Friday, September 5, 2008
Like Horace, Henry James is more interested in the practical problems of his craft than in theoretical speculation. His essay “The Art of Fiction,” which is the last section of his book Partial Portraits (1888), is in part a response to an article by Walter Besant, who argues that there are certain “rules” to writing good fiction. James vehemently denies this claim, insisting that the only “rule” is that the writer must make his work interesting. Challenging “the old evangelical hostility to the novel”— which he blames for novel’s low status— James calls for a “new novel” that builds upon the groundwork laid by proto-modernist writers like George Eliot (1819-1880), Anthony Trollope (1815-1882), Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), and Alphonse Daudet (1840-1897).
The novel, in order to enter the realm of “high art,” must “begin to take itself seriously" (661). (It might be interesting to compare James’s tract with Tsubouchi Shōyō’s “The Essence of the Novel” (1885-6), which advocates a similar kind of naturalistic realism.) Specifically, James insists that novelists must stop apologizing for being novelists, that they must accept the fact that they describe truths equal to those of the historian, the painter, and the philosopher, and that they are, at the very least, on equal footing with the philosopher, painter and historian, since “their inspiration is the same, their process (allowing for the different quality of the vehicle) is the same, [and] their success is the same” (662). In fact, the novelist may even be superior to his competitors, since he is by default all of them at once. “It seems to give [the novelist] a great character, the fact that he has at once so much in common with the philosopher and the painter; this double analogy is a magnificent heritage” (662).
The novelist, James continues, must assume the semi-omniscient perspective and confident manner of the historian. “To represent and illustrate the past, [and] the actions of men is the task of either writer,” and therefore the novelist must “speak with the assurance, with the tone of the historian” (662). His story—regardless of whether or not it is true— must be delivered as if it were history. (One is reminded here of Mori Ōgai’s 1912 short story “Ka no yō ni” (“As If”), in which Ōgai, borrowing from Hans Vaihinger’s (1855-1932) notion of “als ob,” argues that man, in order to avoid the endless cycle of skepticism and moral relativism, must behave “as if” there were certain objective universal truths, and “as if” subjective noumenal experience actually corresponded to external phenomenal reality.) To admit to your readers that the story you are about to tell is false— as Anthony Trollope and other 19th century writers had done— is “a betrayal of a sacred office . . . a terrible crime” (662). To James, giving the “air of reality” and the “illusion of life” are the supreme virtues of the novel (665).