Great art is connected with courage and truthfulness

A quote from Iris Murdoch, interviewed in the Paris Review, that I want to remember –

To write a good book you have to have certain qualities. Great art is connected with courage and truthfulness. There is a conception of truth, a lack of illusion, an ability to overcome selfish obsessions, which goes with good art, and the artist has got to have that particular sort of moral stamina. Good art, whatever its style, has qualities of hardness, firmness, realism, clarity, detachment, justice, truth. It is the work of a free, unfettered, uncorrupted imagination. Whereas bad art is the soft, messy self-indulgent work of an enslaved fantasy. Pornography is at one end of that scale, great art at the other end.


It is one of the main charms of the art form and its prime mode of exposition. A novel without a story must work very hard in other ways to be worth reading, and indeed to be read. Some of today’s antistory novels are too deliberately arcane. I think story is essential to the survival of the novel. Stories are a fundamental human form of thought.

~ Iris Murdoch


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

8 thoughts on “Great art is connected with courage and truthfulness

  1. I want very much to agree with this view, even if it does veer a little into absolutes: “It is the work of a free, unfettered, uncorrupted imagination.” Whether or not it can, does such a thing exist?

    On the point of the story being fundamental to our thinking, I can certainly agree. “Antistory” seems strong though; I would widen the concept of ‘story’ to be very broad indeed. If it can be read, we might well find a story in it.


    1. No, I don’t think and imagination can be entirely pure. But I do think an imagination can be much more honest and truthful than the average. That is possibly the real difference between the great writers and the rest of us, rather than issues of technique and learning.


  2. Hmm… both quotes seem to contradict each other in the sense that exposition (story novels) are an artifice, a construct of unreality and an illusion. Where’s the detachment and truth in a novel that relies on an artificial device like plot? I also disagree, because I think that selfish obsessions have a great deal to do with great art, that moral integrity has any real effect on great art.


    1. I think it’s worth reading the full interview. She isn’t talking about polarised conceptions of good bad etc. A novel might be about very bad things indeed, and yet explore very high morality through them. But I do think in the end a novel has to embody those high qualities, otherwise why bother reading it or writing it?

      The conflict between the article of art and the truth it is striving for is something Murdoch explores somewhat in her novels.


  3. The idea that an author author must have an awareness of their own views on morality and truth seems to be a running line of thought in the Paris Review interviews. Maybe this is one of the few absolute and general statements one can make about writing fiction.



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