Moral writing? Uncool, but bring it on!

On Moral Fiction3I have a vague memory from my MFA years: Some author of intimidating stature was asked about writers’ moral responsibilities. He dismissed the question, and the questioner. The essence of his response? Writers are responsible for making art and nothing else.

His answer made me uncomfortable even then but I was too much of a novice to know why. Ever since I’ve navigated literary communities with caution, fearing that my earnest commitment to the common good and to uplifting the human spirit would be written off as contrary to art-making.

Imagine my great relief, then, when I dug into John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction last month! The book confirmed my perception that the literary world does, and has for a few decades now, turned its back on ethical concerns. It also assured me that I’m not alone in facing and embracing them. In fact, Gardner argues that literature only left this noble role in the middle of the 20th century. And he argues (persuasively, I think) that our fiction is lesser for it.

What I most appreciate about Gardner’s work is his comprehensive and surprising understanding of what exactly “moral” means in the context of writing. Lore Segal, who wrote the preface, summarizes the more obvious aspects:

What John Gardner means by moral art has two answers: 1. A work of art is moral when it is faithful to its integral laws; and 2. A work of art is moral when it promotes morality. It was an article of John Gardner’s faith that if it was one it was also the other.

Gardner is quite concerned that a work of literature creates an integrated, reliable world that speaks to our own realities. And he strongly advocates that art do good: “Any…more or less artistic medium…is good (as opposed to pernicious or vacuous) only when it has a clear positive moral effect, presenting valid models for imitation, eternal verities worth keeping in mind, and a benevolent vision of the possible which can inspire and incite human beings toward virtue, toward life affirmation as opposed to destruction or indifference.”

But I found Segal’s summary inadequate, and wasn’t able to articulate why until half-way through when Gardner finally articulated his understanding of the writing process. “What the writer understands, though the student or critic of literature need not, is that the writer discovers, works out, and tests his [sic] ideas in the process of writing. Thus at its best fiction is…a way of thinking, a philosophical method.” He goes on to call “first-class propaganda” that writing that results when writers know what they want to say before they write—when they don’t allow the “mind to be changed by the process of telling the story.”

This writing is moralistic, and quite different from writing Gardner calls moral. (I think contemporary society conflates these two ideas and dismisses both.) The art of moral works is “not merely ornamental: it controls the argument and gives it its rigor, forces the writer to intense yet dispassionate and unprejudiced watchfulness, drives him—in ways abstract logic cannot match—to unexpected discoveries and, frequently, a change of mind.” Finally: “Moral fiction communicates meanings discovered by the process of the fiction’s creation.”

In other words, a significant factor in making a work of literature moral is whether or not the writer is open to surprise during its creation. “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” wrote Robert Frost. Or Gardner again: “We recognize true art by its careful, thoroughly honest search for and analysis of values. It is not didactic because, instead of teaching by authority and force, it explores, open-mindedly, to learn what it should teach.” The artist’s honest exploration of reality through story-telling is what makes work moral—and what makes it art.

I find all three of these ideas (art should have internal integrity; art should “make people good by choice,” as Tolstoy put it; and art should be created in a spirit of inquiry) downright radical in today’s cultural environment. When was the last time you read an article in Poets & Writers or heard an AWP panel discussion on literature as “a force bringing people together, breaking down barriers of prejudice and ignorance, and holding up ideals worth pursuing”? Sure, it’s cool to teach writing as a means of breaking down barriers, but not to use the art-making itself as the means. Writers these days are supposed to be above the moral imperative.

Gardner criticizes contemporary art (which for him was the art of the sixties and seventies—although I suspect he’d find today’s art doubly worthy of this critique) for not struggling as artists have traditionally struggled “toward a vision of how things ought to be” or toward an understanding of what has gone wrong. I understand this as the prophetic voice. “There can be no truly moral art that isn’t social, at least by implication; and on the other hand, there can be no moral social art without honesty in the individual—the artist—as a premise for just and reasonable discussion.” True art is morally and socially engaged.

And loving: “Great art celebrates life’s potential, offering a vision unmistakably and unsentimentally rooted in love. … It is for the pleasure of exercising our capacity to love that we pick up a book at all.” Writers must care about their characters; they must care about the reader. The morality Gardner is talking about is a morality of love, and inquiry, and vision. “True art…clarifies life, establishes models of human action, casts 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. It does not whimper or cower or throw up its hands and bat its lashes. It does not make hope contingent on acceptance of some religious theory. It strikes like lightning, or is lightning; whichever.”

Wow! I know, this is all pretty heady. But if you think about it, all art-makers are guided by a philosophy of art-making that’s largely shaped by our culture, and Gardner’s sort of thinking went out of fashion back in the fifties. I’m happy to embrace it, though. If moral writing is “unmistakably and unsentimentally rooted in love,” bring it on!   –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew


Three upcoming opportunities, all with limited space available:

May 3-7: 3rd Annual Writing Retreat at the ARC Retreat Center, Stanchfield, MN.
May 7, 7 p.m., Listen To Your Mother Show, Riverview Theater, Minneapolis, MN.
June 15-19:  Alone Together:  Write That Book retreat at the Madeline Island School of the Arts.

4 thoughts on “Moral writing? Uncool, but bring it on!”

  1. I love this. Makes me think of a few things: 1) I’ve always told my students, uncool or not, that I don’t see how one can be an artist and an atheist. The two just don’t seem to go hand in hand to me. 2) And, art, I tell them, is hopeful. The very act of making art is hopeful; otherwise, why do it? 3) It reminds me of a piece in yesterday’s Brevity blog, an interview w/ Maggie Nelson, did you see it? She was asked how she “knows what to aim for,” when she’s writing about the self or writing about observations? Her answer: “I focus on aesthetic problems as I work, rather than on psychological ones. Because in my experience, if you resolve the aesthetic issues in any given piece,you’ve also worked out the psychological ones, albeit through the back door.” I think that’s also related to what you and Gardner are saying.
    Wish you had proposed this AWP panel! Next time, maybe? (I’d be interested!).

    1. Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

      Thanks for this, Patty! YES, art is hopeful; it must be hopeful. Reminds me of a psychotherapist who said she always stops worrying about suicidal clients once they begin asking, “What does it mean?” Once we start seeking meaning or form, we become active participants in our story–which is inherently hopeful.

  2. Thanks for this clear explication. The distinction between “moral” and “moralistic” is crucial and has been in exile for several decades.

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