Amazing articles on just about every subject...



The Purpose Of Fiction

( Originally Published 1918 )



Fiction a Means of Telling Truth—Fact and Fiction—Truth and Fact—The Search for Truth—The Necessary Triple Process—Different Degrees of Emphasis—The Art of Fiction and the Craft of Chemistry—Fiction and Reality—Fiction and History—Fiction and Biography—Biography, History, and Fiction—Fiction Which Is True—Fiction Which Is False—Casual Sins against the Truth in Fiction—More Serious Sins against the Truth—The Futility of the Adventitious—The Independence of Created Characters —Fiction More True Than a Casual Report of Fact—The Exception and the Law—Truthfulness the only Title to Immortality—Morality and Immorality in Fiction—The Faculty of Wisdom—Wisdom and Technic—General and Particular Experience—Extensive and Intensive Experience—The Experiencing Nature—Curiosity and Sympathy.

Fiction a Means of Telling Truth.—Before we set out upon a study of the materials and methods of fiction, we must be certain that we appreciate the purpose of the art and understand its relation to the other arts and sciences. The purpose of fiction is to embody certain truths of human life in a series of imagined facts. The importance of this purpose is scarcely ever appreciated by the casual careless reader of the novels of a season. Although it is commonly believed that such a reader overestimates the weight of works of fiction, the opposite is true—he underestimates it. Every novelist of genuine importance seeks not merely to divert but also to instruct—to instruct, not abstractly, like the essayist, but concretely, by presenting to the reader characters and actions which are true. For the best fiction, although it deals with the lives of imaginary people, is no less true than the best history and biography, which record actual facts of human life; and it is more true than such careless reports of actual occurrences as are published in the daily newspapers. The truth of worthy fiction is evidenced by the honor in which it has been held in all ages among all races. "You can't fool all the people all the time"; and if the drama and the epic and the novel were not true, the human race would have rejected them many centuries ago. Fiction has survived, and flourishes today, because it is a means of telling truth.

Fact and Fiction.—It is only in the vocabulary of very careless thinkers that the words truth and fiction are regarded as antithetic. A genuine antithesis subsists between the words fact and fiction; but fact and truth are not synonymous. The novelist forsakes the realm of fact in order that he may better tell the truth, and lures the reader away from actualities in order to present him with realities. It is of prime importance, in our present study, therefore, that we should understand at the very outset the relation between fact and truth, the distinction between the actual and the real.

Truth and Fact.— A fact is a specific manifestation of a general law : this general law is the truth because of which that fact has come to be. It is a fact that when an apple-tree is shaken by the wind, such apples as may be loosened from their twigs fall to the ground: it is a truth that bodies in space attract each other with a force that varies inversely as the square of the distance between them. Fact is concrete, and is a matter of physical experience: truth is abstract, and is a matter of mental theory. Actuality is the realm of fact, reality the realm of truth. The universe as we apprehend it with our senses is actual; the laws of the universe as we comprehend them with our understanding are real.

The Search for Truth.—All human science is an endeavor to discover the truths which underlie the facts that we perceive: all human philosophy is an endeavor to understand and to appraise those truths when once they are discovered: and all human art is an endeavor to utter them clearly and effectively when once they are appraised and understood. The history of man is the history of a constant and continuous seeking for the truth. Amazed before a universe of facts, he has striven earnestly to discover the truth which underlies them—striven heroically to understand the large reality of which the actual is but a sensuously perceptible embodiment. In the earliest centuries of re-corded thought the search was unmethodical; truth was apprehended, if at all, by intuition, and announced as dogma: but in modern centuries certain regular methods have been devised to guide the search. The modern scientist begins his work by collecting a large number of apparently related facts and arranging them in an orderly manner. He then proceeds to induce from the observation of these facts an apprehension of the general law that explains their relation. This hypothesis is then tested in the light of further facts, until it seems so in-contestable that the minds of men accept it as the truth. The scientist then formulates it in an abstract theoretic statement, and thus concludes his work.

