26 January 2005

More on John Gardner

Back in September I rambled on a bit about John Gardner, and now, thanks to a link from Mark Sarvas, I discovered a review by Philip Christman of Martin Amis's new novel, a review that applies some ideas from Gardner's On Moral Fiction to Amis's work. While I didn't agree with the rather broad generalization about the portrayal of sex in fiction that Christman offered at the end of his review, I was still glad to see someone trying to rescue a few ideas from the shaky ship of Gardner's polemic. The thing about On Moral Fiction that's so annoying is not all of Gardner's mudslinging against his contemporaries (that was annoying then, but they lived through it just fine), but rather the fact that he buries some truly interesting and possibly even worthwhile ideas beneath such bombastic rhetoric that it's difficult to take any of it seriously.

Christman, it turns out, is a Gardner devotee, as evidenced by his blog and this article from Paste. He and I have vastly different taste, it seems, and so value certain elements of Gardner quite differently, but it's nice nonetheless to see someone else paying some attention to a writer of so many virtues amidst his flaws.

At his weblog, Christman writes:
Yet his reputation has declined--from Jonathan Franzen-size celebrity less than a generation ago to me getting politely confused looks when I mention him now. But I'm not even sure Franzen is the right reference point. In a culture where the irrelevance of books--whatever the hell that's supposed to mean--wasn't as eagerly conceded as it is today, where changes in tax laws had not yet made it harder for older books to remain in holding (now they get remaindered and pulped much faster), where cable and videostores and the Internet didn't provide as many alternatives, where Jaws and Star Wars hadn't yet solidified (I don't believe they created) the blockbuster mentality and mergers hadn't yet speeded that particular disease to every major area of the media, the literary celebrity of John Gardner may have been of a kind we can't quite imagine today. Conventionally, his disappearance from bookstores and conversation is blamed on a couple of factors: He wrote too much, too fast, especially late in his career; he pissed off a lot of people with the careless and reactionary On Moral Fiction; and the rumors about his out-of-control personal life (as well as accusations of plagiarism in his Geoffrey Chaucer biography) made his supposedly moralistic take on how criticism should be done insupportably annoying and hypocritical. I concede none of these points except the last one, and that only partially (I believe his "plagiarism" amounted to forgetfulness, but nobody's going to argue he was a good husband). Gardner's late books are fucking fantastic--Mickellson's Ghosts is a glorious kitchen-sink thriller-love story-philosophical rant, the kind of book that attempts so much and succeeds so often that only the most anal of critics could dislike it. Even Freddy's Book, the oddly-shaped and inconclusive little fable for which he was roundly panned in 1980, is wonderfully atmospheric, and the fact that its framing device is never returned to (for which Gardner suffered much criticism) seems to fit with the mood of existential stalemate the central story leaves us in.
This seems about right to me, though I'd add mention of Gardner's collections The King's Indian and The Art of Living, because it was as a short story writer that, for me, Gardner's fiction was at its most original (and bearable).

I do disagree with Christman about the application of some of Gardner's ideas, and this may come mostly from my not being a Christian than from anything else. At the end of his Amis review, Christman writes:
When John Gardner was in a somewhat more temperate mood, he revisited some of On Moral Fiction's arguments in the subtler, more positive The Art of Fiction, a handbook for aspiring writers. There he argues that the novelist ought to think twice about portraying anything in her fiction that the greatest writers--Chaucer, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, the authors of the Bible--would avoid. It seems a decent makeshift rule for avoiding the trivial (all those scenes Philip Roth sets in the bathroom) or the morbid; after all, there's little in the range of human experience that even the Bible evades. There is something private in human sexuality, something that makes it unportrayable; the very act of observation distorts, as Wendell Berry has argued. In a novel that is occasionally eloquent on the dinginess of a culture of primped, prompted, scripted, and exposed sexuality, the portrayal of actual relationship--the love that we are told develops between Xan and Cora, and between Russia and Xan--seems to elude the author, and his characters' personalities fly right out the window with it.
I am, as just about everybody knows by now, vehemently skeptical of categorical statements about what fiction can and can't do, so a claim like "there is something private in human sexuality, something that makes it unportrayable; the very act of observation distorts" immediately sets my teeth grinding with a determination to prove it wrong, and a suspicion that the sentiment comes more from the religious sense of the human body being unmentionable, shameful, dirty. After all, while he may not quite be Tolstoy, Nick Mamatas manages to do some pretty marvelous things with his story "Withdraw, Withdraw!", a story that wouldn't work if it weren't as explicit as it is. (It is, in fact, a story I think both Tolstoy and Gardner would see the merits of.) The sex in Nick's story is coarse, and it needs to be, but I've also read some immensely beautiful sex scenes, scenes of tenderness and humanity. It's difficult, indeed, and some writers are vastly better at it than others, but the only reason we think sex scenes are "impossible" is because for the majority of fiction's history, explicit scenes have been taboo.

The thing about Gardner is that he discovered some things worth arguing about, things other than itsy bitsy iterations of diction or implied subversions of liminal gobbledegook. I happen to think he was wrong most of the time about which side he came down on, at least in On Moral Fiction, but that's less important to me than his ability to home in on issues and elements that are fascinating to discuss. On Moral Fiction retains its ability to make me tremendously angry -- and hooray for that! Any critic who isn't capable of making people angry now and then probably isn't risking enough.

Gardner was flat-out, 100% wrong for many pages of On Moral Fiction (for instance, he listed a variety of contemporary American writers considered serious and consequential and said most would not be remembered by the end of the 20th century: "Some on the list will die quickly, of pure meanness -- [Katherine Anne] Porter, [Robert] Coover, and [William] Gaddis -- and some will die of intellectual blight, academic narrowness, or fakery -- [Thomas] Pynchon, [John] Updike (or most of his work), and [John] Barth." All six writers are now vastly better known and respected for their fiction than Gardner for his). Yes, he was a blowhard. So what? He zoomed in on topics I still like to consider: the point of writing, the effect of ideas on readers and writers, the dangerous high-wire walk between individual vision and responsibility to a community, the power of fiction to infect minds and worldviews, the nature and purpose of art and artfulness. The big questions, the questions we pose toward things that truly matter.

I don't think we live in a world where fiction is nearly as important to society as Gardner thought it was to his, but what's wrong with pretending? We can't always live in an imaginary Eden where books are fundamental to life, but every now and then it's a good place to visit...

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