality, this reason for doing art. In the third chapter, he explores the reason he sees behind this loss. Earlier he has noted that the moral vision has two sources: the religious (morality is given us by gods, lived by heroes, and recorded by poets) and the Romantic (because man himself is innately good, he can find morality through exercise of the imagination, thus merging all three roles within the sole figure of the poet). However, we reject both sources today, and find ourselves adrift, trying to resolve that inherent tension between our desire for social order and our desire for individual liberty.

In a democracy, Gardner suggests, where individual opinions matter, we should most readily find art’s instruction useful for bringing us together by “breaking down barriers of prejudice and ignorance, and holding up ideals worth pursuing.” But our very concern for the individual seems to have led us to “abandon our right to believe, to debate, and to hunt down truth.” Instead we fear to attribute moral failings to individuals and assign their cause solely to institutions (which are sometimes at fault, of course, but to say individuals are not is mere sentimentality), and we fear to suggest that any morality can possibly be universally true, as we have embraced a moral relativism which tells us that values are merely cultural or even merely individual.

Yet, Gardner insists, the true artist still seeks this truth that, because of his immersion in the great art of his discipline, he knows to exist: that “outside civilization (privilege) we are nothing, mere battered brutes without choices, whereas inside, however unfair it may be, we have hope, including the hope that our good fortune may spread to others.” Some values, in other words, are universal, and they are the values that make civilization, and therefore hope, possible.

In the fourth and fifth chapters Gardner explores the two ways art fails to find and demonstrate those values in a relativistic culture. One way is through “feeling unabstracted,” placing too much emphasis on the trees: loading a work with huge amounts of specific details merely for their emotional effect, but which do not cohere within a holistic purpose. The other is through “abstraction unfelt,” placing too much attention on the forest: offering a shallow and clichéd idea which, without the exploration necessary to find its true value, becomes mere propaganda.

These failures occur because of “moral indifference,” seeing art as merely a game without serious purpose in a nihilistic world, or, from another perspective, they arise from hatred: art becomes propaganda “against” something-or-other (too often that which should be affirmed, such as marriage or love of country) instead of arising from love—which, when it necessarily criticizes, does so from sorrow instead of bitterness and for the purpose of correction and betterment. “We need to stop excusing mediocre and downright pernicious art,” Gardner exhorts us, artists and critics alike. True art “claims, on good authority, that some things are healthy for individuals and society and some things are not”—and our job is to create and uphold these good values.

In the first chapter of Part Two, Gardner broadens and deepens his discussion of how art is moral, taking us more fully into the process of creation and how imagery, metaphor, and symbol connect to create a representation of life. The second chapter is his most extensive exploration of the function of criticism, which he addresses here and there throughout the other chapters. He reminds us that the role of criticism is to explain why works of art are worth our time or not, although it has tended—just as art itself has—to focus on either technique or propaganda instead of this moral truth. Reminding us that art works intuitively, not scientifically, Gardner elucidates the three standards critics should judge—the Good, the True, and the Beautiful—and leaves us with the admonition that if criticism does not make these judgments it is insignificant or even deleterious.

Gardner’s discussion of these classical artistic virtues is helpful and his admonition true. He does, however, casually and wrongly denigrate the New Critics and their work, because it is precisely their approach to literature that supports his argument for the morality of art. As is common, Gardner caricatures the New Critics as mere structuralists who cared for nothing but the techniques and forms used by the writer, thereby offering no moral basis for judgment between “clumsily put together” but great art and elegantly structured but superficial and immoral art.

That there are structuralist critics who do this is undeniable—but they are a product of the modern world’s denial of morality, not of the New Criticism. One can read their reviews in the New York Times every day, along with the various other modern criticisms that reduce literature to emotional appeal or to sociological and political commentary.

The New Critics, however, were not structuralists in this sense. Reacting against both the Romantic worship of the author as god/hero/prophet rolled into one and an historical criticism that forgot the work of art in detailing its particular context, their goal, as critic R. V. Young of North Carolina State explains, was precisely to restore the understanding of literature as “an embodiment of human experience,” a “testimony to the inherent significance and purpose of human life,” and “a principal means of handing on the culture of Western civilization.”3 They did this by articulating a theory of reading which recognizes that art transcends its particular historical and authorial context and which is based on art’s nature as a representation of reality, therefore containing “a structure of reality that exists independently of, and sometimes in conflict with, individual expectations and desire.” They studied structure, then, to discover the work’s connection to an orderly—structured—reality. “The New Criticism,” Young asserts, therefore “responds affirmatively to what we might call the moral realism of great literature,” and so offers us a means of judging how well a work does exactly what Gardner claims it ought to do: affirm morality by its faithfulness to truth.