But it is at just this point that the philosopher begins. Accepting many truths from many scientists, the philosopher compares, reconciles, and correlates them, and thus builds out of them a structure of belief. But this structure of belief remains abstract and theoretic in the mind of the philosopher. It is now the artist's turn. Accepting the correlated theoretic truths which the scientist and the philosopher have given him, he endows them with an imaginative embodiment perceptible to the senses. He translates them back into concrete terms; he clothes them in invented facts; he makes them imaginatively perceptible to a mind native and indued to actuality; and thus he gives expression to the truth.

The Necessary Triple Process.—This triple process of the scientific discovery, the philosophic understanding, and the artistic expression of truth has been explained at length, because every great writer of fiction must pass through the entire mental process. The fiction-writer differs from other seekers for the truth, not in the method of his thought, but merely in its subject-matter. His theme is human life. It is some truth of human life that he endeavors to discover, to understand, and to announce; and in order to complete his work, he must apply to human life an attention of thought which is successively scientific, philosophic, and artistic. He must first observe carefully certain facts of actual life, study them in the light of extended experience, and induce from them the general laws which he deems to be the truths which underlie them. In doing this, he is a scientist. Next, if he be a great thinker, he will correlate these truths and build out of them a structure of belief. In doing this, he is a philosopher. Lastly, he must create imaginatively such scenes and characters as will illustrate the truths he has discovered and considered, and will convey them clearly and effectively to the minds of his readers. In doing this, he is an artist.

Different Degrees of Emphasis.—But although this triple mental process (of scientific discovery, philosophic understanding, and artistic expression) is experienced in full by every master of fiction, we find that certain authors are interested most in the first, or scientific phase of the process, others in the second, or philosophic phase, and still others in the third, or artistic phase. Evidently Emile Zola is interested chiefly in a scientific investigation of the actual facts of life, George Eliot in philosophic contemplation of its underlying truths, and Gabriele D'Annunzio in an artistic presentation of the dream-world that he imagines. Washington Irving is mainly an artist, Tolstoi mainly a philosopher, and Jane Austen mainly a scientifically accurate observer. Few are the writers, even among the greatest masters of the art, of whom we feel, as we feel of Hawthorne, that the scientist, the philosopher, and the artist reign over equal precincts of their minds. Hawthorne the scientist is so thorough, so accurate, and so precise in his investigations of provincial life that no less a critic than James Russell Lowell declared the "House of the Seven Gables" to be "the most valuable contribution to New England history that has yet been made." Hawthorne the philosopher is so wise in his understanding of crime and retribution, so firm in his structure of belief concerning moral truth, that it seems that he, if any one, might give an answer to that poignant cry of a despairing murderer,

"Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased, Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, Raze out the written troubles of the brain, And with some sweet oblivious antidote Cleanse the stuff'd bosom of that perilous stuff Which weighs upon the heart?"

And Hawthorne the artist is so delicate in his sensitive and loving presentation of the beautiful, so masterly both in structure and in style, that his work, in artistry alone, is its own excuse for being. Were it not for the confinement of his fiction-its lack of range and sweep, both in subject-matter and in attitude of mind—his work on this account might be regarded as an illustration of all that may be great in the threefold process of creation.

The Art of Fiction and the Craft of Chemistry.—Fiction, to borrow a figure from chemical science, is life distilled. In the author's mind, the actual is first evaporated to the real, and the real is then condensed to the imagined. The author first transmutes the concrete actualities of life into abstract realities; and then he transmutes these abstract realities into concrete imaginings. Necessarily, if he has pursued this mental process without a fallacy, his imaginings will be true; because they represent realities, which in turn have been induced from actualities.

