Moral Fiction?

Interesting review/discussion over at Books & Culture. Philip Christman discusses the possibilities of “moral fiction” in a review of Yellow Dog by Martin Amis (recently released in paperback). Christman introduces the subject:

Before he was hurled over the front of a motorbike at age 49, John Gardner initiated a remarkably rancorous debate among then-famous authors with On Moral Fiction (1979), a memorably seat-of-the-pants polemic in which he argued that literature and storytelling are—or can be—methods of ethical reasoning, upholding “valid models for imitation.”

Everything hangs on that “valid,” for these “models,” for Gardner, were to be anything but the didactic playthings, pushed around by an author’s pet ideologies or childhood grudges, that most readers imagine when they light on such phrases. Rather, the validity of the model is determined by the artist’s process: Good writers, said Gardner, proceed through “endless blind experiments” with voice, style, subject, et. al., open-mindedly exploring the moral implications of each experiment (each character, each narrative tone, each moral assumption). It follows, then, that a bad novel will be a failure of process—an innovative style thoughtlessly adopted, or a major character whom the novelist has failed to understand, or a moral conclusion simply propounded by the narrator, without the test of dramatization.

He goes on to discuss Yellow Dog with this idea in mind. But he also considers the literary quality of the work; whether Amis succeeds in what he sets out to do. He gives Amis credit where it is due on issues of style and ambition, but ultimately finds the work wanting:

Amis’ failure to fully dramatize the struggle of his main character, Xan Meo, to stave off his ugliest, most possessive sexual-aggressive instincts robs the novel of the seriousness Amis seems intent upon . . . By the end of the novel, he resembles a third-rate Oscar Wilde: a maker of smooth apothegms, a clever satirist who like most satirists is never far from preaching. We forget that Wilde, too, though he said that all bad poets are “sincere,” wrote moral fables that are childlike in their earnestness.

Worth a read.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).