John Gardner’s Tricksy Death and Tangled Legacy

Grendel_cropBen Pfeiffer at The Paris Review:

Four years before his death, John Gardner committed his negative opinions of his contemporaries to print. Gardner’s On Moral Fiction argues for a moral, life-affirming view of fiction and aims to continue the conversation left off at the end of Leo Tolstoy’s late-in-life screed What is Art? (in which the Russian master denounces everything he’s written as not being true art). Gardner railed against his contemporaries, such as Updike and Thomas Pynchon, accusing them of a tricksiness that elided fiction’s eternal verities. Most contemporary literature, he claimed, was “either trivial or false.” On Moral Fiction’s tone was perceived as deeply conservative—so much so that the American Nazi Party sent Gardner an invitation for membership (he sent back an expletive-filled reply saying, in effect, fuck off). Gardner’s publisher, Knopf, refused to print the manuscript, but Basic Books eventually did. In an essay published fifteen years after his death, Gardner’s second wife, Liz Rosenberg wrote, “Nearly overnight, he turned from darling of the literary establishment to its pariah.” She says she thinks Gardner named names in On Moral Fiction to prove to himself he wasn’t afraid. “Perhaps,” she wrote, “he should have been.”

more here.