Fiction and Reality.—In one of his criticisms of the, greatest modern dramatist, Mr. William Archer has called attention to the fact that "habitually and instinctively men pay to Ibsen the compliment (so often paid to Shakespeare) of discussing certain of his female characters as though they were real women, living lives apart from the poet's creative intelligence." [It is evident that Mr. Archer, in saying "real women," means what is more precisely denoted by the words "actual women.") Such a compliment is also paid . instinctively to every master of the art of fiction; and the reason is not hard to understand. If the general laws of life which the novelist has thought out be true laws, and if his imaginative embodiment of them be at all points thoroughly consistent, his characters will be true men and women in the highest sense. They will not be actual, but they will be real. The great characters of fiction—Sir Willoughby Pattern, Tito Melema, D'Artagnan, Père Grandet, Rosalind, Tartufe, Hamlet, Ulysses—embody truths of human life that have been arrived at only after thorough observation of facts and patient induction from them. Cervantes must have observed a multitude of dreamers before he learned the truth of the idealist's character which he has expressed in Don Quixote. The great people of fiction are typical of large classes of mankind. They live more truly than do you and I, because they are made of us and of many men besides. They have the large reality of general ideas, which is a truer thing than the actuality of facts. This is why we know them and think of them as real people—old acquaintances whom we knew (perhaps) before we were born, when (as is conceivable) we lived with them in Plato's Realm of Ideas. In France, instead of calling a man a miser, they call him an Harpagon. We know Rosalind as we know our sweetest summer love; Hamlet is our elder brother, and understands our own wavering and faltering.

Fiction and History.—Instinctively also we regard the great people of fiction as more real than many of the actual people of a bygone age whose deeds are chronicled in dusty histories. To a modern mind, if you conjure with the name of Marcus Brutus, you will start the spirit of Shakespeare's fictitious patriot, not of the actual Brutus, of a very different nature, whose doings are dimly reported by the chroniclers of Rome. The Richelieu of Dumas père may bear but slight resemblance to the actual founder of the French Academy; but he lives for us more really than the Richelieu of many histories. We know Hamlet even better than we know Henri-Frédéric Amiel, who in many ways was like him; even though Amiel has reported himself more thoroughly than almost any other actual man. We may go a step further and declare that the actual people of any age can live in the memory of after ages only when the facts of their characters and their careers have been transmuted into a sort of fiction by the minds of creative historians. Actually, in 1815, there was but one Napoleon; now there are as many Napoleons as there are biographies and histories of him. He has been recreated in one way by one author, in another by another; and you may take your choice. You may accept the Julius Caesar of Mr. Bernard Shaw, or the Julius Caesar of Thomas De Quincey. The first is frankly fiction; and the second, not so frankly, is fiction also—just as far from actuality as Shakespeare's adaptation of Plutarch's portraiture.

Fiction and Biography.—One of the most vivid illustrations of how a great creative mind, honestly seeking to discover, to understand, and to express the truth concerning actual characters of the past, necessarily makes fiction of those characters, is given by Thomas Carlyle in his "Heroes and Hero-Worship." Here, in Carlyle's method of procedure, it is easy to discern that threefold process of creation which is undergone by the fiction-making mind. An examination of recorded facts concerning Mohammed, Dante, Luther, or Burns leads him to a discovery and a formulation of certain abstract truths concerning the Hero as Prophet, as Poet, as Priest, or as Man of Letters; and thereafter, in composing his historical studies, he sets forth only such actual facts as conform with his philosophic understanding of the truth and will therefore represent this understanding with the utmost emphasis. He makes fiction of his heroes, in order most emphatically to tell the truth about them.

Biography, History, and Fiction.—In this way biography and history at their best are doomed to em-ploy the methods of the art of fiction; and we can there-fore understand without surprise why the average reader always says of the histories of Francis Parkman that they read like novels, even though the most German-minded scientists of history assure us that Parkman is always faithful to his facts. Facts, to the mind of this model of historians, were indicative of truths; and those truths he endeavored to express with faultless art. Like the best of novelists, he was at once a scientist, a philosopher, and an artist; and this is not the least of reasons why his histories will endure. They are as true as fiction.

