Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!
Conversations with Tom Wolfe
edited by dorothy scura
university press of mississippi, 296 pages, $29.95 

Conversations with John Gardner
edited by allan chavkin
university press of mississippi, 310 pages, $29.95

Because Tom Wolfe is a celebrity, there is every reason for him to agree to as many interviews as he can get. Interest in the writer serves to encourage interest in what he has written. Wolfe has produced some widely admired journalistic pieces and one best-selling color-by-number novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. There is a hard-edged intelligence in his work, but it is manipulative, bringing the reporter front and center, like Mike Wallace on television. The question that most seems to interest Wolfe is status—his own not the least.

In the interviews gathered for this collection, Wolfe is full of opinions about fiction, most of them inappropriate. He cannot make himself read Saul Bellow. “I’ve tried. He leaves me flat.” The moral ideas of Dostoevsky “are irrelevant to his work.” He opines that his mission is to lead novelists back to realism—defined as a kind of journalism. Like Zola and Sinclair Lewis (apt heroes for him) the novelist should report “the way we live now.” Fiction should be more like journalism; journalism should be more like fiction. It is perhaps not surprising that some critics question whether he has succeeded fully in writing either. What he has undoubtedly done well is invent a persona; his true mission is calling attention to that invention.

John Gardner was more than a celebrity, although he started to become one before his premature death at forty-nine. While he was not a major artist, he attracted interest both for his fiction and for his literary criticism. He gave at least 140 interviews in the last ten years of his life, of which twenty-one are printed in this edition.

One theme predominates. After On Moral Fiction was published in 1978, it became the principal focus of his interviews. On the one hand, Gardner wanted fiction to be moral because it could do good for the commonweal only on that condition. On the other hand, he threw over his hereditary Protestantism, leaving morality to stand by itself with no religious base on which to rest. When asked if there was an important religious dimension to his fiction, he replied, “Yes, but what religion?”

Moral for Gardner meant “life-giving,” which is not so much a definition as an emotional response. A real definition would have bound him. Unencumbered, he could indulge in generalities that committed him only to his own opinion: “Novelists must be heroic in affirming life”; there are such things as “human nature,” “universal values,” and “a universal human morality.” One can see in Gardner’s moral scheme a classic instance of secular humanism. As he put it, “Obviously, everything that I write, everything that I think, is a secular version of traditional morality.”

In On Moral Fiction, Gardner quotes Tolstoy’s “What Is Art?” to the effect that art aided by science and guided by religion will help mankind to experience “the feeling of brotherhood and love of one’s neighbor.” This is the basis of Gardner’s theory of moral fiction; it “still seems correct with or without its religious premise.” Morality as a principle of art “need not be abandoned when the sky comes to be ‘ungoded.’” The Romantic/post-Romantic position remains valid without God or religion to undergird it. Utterly ignoring the devastating failure of the Romantic sensibility in the twentieth century, Gardner echoes Matthew Arnold’s hope that literature will serve as an adequate substitute for religion. “Fiction,” he says, “is the only religion I have,” and he described his fiction as “the making of a new morality.”

In primitive societies, Gardner argued, poet and priest were one. In modern times, the poet has replaced the priest. “God is merely a word the poet-priest uses to express a synthesis of feelings he cannot otherwise express except by telling stories. . . . ” Gardner makes a full commitment to art as icon. It is the artist who discovers the eternal verities of the world. Religion, alas, turns these discoveries into laws and becomes self-righteous. “Religions always have simple answers which exclude people.” All religious codes are “too narrowing.” Real morality can never be codified. “The whole spiritual world is an irrelevant kind of thing except as a metaphor for values.” Art is man’s chief weapon against the barbaric forces that would destroy our civilization. T. S. Eliot thought differently. As he wrote in “Poetry and Propaganda,” the existence of art surely implies the reality of values, “but that does not take us anywhere, and certainly points to no philosophic theory of value.” If we get values from poets, where do they get them?

Gardner’s intentions were in the broadest sense often good, but hopelessly lost in an unrestrained enthusiasm that led to sentimentality. And when sentimentality gets the bit in its teeth, it is a terrible and terrifying thing. Gardner’s sense that something or other was wrong with fiction was true. Many of our prominent writers have misled us, as Saul Bellow noted in his Nobel Prize address. The connection between public life and literature is often debased. But Gardner’s insight was so protean that he could never quite grasp and hold it. R. Burton Palmer has rightly called his passion for moral fiction a cri de coeur, which, I think, best explains its compelling strength and its fatal weakness.

These two volumes are part of a series of collected interviews of writers being published by the University Press of Mississippi. They are handsomely done up in paper and hardcover. Despite my firm belief in the principle that one should trust the tale, not the teller, I must conclude that they will be useful to the literary critic and the scholar.

Joseph Schwartz is Professor of English at Marquette University. His most recent book is Hart Crane: A Reference Guide.