Part 2 – The Art of Fiction
Henry James wrote his essay “A Lecture on the Art of Fiction” in 1884 in response to novelist Walter Besant. Besant gave a lecture at the Royal Institution entitled, “Fiction as One of the Fine Arts,” and argued for a formulaic approach to novel writing—“laws of fiction [that] may be laid down and taught with as much precision and exactness as the laws of harmony, perspective, and proportion.” Essential to the laws of fiction, Besant proposed, would be that novelists write only from personal experience; that characters be only those recognizable from “actual life;” that the novelist’s gender, geography, and social class all confine the scope of his or her horizons: “a young lady brought up in a quiet country village should avoid descriptions of garrison life,” was one such prescription, as was “a writer whose friends and personal experiences belong to the lower middle-class should carefully avoid introducing his characters into Society;” and that a novel written in English should be didactic, possessing a “conscious moral purpose.”
James, who by 1884 had published seven novels, including The Portrait of a Lady, forty-six works of short fiction including “Daisy Miller,” and five works of nonfiction, was concerned that Besant’s formulaic approach to English literature would stymie creativity. James argued instead for the freedom of the novelist to shape a novel from imagination. An art of fiction, rather than formulaic laws of fiction, would produce the best results. The only rules a novelist needed to follow were to insist that his novel “be interesting” and that it be “as complete as possible—to make as perfect a work.” For that to happen, “A novel ought to be artistic,” James argued, and “artistic preoccupations, the search for form” rather than the application of formulas, was what artists did: “The ways in which it [the novel] is at liberty to accomplish this result (of interesting us) strike me as innumerable and such as can only suffer from being marked out, or fenced in, by prescription.”
A formula is only as good as the novelist’s understanding, and insofar as a formula is a substitute for that understanding, the novel will be incoherent: “But there is as much difference as there ever was between a good novel and a bad one: the bad is swept, with all the daubed canvases and spoiled marble, into some unvisited limbo or infinite rubbish yard, beneath the back-windows of the world, and the good subsists and emits its light and stimulates our desire for perfection.” It is not a formula that a reader looks for in a novel; it is “a particular mind, different from others,” and “no good novel will ever proceed from a superficial mind.” The quality of the novelist’s mind, the novelist’s moral sense, would furnish the moral purpose a novel needed far better than an arbitrary formulaic moral:
There is one point at which the moral sense and the artistic sense lie very near together; that is, in the light of the very obvious truth that the deepest quality of a work of art will always be the quality of the mind of the producer. In proportion as that mind is rich and noble will the novel, . . . partake of the substance of beauty and truth.
The novelist with a distinct and distinguished mind will produce a novel that is an integrated whole, a wholly self-contained product:
I cannot imagine composition existing in a series of blocks, nor conceive in any novel worth discussing at all, of a passage of description that is not in its intention narrative, a passage of dialogue that is not in its intention descriptive, a touch of truth of any that does not partake of the nature of incident, and an incident that derives its interest from any other source than the general and only source of the success of a work of art—that of being illustrative. A novel is a living thing, all one and continuous, like every other organism, and in proportion as it lives will it be found, I think, that in each of the parts there is something of each of the other parts.
To achieve artistic integrity, a novelist’s experience is less important than the quality of his mind, which can be judged by his conviction, imagination, and judgment. It is conviction that distinguishes a good novelist from a bad one. Readers will know if the novelist fails to take his work seriously, if he presumes to be writing make believe. The novel will have no relation to reality and no integrity. In that case, James warned, the novel will fail to interest: “The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does compete with life.” While a novel is not true in the sense of a factual account of events is true, a good novelist will select from life the salient details to create a convincing reality. Good novelists write from the imagination, and they can create believable characters and events outside their experience. To determine those characters and events, the novelist depends on judgment. A novelist uses his judgment to convert “ideas into a concrete image” that produces “a reality.” You will not write a good novel unless you possess the “sense of reality” and are able to produce “the illusion of life.” Conviction, imagination, and judgment then are the real experience of a novelist:
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 general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it—this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience, and they occur in country and in town, and in the most differing stages of education.
Ayn Rand’s The Art of Fiction contains the edited version of a lecture series she gave in 1958 to explain her theory and practice of fiction writing. At that point in her life, she had published We the Living, Anthem, The Fountainhead, and her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged, which in 1958 was nominated for, but did not win, The National Book Award. She was at the top of her game. Ayn Rand went into considerably more detail about the mechanics of writing than Henry James did, but her discussions of writing and the subconscious, of literature as an art form, and of theme and plot contain some noteworthy parallels to James’s position.