Fiction Which Is True.—Not only do the great characters of fiction convince us of reality: in the mere events themselves of worthy fiction we feel a fitness that makes us know them real. Sentimental Tommy really did lose that literary competition because he wasted a full hour searching vainly for the one right word; Hetty Sorrel really killed her child; and Mr. Henry must have won that midnight duel with the Master of Ballantrae, though the latter was the better swordsman. These incidents conform to truths we recognize. And not only in the fiction that clings close to actuality do we feel a sense of truth. We feel it just as keenly in fairy tales like those of Hans Christian Andersen, or in the worthiest wonder-legends of an earlier age. We are told of The Steadfast Tin Soldier that, after he was melted in the fire, the maid who took away the ashes next morning found him in the shape of a small tin heart; and remembering the spangly little ballet-dancer who fluttered to him like a sylph and was burned up in the fire with him, we feel a fitness in this little fancy which opens vistas upon human truth. Mr. Kipling's fable of "How the Elephant Got His Trunk" is just as true as his reports of Mrs. Hauksbee. His theory may not con-form with the actual facts of zoological science; but at any rate it represents a truth which is perhaps more important for those who have become again like little children.

Fiction Which Is False.—Just as we feel by instinct the reality of fiction at its best, so also with a kindred instinct equally keen we feel the falsity of fiction when the author lapses from the truth. Unless his characters act and think at all points consistently with the laws of their imagined existence, and unless these laws are in harmony with the laws of actual life, no amount of sophistication on the part of the author can make us finally believe his story; and unless we believe his story, his purpose in writing it will have failed. The novelist, who has so many means of telling truth, has also many means of telling lies. He may be untruthful in his very theme, if he is lacking in sanity of outlook upon the things that are. He may be untruthful in his characterization, if he interferes with his people after they are once created and attempts to coerce them to his purposes instead of allowing them to work out their own destinies. He may be untruthful in his plotting, if he devises situations arbitrarily for the sake of mere immediate effect. He may be untruthful in his dialogue, if he puts into the mouths of his people sentences that their nature does not demand that they shall speak. He may be untruthful in his comments on his characters, if the characters belie the comments in their actions and their words.

Casual Sins Against the Truth in Fiction.—With the sort of fiction that is a tissue of lies, the present study does not concern itself; but even in the best fiction we come upon passages of falsity. There is little likelihood, however, of our being led astray by these: we revolt instinctively against them with a feeling that may best be expressed in that famous sentence of Ibsen's Assessor Brack, "People don't do such things." When Shakespeare tells us, toward the end of "As You Like It," that the wicked Oliver suddenly changed his nature and won the love of Celia, we know that he is lying. The scene is not true to the great laws of human life. When George Eliot, at a loss for a conclusion to "The Mill on the Floss," tells us that Tom and Maggie Tulliver were drowned together in a flood, we disbelieve her; just as we disbelieve Sir James Barrie when he invents that absurd accident of Tommy's death. These three instances of falsity have been selected from authors who know the truth and almost always tell it; and all three have a certain palliation. They come at or near the very end of lengthy stories. In actual life, of course, there are no very ends: life exhibits a continuous sequence of causation stretching on: and since a story has to have an end, its conclusion must in any case belie a law of nature. Probably the truth is that Tommy didn't die at all: he is living still, and always will be living. And since Sir James Barrie couldn't write forever, he may be pardoned a makeshift ending that he himself apparently did not believe in. So also we may forgive that lie of Shakespeare's, since it contributes to a general truthfulness of goodwill at the conclusion of his story; and as for George Eliot—well, she had been telling the truth stolidly for many hundred pages.

More Serious Sins Against the Truth.—But when Charlotte Brontë, in "Jane Eyre," tells us that Mr. Rochester first said and then repeated the following sentence, "I am disposed to be gregarious and communicative to-night," we find it more difficult to pardon the apparent falsity. In the same chapter, the author states that Mr. Rochester emitted the following remark: —"Then, in the first place, do you agree with me that I have a right to be a little masterful, abrupt, perhaps exacting, sometimes, on the grounds I stated, namely, that I am old enough to be your father, and that I have battled through a varied experience with many men of many nations, and roamed over half the globe, while you have lived quietly with one set of people in one house?"

Such writing is inexcusably untrue. We cannot believe that any human being ever asked a direct question so elaborately lengthy. People do not talk like that. As a contrast, let us notice for a moment the poignant truthfulness of speech in Mr. Rudyard Kipling's story, "Only a Subaltern." A fever-stricken private says to Bobby Wick, "Beg y' pardon, sir, disturbin' of you now, but would you min"oldin' my 'and, sir"?—and later, when the private becomes convalescent and Bobby in his turn is stricken down, the private suddenly stares in horror at his bed, and cries, "Oh, my Gawd! It can't be 'im !" People talk like that.

