On one of my bedroom bookshelves sits a forgotten book by a forgotten writer: Norms for the Novel by Harold C. Gardiner, S.J. It is an interesting piece of literary criticism that was perhaps very much a product of its time (1953), but also a precursor of things to come. Fr. Gardiner was the literary editor of America magazine at the time, and had written positive reviews of novels many readers considered to be morally repugnant, including Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. He wrote articles defending his broad reading habits, which were eventually collected into the booklet Tenets for Readers and Reviewers (1944, rev. 1952).
He is also possibly a bit infamous both for publishing Flannery O’Connor’s essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer” in 1957 and for botching the editing on one paragraph. Other than that minor gaff, I think that Gardiner and O’Connor have many critical affinities, but that would be a discussion better left for another time.
In his endless defense against what he called “the Catholic Philistines,” Gardiner expanded his ideas into the longer Norms for the Novel, thereby covering a broader range of subjects. He is especially interested in moral evaluations, and about not jumping too quickly to the conclusion that a novel is immoral simply because the novelist depicts immoral actions. This was, after all, an age when a Catholic’s decision about whether or not to read a book often went no further than a reference to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. “Too much of the criticism of the novel in our recent past has been based on the assumption that a novel is simply a sociological tract dressed up in a bit of fictional trapping” (vii).
That is all fair enough, although in our present day these thoughts have become rather more commonplace than exceptional. It is more frequent today to read a Catholic reviewer nuancing or excusing questionable elements in a novel than chastising them. An interesting discussion could be had about whether Catholic criticism has leaned too far in this other direction, but Gardiner was surely offering a reasonable counterbalance to the excesses of his own time.
A small selection from the chapter “Fiction and the Art of Living” follows. Most of Fr. Gardiner’s books have been out of print for many years, and it would not be unwelcome to see them published again. His thoughts on the proper approach to Catholic criticism were seminal for what has followed.
The novelist, like any artist, is dealing with two basic but imponderable realities—truth and beauty. The adequacy or the excellence with which he blends these two elements will to a large extent determine his stature in the world of literature. For he must blend the two; if there is no basic truth in his work, its appeal to the reader’s heart and mind is spurious; if there is no perceptible beauty, there is no possible engagement of the emotions. It follows, moreover, that a proper realization of the respective function of these two elements will to a great extent determine the justice of the reader’s demands on the author.
What can the reader demand of the author? He can and must demand, as the present discussion has endeavored to show, that the author treat human beings as human beings and human life as human life—in other words that he never portray men as either angels or fiends incarnate. The reader can further demand and must demand that in treating human life humanly the author does not so glamorize the sinful element in his characters as to run the risk of making the reader’s life less human. (65-66)