Under the Volcano


Arts & Culture


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.