The Futility of the Adventitious.—Arbitrary plotting, as a rule, is of no avail in fiction: almost always, we know when a story is true and when it is not. We seldom believe in the long-lost will that is discovered at last on the back of a decaying picture-canvas; or in the chance meeting and mutual discovery of long-separated relatives; or in such accidental circumstances as the one, for instance, because of which Romeo fails to receive the message from Friar Laurence. The incidents of fiction at its best are not only probable but inevitable: they happen because in the nature of things they have to happen, and not because the author wants them to. Similarly, the truest characters of fiction are so real that even their creator has no power to make them do what they will not. It has been told of Thackeray that he grew so to love Colonel Newcome that he wished ardently that the good man might live happily until the end. Yet, knowing the circumstances in which the Colonel was enmeshed, and knowing also the nature of the people who formed the little circle round about him, Thackeray realized that his last days would of necessity be miserable; and realizing this, the author told the bitter truth, though it cost him many tears.

The Independence of Created Characters.—The care-less reader of fiction usually supposes that, since the novelist invents his characters and incidents, he can order them always to suit his own desires: but any honest artist will tell you that his characters often grow intractable and stubbornly refuse at certain points to accept the incidents which he has foreordained for them, and that at other times they take matters into their own hands and run away with the story. Stevenson has recorded this latter experience. He said, apropos of "Kidnapped," "In one of my books, and in one only, the characters took the bit in their teeth; all at once, they became detached from the flat paper, they turned their backs on me and walked off bodily; and from that time my task was stenographic-it was they who spoke, it was they who wrote the remainder of the story."

The laws of life, and not the author's will, must finally decide the destinies of heroes and of heroines. On the evening of February 3, 1850, just after he had written the last scene of "The Scarlet Letter," Hawthorne read it to his wife—"tried to read it, rather," he wrote the next day in a letter to his friend, Horatio Bridge, "for my voice swelled and heaved, as if I were tossed up and down on an ocean as it subsides after a storm. But I was in a very nervous state then, having gone through a great diversity of emotion while writing it for many months." Is it not conceivable that, in the "great diversity of emotion" which the author experienced while. bringing his story to a close, he was tempted more than once to state that Hester and Dimmesdale escaped upon the Bristol ship and thereafter expiated their offense in holy and serviceable lives? But if such a thought occurred to him, he put it by, knowing that the revelation of the scarlet letter was inexorably demanded by the highest moral law.

Fiction More True Than a Casual Report of Fact.—We are now ready to understand the statement that fiction at its best is much more true than such careless reports of actual occurrences as are published in the daily news-papers. Water that has been distilled is much more really H2O than the muddied natural liquid in the bulb of the retort; and life that has been clarified in the threefold alembic of the fiction-writer's mind is much more really life than the clouded and unrealized events that are reported in daily chronicles of fact. The news-paper may tell us that a man who left his office in an apparently normal state of mind went home and shot his wife; but people don't do such things; and though the story states an actual occurrence, it does not tell the truth. The only way in which the reporter could make this story true would be for him to trace out all the antecedent causes which led inevitably to the culminating incident. The incident itself can become true for us only when we are made to understand it.

Robert Louis Stevenson once remarked that when-ever, in a story by a friend of his, he came upon a passage that was notably untrue, he always suspected that it had been transcribed directly from actual life. The author had been too sure of the facts to ask himself in what way they were representative of the general laws of life. But facts are important to the careful thinker only as they are significant of truth. Doubtless an omniscient mind would realize a reason for every accidental and apparently insignificant occurrence of actual life. Doubtless, for example, the Universal Mind must understand why the great musical-director, Anton Seidl, died suddenly of ptomaine poisoning. But to a finite mind such occurrences seem unsignificant of truth; they do not seem to be indicative of a necessary law. And since the fiction-writer has a finite mind, the laws of life which he can understand are more restrictedly logical than those undiscovered laws of actual life which pass his understanding. Many a casual occurrence of the actual world would therefore be inadmissible in the intellectually-ordered world of fiction. A novelist has no right to set forth a sequence of events which, in its causes and effects, he cannot make the reader understand.