This criticism aside, I especially find Gardner’s discussion of criticism a challenge to those of us who critique art for primarily Christian and/or socially conservative audiences: we need to eschew our desire to be liked by the world and refuse to believe that loving criticism of writers who profess Christ is the equivalent of “eating one’s own.” Too often we uncritically celebrate any popular authors who claim the name of Christ and refuse to note weaknesses and infelicities, even immoralities, in their work, or we uphold anything that omits swear words and dramatizes a literal come-to-Jesus moment. Where, for example, is the Christian critic willing to note how P. D. James deliberately normalizes homosexuality in many of her novels, or that Christian romances are every bit as false and soul-deadening as any Harlequin, despite their Christian veneer? And, of course, we are often too ready to simply embrace what the world loves and find excuses for our lack of discernment. Twilight, for example, has been highly touted by Christians for the “abstinence” of its main teen characters, and yet lust and far worse are glorified throughout the series’ highly superficial relationships. We need to be truthful, desiring the good of readers, guiding them to life-affirming texts, away from degrading ones, and helping them learn the discernment that makes them able to negotiate the inevitability, given a fallen world, that most art simply will be a mix of both.

I read little Modern and contemporary fiction and criticism for the very reason that most of what I encounter continues to present a relativistic or propagandistic view of the world; it is art “against” something, or art in the service of politics, or art that sneers at that which I hold dear. Of course there are contemporary writers of fiction who desire to affirm life, to do good, to make us better (names such as Wendell Berry, Sushako Endo, Khaled Hosseini, Walter Wangerin come to mind), but one wonders if there might be more we would know, more who would succeed, if critics did not persist in raising to the world’s notice the worst offerings while consigning to oblivion the best. Christians who properly understand the purpose and importance of art, and the subtle means by which it works, are especially equipped to help all of us through the minefield of modern art. (Of course there are some such critics, Thomas Howard being one excellent example, but he is one of too small a brotherhood.)

Artists themselves should be critics, Gardner asserts in chapter three of the book’s second part. For one thing, they are uniquely qualified to understand art by virtue of being practitioners who are steeped in their tradition. When they argue with each other over what is and is not good art, we all benefit in a deeper understanding of the importance of their work. But it is also good for artists to articulate what they do and why for their own sakes. Art is the artist’s way of perceiving, processing, and living in reality; therefore, even though it is often hard to articulate the effect of such a subtly working medium, it is imperative for his own health, not just his readers’, that he be able to distinguish between true and false art, and fight against that which is false.

Emerging directly from this, in his final chapter Gardner refutes the common notion that insanity is a part of the artistic condition. True art, he reminds us, is known by its sanity, by its connection to the reality it explores and represents. But it begins in the world’s woundedness and the artist’s need to process and understand this, which first compels him to his vocation—the true artist to confront and understand that need and its universality, the false artist as a means of evasion resulting in fraudulent work. Thus true art can help the artist to sanity, and his exploration of this reality of brokenness benefits his readers, who see themselves in his work and find hope. There is an element of madness in the artist, to be sure, in that he utterly surrenders himself to his work—which is an imaginative instead of actual reality—and that surrender can be quite similar to the madness of psychosis. The difference, Gardner stresses, is that “the artist can wake up and the psychotic cannot. […] Sanity is remembering the purpose of the game.” We should remember, too, as Emily Dickinson writes, that “Much Madness is divinest Sense / […] / Much Sense the starkest Madness”: what appears madness or sanity to the world is not always so.

Finally, and most importantly, Gardner reminds us in his final statement,

True art’s divine madness is shot through with love: love of the good, a love proved not by some airy and abstract high-mindedness but by active celebration of whatever good or trace of good can be found by a quick and compassionate eye in this always corrupt and corruptible but god-freighted world. […] The business of civilization is to pay attention, remembering what is central, remembering that we live or die by the artist’s vision, sane or cracked.





1 Gardner, John. On Moral Fiction. New York: Basic, 1978.

2 Sidney, Phillip. The Defense of Poesy.

3 Young, R. V. At War with the Word: Literary Theory and Liberal Education. Wilmington, Del: ISI Books, 1999. (A version of the first chapter of this book, “The Old New Criticism and its Critics,” from which this discussion is drawn, is available in article form online at First Things; also, I highly recommend Young’s book for a comprehensive look at the havoc created by deconstruction throughout our culture, precisely by its forcing New Criticism out of the academy as the predominant pedagogy of reading literature.)