The Paris Review interview that I chose to read next was that of John Gardner, writer, medieval scholar, and teacher. Gardner was among the very first contemporary novelists whose works I collected and read in depth, beginning with the masterpiece, Grendel, his retelling of the Beowulf saga.
The Gardner interview in The Paris Review is actually a composite, featuring questions posed to him by three different interviewers over the last decade of his life. It was very difficult to select one excerpt to share here. Gardner’s responses to his interviewers are detailed, thoughtful, profound, and “pithy” on every topic proposed to him. But I have established my ground rules for this feature and I must stick to them. Ergo, just one excerpt from the 27-page interview have I chosen, and just one excerpt shall I use.
I will, however, first present an excerpt from another source that I believe you will see only here. As you may know, John Gardner died tragically young, in a motorcycle accident, on September 14, 1982. I was recently privy at work to a letter written upon the occasion of Gardner’s death by his friend, the poet Dave Smith, to Smith’s former teacher and mentor, poet and novelist, Hollis Summers. The letter was written in the immediate aftermath of Smith’s having been notified of Gardner’s demise. Smith writes:
Gardner said something to me once that I care about
and l’ll stop rambling and say it. He said that the main character in
everything we write or ever would write was Death. Our task as writers
was to confront that and live with it well.
John Gardner’s œuvre is the embodiment of the “moral fiction” of which he was a strenuous and consistent advocate. On the basis of this, he has been considered a “conservative” in certain circles. In his writings, both fiction and non-fiction, Gardner accuses us all of potential bad faith in our personal confrontation with death; his aim to force us to fully examine this existential stumbling block. His message to other writers is that to possess real meaning, and ultimate value, their work must show the reader how it is possible for the individual to live according to knowable, objective, moral standards.
With these things in mind, please read the excerpt I have chosen from The Paris Review:
As I tried to make plain in On Moral Fiction, I think that the difference right now between good art and bad art is that the good artists are the people who are, in one way or another, creating, out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life in the twentieth century that is worth pursuing. And the bad artists, of whom there are many, are whining or moaning or staring, because it’s fashionable, into the dark abyss. If you believe that life is fundamentally a volcano full of baby skulls, you’ve got two main choices as an artist: You can either stare into the volcano and count the skulls for the thousandth time and tell everybody, There are the skulls; that’s your baby, Mrs. Miller. Or you can try to build walls so that fewer baby skulls go in.
I believe that it is precisely those “fashionable” skull-counting whiners to whom the great poet and songwriter, Leonard Cohen, was referring in his song, The Future:
“…and all the lousy little poets coming round / tryin’ to sound like Charlie Manson…”
You may not agree with John Gardner’s philosophy. It is, undeniably, the expression of a conservative perspective on art. But whether you confront it as an artist, or as a consumer of art, you fail to give it serious consideration only at great personal risk as a moral agent.