The Exception and the Law.—We are now touching on a principle which is seldom appreciated by beginners in the art of fiction. Every college professor of literary composition who has accused a student of falsity in some passage of a story that the student has submitted has been met with the triumphant but unreasonable answer, "Oh, no, it's true! It happened to a friend of mine!" And it has then become necessary for the professor to explain as best he could that an actual occurrence is not necessarily true for the purposes of fiction. The imagined facts of a genuinely worthy story are exhibited merely because they are representative of some general law of life held securely in the writer's consciousness. A transcription, therefore, of actual facts fails of the purposes of fiction unless the facts in themselves are evidently representative of such a law. And many things may happen to a friend of ours without evidencing to a considerate mind any logical reason why they had to happen.

Truthfulness the only Title to Immortality.—It is necessary that the student should appreciate the importance of this principle at the very outset of his apprenticeship to the art. For it is only by adhering rigorously to the truth that fiction can survive. In every period of literature, many clever authors have appeared who have diverted their contemporaries with ingenious invention, brilliant incident, unexpected novelty of character, or alluring eloquence of style, but who have been discarded and forgotten by succeeding generations merely because they failed to tell the truth. Probably in the whole range of English fiction there is no more skilful weaver of enthralling plots, no more clever master of invention or manipulator of suspense, than Wilkie Collins; but Collins is already discarded and well-nigh forgotten, because the reading world has found that he exhibited no truths of genuine importance, but rather sacrificed the eternal realities of life for mere momentary plausibilities. Probably, also, there is no artist in French prose more seductive in his eloquence than René de Chateaubriand; but his fiction is no longer read, because the world has found that his sentimentalism was to this extent a sham —it was false to the nature of normal human beings. "Alice in Wonderland" will survive the works of both these able authors, because of the many and momentous human truths that look upon us through its drift of dreams.

Morality and Immorality in Fiction.—The whole question of the morality or immorality of a work of fiction is a question merely of its truth or falsity. To appreciate this point, we must first be careful to distinguish immorality from coarseness. The morality of a fiction-writer is not dependent on the decency of his expression. In fact, the history of literature shows that authors frankly coarse, like Rabelais or Swift for instance, have rarely or never been immoral; and that the most immoral books have been written in the most delicate Ianguage. Swift and Rabelais are moral, because they tell the truth with sanity and vigor; we may object to certain passages in their writings on esthetic, but not on ethical, grounds. They may offend our taste; but they are not likely to lead astray our judgment far less likely than D'Annunzio, for instance, who, although he never offends the most delicate esthetic taste, sicklies o'er with the pale cast of his poetry a sad unsanity of outlook upon the ultimate deep truths of human life. In the second place, we must bravely realize that the morality of a work of fiction has little or no dependence on the subject that it treats. It is utterly unjust to the novelist to decide, as many unreasonable readers do, that such a book as Daudet's "Sapho" must be of necessity immoral because it exhibits immoral characters in a series of immoral acts. There is no such thing as an immoral subject for a novel: in the treatment of the subject, and only in the treatment, lies the basis for ethical judgment of the work. The one thing needful in order that a novel may be moral is that the author shall maintain through-out his work a sane and healthy insight into the soundness or unsoundness of the relations between his characters. He must know when they are right and know when they are wrong, and must make clear to us the reasons for his judgment. He cannot be immoral unless he is untrue. To make us pity his characters when they are vile, or love them when they are noxious, to invent excuses for them in situations where they cannot be excused, to leave us satisfied when their baseness has been unbetrayed, to make us wonder if after all the exception is not greater than the rule—in a single word, to lie about his characters—this is, for the fiction-writer, the one unpardonable sin.

