I was force-fed Henry James in required courses. And I never liked James until reading his thoughts that follow. (The man can’t help that he wrote a century ago when styles were stodgier.)
I smile big-time at the thought that – as wordsmiths – we should be concerned with how we write AFTER the manuscript is created. Do we let the form dictate story structure or do we allow our imaginations to roam free, unfettered by rules?
What would Mr. James think of the evolution of the novel since his 1884 advice?
Through this series that revisits 19th century authors, BriteLites invites discussion of topics that remain important to WordSmiths.
An excerpt from “The Art of Fiction” by Henry James
A novel is in its broadest definition a personal, a direct impression of life: that, to begin with, constitutes its value, which is greater or less according to the intensity of the impression. But there will be no intensity at all, and therefore no value, unless there is freedom to feel and say. The tracing of a line to be followed, a tone to be taken, of a form to be filled out, is a limitation of that freedom and suppression of the very thing that we are most curious about.
The form, it seems to me, is to be appreciated after the fact: then the author’s choice has been made, his standard has been indicated; then we can follow lines and directions and compare tones and resemblances. Then in a word, we can enjoy one of the most charming of pleasures, we can estimate quality, we can apply the test of execution. The execution belongs to the author alone; it is what is most personal to him, and we measure him by that.
The advantage, the luxury, as well as the torment and responsibility of the novelist, is that there is no limit to what he may attempt as an executant – no limit to his possible experiments, efforts, discoveries, successes. Here it is especially that he works, step by step, like his brother of the brush, of whom we may always say that he has painted his picture in a manner best known to himself.
His manner is his secret, not necessarily a jealous one. He cannot disclose it as a general thing if he would; he would be at a loss to teach it to others. I say this with a due recollection of having insisted on the community of method of the artist who paints a picture and the artist who writes a novel. The painter IS able to teach the rudiments of his practice, and it is possible from the study of good work (granted the aptitude), both to learn how to paint and to learn how to write. Yet it remains true, without injury to the rapprochement, that the literary artist would be obliged to say to his pupil much more than the other, “Ah, well, you must do it as you can!”
Worth A Look
In this fresh Charlie Rose interview, the conversation with Jim Holt includes:
- Why there is something rather than nothing, and
- Might our messy, mediocre universe have been designed by an incompetent hacker in another universe.
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