Her discussion of the importance of the subconscious—inspiration—to the novelist, for example, jibes with James’s observation that novelists eschew formulas:
What is colloquially called “inspiration”—namely, that you write without full knowledge of why you write as you do, yet it comes out well—is actually the subconscious summing-up of the premises and intentions you have set yourself. All writers have to rely on inspiration. But you have to know where it comes from, why it happens, and how to make it happen to you.
It is understanding, not formula—she called it the “artistic sense,” or the subconscious—that distinguished a good novel from a bad one. The novel was a product of an individual mind, and the novelist must know his mind, and develop it, if he was to be any good. Rand urged writers to make use of both the conscious and the subconscious mind to “know clearly” what they wanted to say, to ensure that their ideas were “sufficiently concretized” and to be able “to integrate the elements involved” in expressing those ideas. Rand cautioned writers against relying on “imitation more than understanding,” instead of analyzing “where his ideas came from, what he was doing, or why.” Only a rational, trained mind had a chance of succeeding as a writer long term:
By contrast, if you know where your inspiration really comes from, you will never run out of material. A rational writer can stoke his subconscious just as one puts fuel in a machine. If you keep on storing things in your mind for your future writing and keep integrating your choice of theme to your general knowledge, allowing the scope of your writing to grow as your knowledge widens, then you will always have something to say, and you will find ever better ways to say it. You will not coast downhill after one outbreak of something valuable.
Like James, Rand argued that the aesthetic value of a novel was found within itself; that is, it was based on what the novelist attempted to do and whether the novelist succeeded, and not on whether or not a reader agreed with the ideas. The novel must have a theme. The theme must be integrated into the plot, characters, and dialogue, and the novel must be well-written:
In judging a novel’s esthetic value, all that one has to know is the author’s theme and how well he has carried it out. . . . But whether one agrees with the theme or not is a separate question. If a novel presents a marvelous philosophical message but has no plot, miserable characterization, and a wooden style full of bromides, it is a bad work of art.
She explained, with justifiable pride, how she had held herself to a remarkable standard of coherence, integrating theme, character, plot, and language, while writing Atlas Shrugged:
I can give the reason for every word and every punctuation mark in Atlas Shrugged—and there are 645,000 words in it by the printer’s count. I did not have to calculate it all consciously when I was writing. But what I did was follow a conscious intention in relation to the novel’s theme and to every element involved in that theme. I was conscious of my purpose throughout the job—the general purpose of the novel and the particular purpose of every chapter, paragraph, and sentence.
Rand also prioritized conviction, imagination and judgment. As for conviction, she thought that the only way a novelist could write at a high level was to think—a lot: “Think until your mind almost goes to pieces; think until you are blank with exhaustion. Then, the next day, think again—until finally, one morning, you have the solution.” By thinking, a good novelist created reality rather than copied it, and he did so through the presentation of concretes. She exhorted novelists to “concretize your abstractions.” It was in judging abstractions, rather than in chronicling events, that the novelist succeeded:
A writer has to project his abstractions in specific concretes. That he knows something inwardly is not enough; he has to make the reader know it; and the reader can grasp it only from the outside, by some physical means. Concretize to yourself: If a man and a woman are in love, how do they act? what do they say? what do they seek? why do they seek it? That is the concrete reality, for which “love” is merely a wide abstraction.”
In terms of the moral sense of a novel reflecting the novel’s artistic sense, Rand also concurred with James. She pointed out that it was not necessary to state an explicit moral in a novel. A good writer, one who knows what he is writing about, and one who has carefully chosen his words, will “implicitly convey all [his] philosophy.” Through art, “By what he chooses to present, and by how he presents it, any author expresses his fundamental, metaphysical values—his view of man’s relationship to reality and of what man can and should seek in life.”
Ayn Rand and Henry James shared an abundance of aesthetic principles. Both artists shunned didacticism in art. They shunned the practice of the Naturalists to write deterministically from life and wrote instead about aspiration. Art dealt with Man, not men, James reasoned. “Art made life,” not the other way around. Through art, the artist conquered the meanness of life. The artist organized and elevated life into an imaginative work of art that was responsible not to real life but to aesthetic standards: “The only duty of a novel was to be well written; that merit included every other of which it was capable.” Likewise, Ayn Rand reasoned that art should provide “an abstraction of man’s best and highest potentiality.” Art is responsible only to itself:
One of the distinguishing characteristics of a work of art (including literature) is that it serves no practical, material end, but is an end in itself; it serves no purpose other than contemplation—and the pleasure of that contemplation is so intense, so deeply personal that a man experiences it as a self-sufficient, self-justifying primary and, often, resists or resents any suggestion to analyze it: the suggestion, to him, has the quality of an attack on his identity, on his deepest, essential self.
The differences between the two authors had less to do with form and more with content. In upcoming essays I will discuss two subjects that demonstrate ways in which James and Rand were worlds apart: money and human action.