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Arts & Culture

Under the Volcano

July 21, 2014 | by


John Gardner in 1979. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

I think that the difference right now between good art and bad art is that the good artists are the people who are, in one way or another, creating, out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life in the twentieth century that is worth pursuing. And the bad artists, of whom there are many, are whining or moaning or staring, because it’s fashionable, into the dark abyss. If you believe that life is fundamentally a volcano full of baby skulls, you’ve got two main choices as an artist: You can either stare into the volcano and count the skulls for the thousandth time and tell everybody, “There are the skulls; that’s your baby, Mrs. Miller.” Or you can try to build walls so that fewer baby skulls go in. It seems to me that the artist ought to hunt for positive ways of surviving, of living.

That’s John Gardner, from his Art of Fiction interview, which The Paris Review published in 1979—three years before Gardner died in a motorcycle accident. As far as lines in the literary sand go, this one seems defensible enough: make salutary art, wall off the volcano, protect the crania of your babies, et cetera. But here Gardner has given us the distillate of what had been, a few years earlier, a very controversial opinion; he’s paraphrasing his thesis from On Moral Fiction, a polemical book of criticism in which he took to task nearly every prominent American writer, pissing off a good number of them in the process. As Dwight Garner wrote a few years ago, “It wasn’t Gardner’s thesis, exactly, that made him enemies. It was the way he indiscriminately fired buckshot in the direction of many of American literature’s biggest names.”

Pynchon? Too inclined to “winking, mugging despair.”

Updike? “He brings out books that don’t say what he means them to say. And you can’t tell his women apart.”

Barthelme? Merely a disciple of “newfangledness.”

And the whole New Yorker crowd? Too into “that cold, ironic stuff … I think it’s just wrapping for their Steuben glass.”

If you’re thinking that picking fights is a pretty poor way of seeding one’s literary philosophy, you’re completely correct. As Per Winther, the author of The Art of John Gardner, has written, “One cannot help but think that Gardner’s cause would have benefited from less stridency of tone … What Gardner risked in couching his arguments in such bellicose terms was a hasty dismissal of his book and all its views.”

And so he was, at least in certain circles, hastily dismissed. In the Times Magazine, Stephen Singular wrote a profile in which he invited the aggrieved parties to respond to Gardner’s appraisals. Updike, by my lights, gets the best rejoinder: “‘Moral’ is such a moot word. Surely, morality in fiction is accuracy and truth. The world has changed, and in a sense we are all heirs to despair. Better to face this and tell the truth, however dismal, than to do whatever life-enhancing thing he was proposing.”

Still, aside from the ambiguity of “a vision of life … that is worth pursuing,” there’s plenty to recommend itself in Gardner’s idea of good art, especially as he expresses it in that Art of Fiction quotation—it reminds, in its elegance, its humor, and its ethical heft, of David Foster Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram,” which argued, more than twenty years later, for fiction writers “who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction.” In a 1993 interview with Larry McCaffery, Wallace channeled Gardner even more directly:

Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.

And yet in the next line, Wallace qualified his statement: “I’m not trying to line up behind Tolstoy or Gardner.” Isn’t he, though, to some degree? I understand the distinction—undoubtedly Gardner and Wallace differ on the finer points of what constitutes “illuminat[ing] the possibilities for being alive and human”; Wallace is very careful not to use the word moral, and he at least had the good sense to endorse Barthelme—but it seems specious of him to have denied any sort of connection to that tradition. Then again, of course he’d want to distance himself. Gardner had, in making straw men of so many talented writers, ensured that his feelings on art were marked with a kind of biohazard sticker. The only way to champion his philosophy was at a far remove.



  1. Brandon E | July 21, 2014 at 11:31 pm

    I think Gardner and Wallace both probably had too simplistic a stance on complex issue, especially if one examines their tastes (Gardner pooh-poohing Pynchon, Updike, Barthelme; Wallace placing Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis into number one favorite book in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books by J. Peder Zane).

    First, a good work of art may or may not tell you how to live, or present any vision to that effect. It may simply dramatize some aspect of the human condition and let the reader respond for themselves. For example, in Hamlet Shakespeare dramatizes a figure whose vast interior universe and involuted disposition brought himself and everyone around him to ruin, but I don’t learn from Hamlet Shakespeare’s actual moral opinion about his subject. He neither quite praises or condemns, and does not provide answers or conclusions. Is Hamlet therefore bad art, and Shakespeare a bad artist? (Maybe so, if you’re Tolstoy, but he had some rather radical moral, religious, and political opinions.) And if “good art must be moral” is not necessarily true of works of the past, why would it be true in the 20th or 21st century? Arguably what makes good art good is its more timeless qualities, not what stance it happens to take on a current trend as found in any common period piece.

    Second, even works that appear to do nothing but portray a bleak world can be paradoxically life-affirming if they are written with great power, depth of feeling, or “gusto” (“Gusto in art is power or passion defining any object” – William Hazlitt). As Giacomi Leopardi wrote in Zibaldone:

    “It is a property of works of genius that, even when they represent vividly the nothingness of things, even when they clearly show and make you feel the inevitable unhappiness of life, even when they express the most terrible despair, nevertheless to a great soul that finds itself in a state of extreme dejection, disenchantment, nothingness, boredom, and discouragement about life, or in the most bitter and deathly misfortune (whether on account of lofty, powerful passions or something else), such works always bring consolation, and rekindle enthusiasm, and, though they treat and represent nothing but death, they restore, albeit momentarily, the life that it had lost. And so, while that which is seen in the reality of things grieves and kills the soul, when seen in imitation or any other form in works of genius (e.g., in lyric poetry, which is not, properly speaking, imitation), it opens and revives the heart.”
    -Leopardi, G., Caesar, M., & D’Intino, F. (2013). Zibaldone. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. P. 177

    I think Wallace definitely was in some way echoing Gardner, even if he wished to disguise it. Wallace was not merely a moral writer, but an advocate of “the great and terrible truth of clichés,” who sought in both non-fiction and fiction to vindicate the notion that AA-style clichés really work. Accordingly he commended writers “who have childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles,” which was to commend his own writing and the moral ideology behind much of it.

  2. SD | July 22, 2014 at 2:38 am

    *Yawn* at both Gardner and Wallace. Give me doom and gloom if doom and gloom is the truth to be told. If I wanted feel good rubbish that makes humanity seem more pleasant than it is, then I’ll read me some teenage ABCs of being a good person crap. But I have no interest in moralistic, or positive-leaning for the sake of not being too poo-pooey, literature. Updike said it perfectly.

  3. jay | August 7, 2014 at 7:43 am

    It’s a shame that whenever Gardner is mentioned it’s always the non-fiction side.
    To the uninformed it seems to paint Gardner’s fiction as all happy-happy, ‘look at the purty flowers’…which it is very much not. Gardner did dark better than any of the other writers cited in this article.
    Better than most anyone.

    It’s also a shame that, in all walks of life (but especially the arts and sciences), everything is so ‘politically correct’ that these sort-of feuds going back 30+ years are some of the last accounts of people calling each other out. These days, no one is accountable for what they do and say.

    As for Updike, “accuracy and truth in fiction” is, or can be, oxymoronic. And if that is the motto Updike used for his own writing, it is certainly (also) mundane.

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