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.” Read More