Before he was hurled over the front of a motorbike at age 49, John Gardner initiated a remarkably rancorous debate among then-famous authors with On Moral Fiction (1979), a memorably seat-of-the-pants polemic in which he argued that literature and storytelling are—or can be—methods of ethical reasoning, upholding "valid models for imitation."

Everything hangs on that "valid," for these "models," for Gardner, were to be anything but the didactic playthings, pushed around by an author's pet ideologies or childhood grudges, that most readers imagine when they light on such phrases. Rather, the validity of the model is determined by the artist's process: Good writers, said Gardner, proceed through "endless blind experiments" with voice, style, subject, et. al., open-mindedly exploring the moral implications of each experiment (each character, each narrative tone, each moral assumption). It follows, then, that a bad novel will be a failure of process—an innovative style thoughtlessly adopted, or a major character whom the novelist has failed to understand, or a moral conclusion simply propounded by the narrator, without the test of dramatization.

For all the controversy engendered by Martin Amis' notably explicit novel, Yellow Dog—published here just over a year ago and released this month in paperback—it's in Gardner's sense of the term that the book morally offends. In fact, and curiously, Amis' latest production has some basically conservative points to make about the pandemic confusion that is contemporary sexual practice, points which are, by and large, well-taken. To have the satiric and stylistic mind behind Money (1984) and London Fields (1989)—a man whose ...

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