The Moral Duty of Fiction

Angst and Desire
3 min readJul 24, 2023
A nice smug picture of John Gardner

“Fiction can never pronounce ultimate solutions, but it can lead to understanding. It leads, and that’s all. It gives visions of what’s possible.”

— John Gardner

In an interview with The Paris Review (collected in this book edition), the writer John Gardner reflects on what it means to write good and ‘moral’ fiction. Although calling anything moral invites misinterpretation, he defends the use.

Good works of fiction study values by testing them in imagined/real situations, testing them hard, being absolutely fair to both sides. The real moral writer is the opposite of the minister, the preacher, the rabbi. Insofar as he can, the preacher tries to keep religion as it always was, outlawing contraceptives or whatever; his job is conservative. The writer’s job on the other hand, is to be radically open to persuasion. He should, if possible, not be committed to one side more than to the other — which is simply to say that he wants to affirm life, not sneer at it — but he has to be absolutely fair, understand the moral limits of his partisanship. His affirmation has to be earned. If he favors the cop, he must understand the arguments for life on the side of the robber.

I’m reminded here of Chekhov, who said it is not the writer’s job to judge his characters, but simply to describe them.

On what sort of fiction Gardener would consider immoral, he says:

Fiction goes immoral when it stops being fair, when it stops trusting the laboratory experiment. You lie about characters, you make people do what you want them to do.

Immoral fiction is any kind of propaganda, however noble we may think the cause. Agendas distorts the story, taking us away from the task of representing something honestly.

If I were going to write a book that told people how to live, I would write an incredibly meticulous book about Indian gurus, Jewish heroes, Christian saints. I would present every right argument and show clearly and logically what the wrong sides are. It would be simple, except that logic is never to be trusted. And everybody who read my book would say, if I did my job brilliantly, that’s the way to live. The trouble is they wouldn’t read the book because it would be boring, and even if they did read and understand, they wouldn’t be moved to action. The book wouldn’t be interesting because it wouldn’t show people we care about growing toward the truth. If you show characters struggling to know what’s right, and in the process of the novel you work out their issues more and more clearly, whether the character heroically wins or tragically loses, then you move the reader, having first moved yourself. I think morality has to be persuasive. And you can only be persuasive if you start with imperfect human beings. Of course, if you wind up with perfect human beings, that’s a bore too.

Whereas Chekhov took a more passive, observational approach to his characters, Gardener is more actively investigative — using his stories to find out how human morals play out in different circumstances.

When I write a piece of fiction I select my characters and settings and so on because they have a bearing, at least to me, on the old unanswerable philosophical questions. And as I spin out the action, I’m always very concerned with springing discoveries — actual philosophical discoveries. But at the same time I’m concerned — and finally more concerned — with what the discoveries do to the character who makes them, and to the people around him.

Perhaps Gardner would agree with the Manbooker Prize Winner Julian Barnes, who once elegantly wrote that “The best fiction rarely provides answers; but it does formulate the questions exceptionally well.”



Angst and Desire

Curating the best of life advice from Philosophy, Psychology and Literature.