Friday, September 5, 2008

Notes On “The Art of Fiction” (1884) by Henry James (Part 1)

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).


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Ryan, for the summary of James's positions.

As I recall, he then goes on to provides a radically new definition of novel: “a personal, a direct impression of life” (664). To James, art is no longer artifice, and realism is the new raison d’etre of art. “The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent life” (662). As for methods: “no limit to his possible experiments, efforts, discoveries, successes” (664).

Method cannot be taught, he insists. “His manner is his secret . . . He cannot disclose it as a general thing” (664). On the selection of subject and manner, one must adhere to the rules of decorum, and “straight impressions,” he points out (668).

He then goes on to attack "philistine readers" for a) their insistence on morality, b) their tendency to demand equality and karmic retribution in the stories, and c) their impatience for “the artistic” aspects of the novel (too much art, these philistines claim, “would spoil some of their fun”).

James also foresees the coming of the New Critics: “A novel is a living thing, all one and continuous, like any other organism” (666), as well as the decline of plot in Modernism. Since everything is movement, therefore everything can be considered action and plot, he claims. “It sounds almost puerile to say that some incidents are intrinsically much more important than others.” Examples he gives: Flaubert, Turgenev (667).

Still, the subject of what’s being described by the language still exists, matters: “It matters, to my sense, in the highest degree, and if I might put up a prayer it would be that artists should select none but the richest” (666).

Those are my scattered notes. Hope they help.

-Sandra B.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Sandra B and Ryan.

I was wondering just what these supposed "rules" were, so I looked into it.

Here are some of Mr. Besant’s "mistaken rules":

*Write from experience only!
*Describe only "real" characters!
*Maintain consistency in character
*Maintain consistency in class, *Social rank and behavior;
*Be moral!
*Plot/story is most important element of fiction!

With impressive intelligence James problematizes the terms of these rules:
What is “reality”? What is “experience”? “Reality,” James points out, is subjective, immense: “The reality of Don Quixote or of Mr. Micawber is a very delicate shade; it is a reality so colored by the author’s vision that, vivid as it may be, one would hesitate to propose it as a model . . . Humanity is immense, and reality has a myriad forms” (664).

"Experience," too, he points out, is unlimited, incomplete, immense: “What kind of experience is intended, and where does it begin and end? Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every airborne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind” (665).

There is also the problem of imagination, which is included in “experience.”Imagination is “the power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life in gerenal so completetly that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it” (665).

There are also impressions: “If experience consists of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience, just as (have we not seen it?) they are the very air we breathe” (665).

Thus, rejecting Besant's argument, James holds that there can be only rule of fiction, namely, “that [the novel] be interesting” (663)

- Kelly K.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Kelly K. There are also the false distinctions that James points out, which I will briefly discuss here.

Critical distinctions, according to James, are usually clumsy, often false, and always obfuscate more than they clarify. One example is the false distinction between "story and novel," or, more broadly, "form and content."

“The story and the novel," James writes, "the idea and the form, are the needle and thread, and I never heard of a guild of tailors who recommended the use of the thread without the needle, or the needle without the thread” (668).

Other false distinctions include: novel-romance; incident-character; story-non-story; character- incident (“What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?”); story-form; description-dialogue; incident-description.

The only distinction that is at all meaningful is the good novel- bad novel distinction. “There are bad novels and good novels, as there are bad pictures and good pictures; but that is the only distinction in which I see any meaning” (666).

Or, in other words, “the only classification of the novel that I can understand is into that which has life and that which has it not” (666). Or, put differently, “The only condition that I can think of attaching to the composition of the novel is . . . that it be sincere” (670; contradicting early statements about Besant’s “rule” of writing from experience?)

That is all for now. Hope you are enjoying the summer.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Stella.

James also discusses the problem of subjectivity with regard to taste-- in the end, subjective “liking” is what matters. He explains: “Nothing, of course, will ever take the place of the good old fashion of “liking” a work of art” (666). People’s likes are determined by experience, and you can’t alter that, despite Zola’s attempt to alter the public’s likings. He continues,“That motive is simply experience. As people feel life, so they will feel the art that is most closely related to it” (667).

And, on Walter Benjamin/Roy A. Miller’s notion that everything is “translation”: “Many people speak of it [the effort of the novel] as a factitious, artificial form, a product of ingenuity, the business of which is to alter and arrange the things that surround us, to translate them into conventional, traditional molds. This, however, is a view of the matter which carries us but a very short way, condemns the art to an eternal repletion of a few familiar clichés, cuts short its development, and leads us straight up to a dead wall” (667).

If only he’d been around for Robbes-Grillet! “There is surely no ‘school’," he writes, "which urges that a novel should be all treatment and no subject” (668).

Finally, he presents his own set of questions to Mr. Besant, about the notions of moral fiction (669-670), and, after that, gives some final words of advice to a young novelist: In order to write great literature it is necessary to have the greatest possible freedom of subject and form.

Hope this helps,

Anonymous said...

This was great! And don't forget the sass with which James writes in. He downright told Besant off.