(To survey other elements and author quotes, visit the Elements of Fiction home page)

“The humanistic question: Who will this work of art help?” John Gardner

“Morality as shown through human relationships is the whole heart of fiction, and the serious writer has never lived who dealt with anything else.” Eudora Welty

“Great writing fills a reader’s eyes with splendor and clarifies values.” Lu Chi’s Wen Fu

“True art is by its nature moral. Moral art tests values and rouses trustworthy feelings about the better and the worse in human action.” John Gardner

“If [the character] sooner or later acts bravely, or at least honestly, selflessly, the reader will feel a thrill of pride as if he himself or some loved one had behaved well—a pride that, ultimately, expresses pleasure in what is best not just in the made-up character but in all humankind. If [the character] finally behaves well and shows unexpected (but not arbitrary or writer-manipulated) nobility, the reader will feel even better. This is the morality of fiction.” John Gardner

“However it may be achieved, in all great fiction, primary emotion (our emotion as we read, or the characters’ emotions, or some combination of both) must sooner or later lift off from the particular and be transformed to an expression of what is universally good in human life—what promotes happiness for the individual alone and in society; in other words, some statement on value. In good fiction, this universal statement is likely to be too subtle, too loaded with qualifications, to be expressed in any way but the story’s way.” John Gardner

“All true works of art can exert their civilizing influence century after century, long after the cultures that produced them have decayed.” John Gardner

“I agree with Tolstoy that the highest purpose of art is to make people good by choice.” John Gardner

“Novelists are all egoists, narcissists, parties of one, from the greatest to the least. But that is our principal social function—not to join, not to be what the contemporary state considers safe citizens. That can take rather more moral will, patience and courage than most non-writers ever care to realize.” John Fowles

“The chief quality that distinguishes great art, everyone knows, is its sanity, the good sense and efficient energy with which it goes after what is really there and feels significant.” John Gardner

“What counts is not the pressure but the inclusiveness and total energy of the artist’s affirmation.” John Gardner

“The artist’s creative energy pursues something real—affirms some value which ought to be affirmed.” John Gardner

“An important work of art is at least some of the following: 1) aesthetically interesting, 2) technically accomplished, and 3) intellectually massive. A few might even be persuaded that a work cannot be intellectually massive and yet patently wrong, asserting what is false or celebrating what the best and most humane would despise.” John Gardner

“The novelist is asked to begin with an examination of conscience. Or if he must examine his conscience, he is asked to do so in the light of statistics. I’m afraid, though, that this is not the way the novelist uses his eyes. For him, judgment is implicit in the act of seeing. His vision cannot be detached from his moral sense.” Flannery O’Connor

“Henry James said that the morality of a piece of fiction depended on the amount of ‘felt life’ that was in it.” Flannery O’Connor

“Knowledge may or may not lead to belief; understanding always does, since to believe one understands a complex situation is to form at least a tentative theory of how one ought to behave in it. If fiction contains life-like characters, then, and if in the process of reading we come to understand them and worry about them, feeling suspense because their ways of behaving, right or wrong, may get them into trouble, and if in reading a work of fiction we anticipate events and hope that characters will act in one way and not another, bringing about happiness and moral satisfaction, not misery and shame, then fiction is concerned with the Good.” John Gardner

“By what he chooses to present, and by how he presents it, any author expresses his fundamental, metaphysical values—his view of man’s relationship to reality and of what man can and should seek in life.” Ayn Rand

“Human values are abstractions. Before they can become real to or convince anyone, the concretes have to be given. In this sense, every writer is a moral philosopher.” Ayn Rand

“I believe that the fiction writer’s moral sense must coincide with his dramatic sense.” Flannery O’Connor

“What the story does is to narrate that life in time. And what the entire novel does—if it is a good novel—is to include the life by values as well.” E.M. Forster

“I suppose when I say that the moral basis for Poetry is the accurate naming of the things of God, I mean about the same thing that [Joseph] Conrad meant when he said that his aim as an artist was to render the highest possible justice to the visible universe.” Flannery O’Connor

“Certainly some revolt against our exaggerated materialism is long overdue. . . . They call themselves holy but holiness costs and so far as I can see they pay nothing. . . . As long as the beat people abandon themselves to all sensual satisfactions, on principle, you can’t take them for anything but false mystics. . . . You can’t trust them as poets either because they are too busy acting like poets. The true poet is anonymous, as to his habits, but these boys have to look, act, and apparently smell like poets.” Flannery O’Connor on Beat Poets

