Monday, September 20, 2010

100 Days of Fantasy: Day 42

This is an ongoing series looking at books that have influenced me as a fantasy author.

On Moral Fiction
by John Gardner

On Moral Fiction (A Harper Torchbook- TB 5069)I only read this non-fiction book earlier this year, but it left me wishing I'd read it years and years ago.

Basically, it's the late John Gardner's opinions about the ethics of art, mainly dealing with writing, and his comparison of high art and low art.

And opinionated, it surely is.

By today's standards, this book published in the late 1970s would come off as leaning toward conservatism, possibly even prudish in some places. While not suggesting Judeo-Christian theology and ethics are the end-all, be-all of morality, Gardner definitely leans in that direction, espousing religion (generally without naming a particular religion) as having its place in society because helps to keep individuals and society at large from tunneling into a pit of depravity.

I consider myself a moderate, but I can't disagree with Gardner. For all the faults one could find with religion, specifically organized religion, it also has served positive purposes upon mankind at times.

Generally, the author's overall thesis is that art, good art, gives positive examples of how we should interact with one another and possibly with a supreme being. Good art gives examples of morality. Bad art, on the other hand, shows us nothing or worse, celebrates "ugliness and futility, scoffing at good."

But Gardner does not relegate writers to the position of a priest. He clearly separates church and art. "Religion's chief value is its conservatism; it keeps us in touch with what at least one section of humanity has believed for centuries. Art's chief value is that it takes nothing for granted."

So the artist is there to question, to question everything, from our values to our ideas and onward. Religion, on the other hand, is there to strengthen certain core values.

Regardless of one's personal beliefs on religion or society at large, I believe most writers would agree that artists are meant to question. Even artists who might not consciously attempt to do so, would have to agree that many artists have attempted to question everything, from standards to values and so forth.

In a way, Gardner places the artist on the same pedestal as priests, though with a different job. He suggests that artists, at least true artists or good artists, question but also hold up a higher level of ethics. "It can be shown by infallible or at least official logic that values are all a matter of opinion, that what seems good in one culture ... seems unpleasant to another. It can be proved positively that everything is relative. But not to an artist."

I like that.

Of course, others will disagree. And that's all right. All of us are allowed our own opinions, despite certain elements of the modern world constantly trying to stamp out the ideas of others. One can always question. Or, at least, an artist can.

Up next: Foucault's Pendulum

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