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On Moral Fiction (A Harper Torchbook- TB 5069) Paperback – October 5, 1979

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On Moral Fiction (A Harper Torchbook- TB 5069) + The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers + On Becoming a Novelist
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 234 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books, Inc. (October 5, 1979)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465052266
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465052264
  • Product Dimensions: 7.9 x 5.1 x 0.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #115,895 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"It is salutary to come across a writer who is genuinely ambitious for art." -- The New York Review of Books

"John Gardner's On Moral Fiction is criticism with both eyes open, fearless, illuminating, proving...that true art is moral and not trivial." -- Los Angeles Times

"Most refreshing about Gardner is his belief that some truths are indeed knowable." -- Business Week

About the Author

John Gardner (1933–1982) was a bestselling novelist and one of the most popular and respected writing teachers of his generation. His books On Moral Fiction, The Art of Fiction, and On Becoming a Novelist are consulted by thousands of aspiring writers every year. His novels include the classic Grendel and the bestsellers October Light, The Sunlight Dialogues, and Nickel Mountain.

More About the Author

John Gardner (1933-1982) was born in Batavia, New York. His critically acclaimed books include the novels Grendel, The Sunlight Dialogues, and October Light, for which he received the National Book Critics Circle Award, as well as several works of nonfiction and criticism such as On Becoming a Novelist. He was also a professor of medieval literature and a pioneering creative writing teacher whose students included Raymond Carver and Charles Johnson.

Customer Reviews

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Serious writers should read this book.
Irami Osei-Frimpong
While I don't agree with everything Gardner says, I do have to acknowledge that his arguments are intelligent, well researched, well written and coherently argued.
In my humble opinion, John Gardner, with all his talent and good heart, was one such.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

55 of 60 people found the following review helpful By Carra R Lane on February 15, 2000
Format: Paperback
This book created some stir when originally published, perhaps due more to the naming of names (of peers Gardner judged arrogant/irresponsible/careless) than to the deeper ideas/passions which inform it. One star is subtracted for poor strategy, excessive willingness to engage on turf occupied/fortified by his not at all innocent victims. Gardner does get lost, from time to time, in one abstract philosophical swamp or another. The book may be needlessly long. But the writing rings true, finally. This is the most ambitious literary argument published during the past fifty years, certainly, and it is essentially on the mark. The academic canon was tilting dangerously in the direction of empty opaque diddling during the seventies, choked with very talented hip and superhip cynics, often on university payrolls, weary of the ancient plain work of shaping stories. The vogue was so universal that Gardner fails to find a single working American high lit contender (excluding himself, we trust) to like without heavy reservations. He does favor one Englishman, at least. This ground is tricky. Some of the writing disdained/derided seeks, in various ways, to imitate James Joyce, who is granted a semi-pass, and Ezra Pound is not properly whapped until near the end. Connecting the wave of mean arrogant cleverness to its obvious roots counts, has consequences. Gardner, who died by motorcycle accident in the early eighties, may have been just beginning to fight.
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37 of 41 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 1, 2001
Format: Paperback
I first read this book in the 1970's when it was new. I've owned a copy ever since, and I've given so many away as gifts that I've lost count.
It is easily my favorite book. From the moment I first read it, until today; I open its pages and feel as if I'm having a literary conversation with an old friend.
The "moral" in the title puts off some folks, but don't be deterred. Gardner uses the term "moral" as you or I would use the word "truth." All Gardner is imploring is that authors seek the truth when writing fiction and avoid cheap tricks and cheap effects. That is all.
Yes, Gardner did feel that writing comes with a responsibility. He also felt it was nothing less than a privilege, and thus comes the responsibility that goes with privilege.
Buy it, enjoy it. If you share Gardner's view (as illustrated in the paragraph above, I promise you -- you will cherish this volume).
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72 of 84 people found the following review helpful By Michael Leone on December 8, 2000
Format: Paperback
Gardner's work certainly won't appeal to postmodernists or other avant-garde scribblers who believe form takes precedence over content. His thesis is simple: all art purports to better the world, not hinder it; all art essentially believes in a form of goodness, truth, beauty, whatever you want to call it, in the sense that it affirms that there is an inherent value in life and no value in "valuelessness." He comes down strongly on writers who write like "writers," and where style becomes more important than the timeless art of storytelling. All this probably won't be very compelling to many of the readers who cling to the works of 60s writers like Pynchon, Gass, Coover, et al., who write thinly disguised treatises, not novels, and who people their books not with characters but mannequins. There is something old fashioned about Gardner's point of view, which won't win him many hipster fans, but his argument, this reader feels, stands up even stronger in today's climate where the main literary trends seem to consist of endless irony, facile references to pop culture and television. Furthermore, his book is lucid, trenchant, passionate, engaging, and of course, confrontational.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By The Onionist on January 8, 2005
Format: Paperback
I enjoy Gardner's critical and educational writings even when I disagree, as with the idea of the indispensible "fictional dream." I'd like to point out, though, something other reviewers here seem to have either missed or mistaken for a contradiction. The avant garde and postmodernism seem to be placed, by these reviewers, at the opposite end of the scale from that which Gardner promotes. Meanwhile, Gardner clearly didn't believe that postmodernism and the avant garde were useless and irresponsible, as he himself wrote odd, postmodern novels while remaining within his own guidelines. He was also a vocal fan of much of Barthelme's work, as well as Beckett's. The avant garde is not the opposite pole from what Gardner intends, and he never suggested it was.
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37 of 45 people found the following review helpful By "elljay" on May 21, 2000
Format: Paperback
It is dangerous to write a book claiming (to oversimplify Gardner's argument considerably) that the arts must above all be "life-affirming." It opens one up to accusations of priggishness, of fuddy-duddyness.
Gardner can indeed be difficult to take, especially when he rambles on at length about the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. It is more difficult, though, not to agree with him when he insists that the vast majority of art produced today is essentially worthless. (The title is slightly misleading: his focus is on fiction, but he discusses contemporary theatre, poetry, and music as well.) Those of us who have trouble thinking of guys like John Updike, John Barth, and Thomas Pynchon as "major" authors will find a friend in Gardner, who is not one to mince words.
Fortunately, Gardner is aware that the world of art cannot be reduced to black-and-white contrasts; for all his self-righteous fire, it is obvious that he has considered his position well. Clearly, he knows a lot about the history of art.
His argument here is, I think, largely sound--but I am personally not certain whether we would be better off if we had an army of young writers eager to affirm all that is Good, True, and Beautiful. Bad art is nothing new--the late Roman Empire was rife with would-be Homers. The existence of bad art has less to do with our hopelessly decadent times than with the inherent difficulty involved in creating timeless masterpieces, as well as the perennial scarcity of real talent. And one really does not have to be a "moral" critic to find fault with authors like William Gass. Gardner certainly has some valid points here, and this book is definitely worth reading, but as a call to arms I wonder how much value it really has. But perhaps you should read this book and judge for yourself.
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