“It is a fact of life that noble ideas, noble examples of human behavior, can drop out of fashion though they remain as real and applicable as ever—can simply come to be forgotten, plowed under by ‘progress.’” John Gardner

“The traditional view is that art is moral: it seeks to improve life, not debase it. It seeks to hold off, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us. This, I have claimed, is what true art is about—preservation of the world of gods and men.” John Gardner

“We need to stop excusing mediocre and downright pernicious art, stop ‘taking it for what it’s worth’ as we take our fast foods, our overpriced cars that are no good, the overpriced houses we spend all our lives fixing, our television programs, our schools thrown up like barricades in the way of young minds, our brainless fat religions, our poisonous air, our incredible cult of sports, and our ritual of fornicating with all pretty or even horse-faced strangers. We would not put up with a debauched king, but in a democracy all of us are kings, and we praise debauchery as pluralism. This book [On Moral Fiction] is of course no condemnation of pluralism; but it is true that art is in one sense fascistic: it claims, on good authority, that some things are healthy for individuals and society and some things are not. Unlike the fascist in uniform, the artist never forces anyone to anything. He merely makes his case, the strongest case possible. He lights up the darkness with a lightning flash, protects his friends the gods—that is, values—and all humanity without exception, and then moves on.” John Gardner

“Moral art in its highest form holds up models of virtue, whether they become heroic models like Homer’s Achilles or models of quiet endurance, like the coal miners, the steelworkers, the Southern midwife, or the soldiers in the photographs of W. Eugene Smith. The artist so debilitated by self-doubt that he cannot be certain real virtues exist is an artist doomed to second-rate art.” John Gardner

“True art, by specific and technical means now commonly forgotten, clarifies life, establishes models, of human action, casts nets toward the future, carefully judges our right and wrong directions, celebrates and mourns. It does not rant. It does not sneer or giggle in the face of death, it invents prayers and weapons. It designs visions worth trying to make fact. It does not whimper or cower or throw up its hands and bat its lashes. it does not make hope contingent on acceptance of some religious theory. It strikes like lightning, or is lightning; whichever.” John Gardner

“Morality means nothing more than doing what is unselfish, helpful, kind, and noble-hearted, and doing it with at least a reasonable expectation that in the long run as well as the short we won’t be sorry for what we’ve done, whether or not it was against some petty human law. Moral action is action which affirms life.” John Gardner

“Good fiction does not deal in codes of conduct—at least not directly; it affirms responsible humanness.” John Gardner

“Fiction that lasts tends to be ‘moral,’ that is, it works with a minimum of cynical manipulation and it tends to reach affirmations favorable rather than opposed to life.” John Gardner

“In the greatest fiction, the writer’s moral sense coincides with his dramatic sense, and I see no way for it to do this unless his moral judgment is part of the very act of seeing, and he is free to use it.” Flannery O’Connor.

“Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.” Flannery O’Connor

“Judgment is something that begins in the act of vision, and when it does not, or when it becomes separated from vision, then a confusion exists in the mind which transfers itself to the story.” Flannery O’Connor

“The ethic can be distinguished by the sharpness of its tail, called a moral judgment. The rounded tail of the aesthetic is called a judgment of taste.” Donald Guttenplan

“Art should cause violence to be set aside. Art and only art can accomplish this.” Tolstoy

“The task for art to accomplish is to make that feeling of brotherhood and love of one’s neighbor, now attained only by the best members of society, the customary feeling and the instinct of all men. By evoking under imaginary conditions the feeling of brotherhood and love, religious art will train men to experience those same feelings under similar circumstances in actual life; it will lay in the souls of men rails along which the actions of those whom art thus educates will naturally pass.” Tolstoy

“Fairytales change the lives of children. Fairytales educate and liberate children’s emotions.” John Gardner

“The gods set ideals, heroes enact them, and artists or artist-historians preserve the image as a guide for man.” John Gardner

“The Romantic artist took upon himself the labor of being everything at once: (1) the god who shapes the models for human behavior, (2) the heroic model (the equivalent of Christ, Achilles, or Dante as transformed by Beatrice’s love), and (3) the singer of the hero’s deeds.” John Gardner

“Fiction as pure language (texture over structure) is in. It is one common manifestation of what is being called “post-modernism.” At bottom the mistake is a matter of morality, at least in the sense that it shows, on the writer’s part, a lack of concern. To people who care about events and ideas and thus, necessarily, about the clear and efficient statement of both, linguistic opacity suggests indifference to the needs and wishes of the reader and to whatever ideas may be buried under all that brush.” John Gardner

