On moral fiction

Yesterday I read John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction, attracted by the title. I persisted, through one of the most annoying books I’ve read. ‘Social justice’ is a cause, not a subject for art; this holds back fiction for ‘blacks and women’. He mentions slightingly Shostakovich’s song ‘for murdered Jews’—the Piano Trio 2, which is my height of music, but to Gardner a mere expression of compassion. Particular cases –‘blacks, women, murdered Jews’ do not make for true art, which ought to be universal: of course Gardner’s ‘universal’ is Western, white, male, invented in ancient Greece, and Christian.

John Gardner I knew for his novel Grendel, the Beowulf story told from the monster’s point of view. That I located and read while beginning my own novel from from Grendel’s point of view. I’m kicking myself again that I never finished that one.

I kept reading On Moral Fiction in spite of his conservative old white man’s identity politics and dismissal of the identity politics of other people. Because his basic arguments often spoke to me.

Gardner tells us how old-fashioned he is, and his book was published in 1978. The idea of the hero is old-fashioned. In part, fiction is moral for Gardner when it presents some positive values, something to strive for, someone with qualities we’d want for ourselves. It doesn’t have this function when we staff a novel with people we despise. I’m with him on this. The previous day I had decided to make my Chinese point-of-view character the Daoist saint who met Tchingis and not the scholar who became the Mongols’ prime minister. Why? My Daoist saint is admirable, my prime minister less so; and I opted for positivity, to focus on a person who I think did good in his world. Gardner stresses that an artist’s job is to exercise scrupulous justice towards characters she dislikes or disagrees with. I’ll try to be fair to the prime minister, who ‘civilized’ Mongols by the light of his own values which he considered universal, and de-Mongolised them without apology. It’s a rule of mine to have no villains, or if I do—Toghrul’s heir Nilqa comes closest in Imaginary Kings—to give them sympathetic points, to argue for them from the inside, where nobody’s a villain. Bad actions, and bad people, but not all bad (as Jamuqa says of his father).

My motivation to write the life of Tchingis in the first place was a positive one. I am tired of ‘power corrupts’ as a trajectory in story. It does—it’s true, but it’s a truism in novels. In my early reading Temujin seemed an odd hold-out; power seemed to leave him incorrupt (on this, see my blog post ‘Grousset’s tragic Jenghiz Khan’). That’s impressive, and worth exploring. ‘Power corrupts’ would have been a negative reason to write; ‘power doesn’t, for once’ was a positive.

You must never have contempt for your characters—even a disguised contempt, a belittling pity or a resolve to make allowances, to ‘understand’ them in their time and place. You must treat them as your equal. Writers of historical fiction might say ‘I respect how tough they were to survive in those conditions’ but this is not real respect, it’s only the word. —It helps to start with a trait you genuinely admire, and cannot account for (Gardner: art doesn’t know what it wants to say beforehand: ‘it explores, open-mindedly, to learn what it should teach’).

In the year ahead I have a lot of violence to write—the third book of Amgalant covers the Mongol conquests. I want to write with ‘moral responsibility’ (Gardner). Although Gardner insults genre fiction (it’s ‘conservative and conformist’ while literary fiction is ‘individualistic’—pah) I have to talk in examples from my genre, historical fiction. Let me state that literary fiction can deal with violence as irresponsibly as genre. Many HF authors do not at all have the aim to write ‘moral fiction’. That’s fine, but it does bother me when they write immoral fiction. Yes, it’s only a HF novel. But I believe you shouldn’t. This aligns me with Gardner, himself an arch ‘conservative and conformist’ to my eyes, and a sad old fogey.

I have felt a bit isolated in this. I take fiction too seriously. ‘Serious’ is a word Gardner uses, serious purpose; I myself use the term ‘high seriousness’ to mark out fiction from the rest that has no high seriousness, though I find hard to explain the distinction. Here I might be even more old-fashioned than Gardner.

Still, it bothers me when popular HF is written with moral irresponsibility about violence. For my chief example I pick on a granddaddy of HF, Bernard Cornwell. I was pretty disturbed by the end of A Winter King. In the last pages Derfel and Nimue enact revenge on a druid and a king who had done terrible things to them.The reader is invited to buy into these retaliatory killings; there is no level of voice in the text that tells us a bloody revenge is wrong. Now, to insert such a voice—the voice that says ‘this is wrong’—is tricky, and has to be done with the subtlest technique; it can’t be in your face or out in the narrative. But that voice ought to be there, unless Cornwell thinks this act of violence not a problem, called for, and doesn’t mind his readers lustily joining in. Because as it stands, his text only invites the reader, imaginatively and emotionally, to join in.

Amount of violence is irrelevant. It’s how you write about it. One of the bloodiest HFs I ever read was The Religion by Tim Willocks. His Malta 1565 reminded me of the trenches in WW1; the subject deserved this sodden treatment (‘human pudding’, I wrote in review), and there was present, always, that elusive element, seriousness. Mind you, I saw an advert for the sequel that was nothing short of shocking: a list of numbers for the types of killing you’ll find in the book. Come read this: there’s immense amounts of blood. I’ll contrast the Malta novel with another one of Cornwell’s, Agincourt, where I only got through 60 pages because they were wall-to-wall violence, without the seriousness. To me, it was obscene. Malta was obscene too, but consciously so, with a purpose. Agincourt was as bloody as possible (as Jamuqa says of himself) for entertainment.

I have always been over-serious, and mistrust the word ‘entertainment’. Along with Gardner, I am likely to ask ‘the humanistic questions: who will this work of art help? what baby is it squashing?’ Fictions that claim only to be entertainment, like literature, can squash kittens and debase responses in the reader. No writer is exempt from responsibility.

Gardner would laugh, who discounts genre from his inquiry. But—just as I demand nonconservative, nonconformist genre fiction—I can’t kick back with books that are immoral about violence. Do I want genre that qualifies as Gardner’s ‘true art’? Of course I do:

‘We recognize true art by its careful, thoroughly honest search for and analysis of values… moral art tests values and rouses trustworthy feelings about the better and the worse in human action.’ The writer doesn’t know what’s trustworthy before the process of writing. She has her values but the writing puts these to the test. If the act of writing hasn’t changed her ideas, her commitments, she isn’t finished yet.

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