On Moral Fiction
“A book as wide-ranging as this one needs a governing metaphor to give it at least an illusion that all is well.”
Like most polemics, there’s some righteousness that John Gardner is working with here on an issue I think that was relevant for the literary moment and for our current literary moment. One of the things that’s kind of funny here is that John Gardner is decidedly less remembered than many of the people he’s criticizing in this piece. So for the book moral fiction is fiction that tries to earnestly grapple with moral questions, but through the process of art. That seems simple enough and it almost is. I think what comes through here is that he actually likes a lot of the books and writers he’s discussing in this book even if he thinks there’s something else going on in them besides good and moral art. So by the process of the art, what he means is that through the expression of the artist’s vision, language, and voice that moral questions get discussed and reckoned with honestly. Again, what this means is that for something to be artistic fiction it needs to be created by a writer using only the language possible to convey the complex understanding of the world being created (regardless of genre), and that the creation must grapple with morality in some way, often with the idea of what to do about it. As the Russian writer might say “What Is to Be Done?”. I agree with the idea that literature is writing that grapples with the complexity of life and expresses this complexity in the only possible way to say it. Another way I might mean by this: a marriage of content and form. It’s impossible to divorce good writing from voice, and impossible to divorce voice from language. So a poorly written book, however complex, cannot be literature, and beautiful writing devoid of deeper meaning or complexity can’t be literature either.
For Gardner, what this book really tries to work with, is how to deal not with bad art or bad writing, but how to figure out what from modernism and postmodernism is representative of this idea. And he spends most of the book moving his way through contemporary writers and exploring what is working and what is not. There’s a Gore Vidal tendency in his writing from the 1950s-1970s to be dismissive of academic fiction, and it almost seems like John Gardner is moving in the same way, but he’s not against postmodernism as a literary style or as a descriptor, but as a way to understand process because he thinks there’s some trickery to it. I think the clearest dichotomy between a writer he thinks is producing moral literature and one who is not (and also he seems to admire the second person here) is that Joyce is, and Pynchon isn’t. If you’re down with the basic idea, I think that covers a lot of ground. I don’t think I agree with all he’s arguing here, but there’s something compelling to the idea of how to handle certain literary tricksters.
Three Early Stories of JD Salinger
JD Salinger is one of those writers who bring out strong emotions in people. I first read Catcher in the Rye when I was 13 and I loved it. I had a more mixed reaction in college when I reread it, but I think that is entirely because what is exciting for a 13 year old about the book, is embarrassing for a 20 year old who is trying not to identify with Holden now they’re much older (like 3 years). A few years later I reread and loved it again, but it was different because I was not really very self-conscious about my teenage self any more and then also had been a teacher long enough to develop a kind of compassion for young people I certainly didn’t have when I was one.
The funny thing is is that I really don’t particularly like his other books. And I think I have read them all. There’s something about Holden that the other books cannot replicate for me. And these stories are not going to change that. Rather than really capturing a young person trying to make sense of their trauma and the world around them, you have a young writer trying to do the same, but without the irony and humility that comes with reflective writing like Catcher in the Rye. It’s interesting to look at the early stories, but they’re not very interesting stories.
I think William Sleator had a kind of haunted life, and that’s sometimes apparent in his early writing, which tends to be very science fiction and fantasy heavy, and in a lot of cases experimental quantum mechanics and chaos theory inspired. This is probably the latest of his books I’ve read, except for the sequel to Interstellar Pig, which was pretty bad. This is not bad really, but it’s not especially good.
It takes place in Thailand, where Sleator lived for the last few decades of his life, where Dom, an American boy staying in Thailand with his professor parents, meets Lek, a boy his same age who helps them when they get lost, and also works as a street food vendor. Lek is in possession of some kind of object that seemingly grants wishes, but at a cost. The two investigate it together.
What I like about Sleator is how not precocious his characters are. They might have plenty of knowledge about the world from school, but they tend to act and talk and think like the teens they are. He seems to understand that being 15 is actually pretty young.
The Good Enough Parent
This is a 1980s guide to parenting put together by the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim (most famous for his book The Use of Enchantment, about mythology). I don’t think this is his primary research field, but a kind of culmination of lots of research from his work combined with others. The title itself is a reference to the overall idea of the book, but also a group of research this book draws from. The idea here is that there is both no perfect parent, an ideal that is detrimental, nor really an idea parent. There’s some specific recommendations within the text, some of which make a lot of sense, and others that feel a little more of a time, but the the general idea is to be not even the best you can, but good enough to maintain an acceptable range and to keep expectations from working against you.
The main driving force of this idea I would say is empathy and compassion, but also a kind of dynamism. Specifically Bettelheim suggests that parent/child interactions to be driven by the love the parent has for the child and the love the child continues to develop for the parent. Then, the parent should use empathy and compassion to understand what the child is experiencing, what the child knows or doesn’t know, and what the child feels in governing the interactions. The book is also decidedly against rigidness in interactions (as a general rule, not at all times) in order to allow for more variables than a set philosophy can account for.
If all this sounds obvious, I can assure you it wasn’t obvious to my parents, and a lot of peers’ parents in the 1980s when this book came out. I have some serious resentment and frustrations with my childhood partly drawn from my dad’s alcoholism, my mom’s codependency, and both parents’ egos and traditionalism coming into play constantly. So as obvious as it sounds now, I could have used some of that obviousness in my youth. My parents might have been doing their best, but I am not sure that was always “good enough”.
The New Basics: A-to-Z Baby & Child Care for the Modern Parent
This is a dictionary or encyclopedia of terms and ideas from a well-known New York baby doctor (for the elite!). It’s based in some of the same ideas that “Bringing Up Bebe” is drawn from, which means that there’s a lot of good, a lot of privilege, and some elements not so great maybe.