“Too often we find in contemporary fiction not true morality, which requires sympathy and responsible judgment, but some fierce ethic which, under closer inspection, turns out to be some parochial group’s manners and habitual prejudices elevated to the status of ethical imperatives, axioms for which bigotry and hate, not love, is the premise.” John Gardner

“If we are unable to distinguish between true morality—life-affirming, just and compassionate behavior—and statistics (the all but hopeless situation of most of humanity) or, worse, trivial moral fashion, we begin to doubt morality itself.” John Gardner

“The morality of art is, as I’ve said, far less a matter of doctrine than of process. Art is the means by which an artist comes to see; it is his peculiar, highly sophisticated and extremely demanding technique of discovery. Hence the artist—even the essentially great artist—who indulges himself, treating his art as a plaything, a mere vehicle for his ego and abstract ideas, is like a man who uses his spectacles to swat flies.” John Gardner

“Moral fiction communicates meanings discovered by the process of the fiction’s creation.” John Gardner

“It should be noticed that life’s imitation of art is direct and not necessarily intelligent. After Marlon Brando appeared in On The Waterfront, an entire generation took to slumping, mumbling, turning up its collar, and hanging its cigarette casually off the lip. After the appearance of Roy Rogers, hordes of twelve-year olds took to squinting.” John Gardner

“A simulation of real experience is morally educational.” John Gardner

“True moral fiction is a laboratory experiment too difficult and dangerous to try in the world but safe and important in the mirror image of reality in the writer’s mind. Only a madman would murder a sharp old pawn brokeress to test the theory of the superman; but Dostoevsky can without harm send his imaginary Raskonlikov into just that experiment in a thoroughly accurate but imaginary St. Petersburg.” John Gardner

“Real art creates myths a society can live instead of die by, and clearly our society is in need of such myths. What I claim is that such myths are not mere hopeful fairy tales but the products of careful and disciplined thought; that a properly built myth is worthy of belief, at least tentatively; that working at art is a moral act; that a work of art is a moral example; and that false art can be known for what it is if one remembers the rules. The black abyss stirs a certain fascination, admittedly, or we would not pay so many artists so much money to keep staring at it. But the black abyss is merely life as it is or as it soon may become, and staring at it does nothing, merely confirms that it is there. It seems to me time that artists start taking that fact as pretty thoroughly established.” John Gardner

“The primary intuition of an artist, then, is that what is best in life, which he extends to mean what is best in all the universe, is ‘the level of deep experience.’” John Gardner

“From the moral standpoint, bad art and good work by similar processes but have opposite effects, one supporting death and slavery, the other life and freedom.” John Gardner

“The true artist’s purpose, and the purpose of the true critic after him, is to show what is healthy, in other words sane, in human seeing, thinking and feeling, and to point out what is not.” John Gardner

“He may point out what is central to the healthy function of the human spirit—he may deal with morals—in which case his work, if it is successful, is major; or he may point out what is healthy and unhealthy in relatively trivial situations—he may deal with morality as it is reflected in manners—in which case his work is minor.” John Gardner

“Art begins in a wound, an imperfection—a wound inherent in the nature of life itself—and is an attempt either to learn to live with the wound or to heal it. It is the pain of the wound which impels the artist to do his work, and it is the universality of woundedness in the human condition which makes the work of art significant as medicine or distraction.” John Gardner

“What we mean by ‘wound’ in this case of course is some wound to personality and self-confidence, something that attacks or threatens the dignity and self-respect of the artist and must be overcome if his personality is to be healthy.” John Gardner

“I like it that in the Middle Ages literature was in the domain of the clerics and clerks. Of course that religious parallel can lead to mere preaching, didacticism, but I cherish the reminder that we writers have inherited a moral, ethical function.” John Fowles

“Even if the present is barren and unrewarding, even if the public ceases to value or react to us, if we do our best to serve it we can still look to the future, which keeps up our courage and soothes any hurt to our pride. A hundred times over in life the good we do seems useless, and may indeed serve no immediate purpose, but nevertheless it maintains the tradition of meaning and doing well, without which everything would perish.” George Sand

“Our knowledge of men and of history depends upon the depth of our self-knowledge and the extent of our moral horizon.” Erich Auerbach

“When she [Anais Nin] began to write her journal she decided not to write about herself but to write herself.” Frances Wilson

“Nobody likes to be preached at, especially not sinners.” Philip Gerard

“Who you are and how you approach your work will find their way into the writing. The book will bear the stamp of your character as plainly and indelibly as a watermark.” Philip Gerard

“The liveliness of character and personality comes from one’s commitment to the world.” Mark Helprin