The Faculty of Wisdom.—But it is not an easy thing to tell the truth of human life, and nothing but the truth. The best of fiction-writers fall to falsehood now and then; and it is only by honest labor and sincere strife for the ideal that they contrive in the main to fulfil the purpose of their art. But the writer of fiction must be not only honest and sincere; he must be wise as well. Wisdom is the faculty of seeing through and all around an object of contemplation, and understanding totally and at once its relations to all other objects. This faculty cannot be acquired; it has to be developed: and it is developed by experience only. Experience ordinarily requires time; and though, for special reasons which will be noted later on, most of the great short-story writers have been young, we are not surprised to notice that most of the great novelists have been men mature in years. They have ripened slowly to a realization of those truths which later they have labored to impart. Richardson, the father of the modern English novel, was fifty-one years old when "Pamela" was published; Scott was forty-three when "Waverley" appeared; Hawthorne was forty-six when he wrote "The Scarlet Letter"; Thackeray and George Eliot were well on their way to the forties when they completed "Vanity Fair" and "Adam Bede"; and these are the first novels of each writer.

Wisdom and Technic.—The young author who as, pires to write novels must not only labor to acquire the technic of his art: it is even more important that he should so order his life as to grow cunning in the basic truths of human nature. His first problem—the problem of acquiring technic—is comparatively easy. Technic may be learned from books—the master-works of art in fiction. It may be studied empirically. The student may observe what the masters have, and have not, done; and he may puzzle out the reasons why. And he may perhaps be helped by constructive critics of fiction in his endeavor to understand these reasons. But his second problem—the problem of developing wisdom—is more difficult; and he must grapple with it without any aid from books. What he learns of human life, he must learn in his own way, without extraneous assistance.

It is easy enough for the student to learn, for instance, how the great short-stories have been constructed. It is easy enough for the critic, on the basis of such knowledge, to formulate empirically the principles of this special art of narrative. But it is not easy for the student to discover, or for the critic to suggest, how a man in his early twenties may develop such a wise insight into human life as is displayed, for example, in Mr. Kipling's "Without Benefit of Clergy." A few suggestions may, perhaps, be offered; but they must be considered merely as suggestions, and must not be overvalued.

General and Particular Experience.-At the outset, it may be noted that the writer of fiction needs two different endowments of experience: first, a broad and general experience of life at large; and second, a deep and specific experience of that particular phase of life which he wishes to depict. A general and broad experience is common to all masters of the art of fiction: it is in the particular nature of their specific and deep experience that they differ one from another. Although in range and sweep of general knowledge Sir Walter Scott was far more vast than Jane Austen, he confessed amazement at the depth of her specific knowledge of everyday English middle-class society. Most of the great novelists have made, like Jane Austen, a special study of some particular field. Hawthorne is an authority on Puritan New England, Thackeray on London high society, Henry James on cosmopolitan super-civilization. It would seem, therefore, that a young author, while keeping his observation fresh for all experience, should devote especial notice to experience of some particular phase of life. But along comes Mr. Rudyard Kipling, with his world-engirdling knowledge, to jostle us out of faith in too narrow a focus of attention.

Extensive and Intensive Experience.—Experience is of two sorts, extensive and intensive. A mere glance at the range of Mr. Kipling's subjects would show us the breadth of his extensive experience: evidently he has lived in many lands and looked with sympathy upon the lives of many sorts of people. But in certain stories, like his "They" for instance, we are arrested rather by the depth of his intensive experience. "They" reveals to us an author who not necessarily has roamed about the world, but who necessarily has felt all phases of the mother-longing in a woman. The things that Mr. Kipling knows in "They" could never have been learned except through sympathy.

Intensive experience is immeasurably more valuable to the fiction-writer than extensive experience: but the difficulty is that, although the latter may be gained through the obvious expedients of travel and voluntary association with many and various types of people, the former can never be gained through any amount of deliberate and conscious seeking. The great intensive experiences of life, like love and friendship, must come unsought if they are to come at all; and no man can gain a genuine experience of any joy or sorrow by experimenting purposely with life. The deep experiences must be watched and waited for. The author must be ever ready to realize them when they come: when they knock upon his door, he must not make the mistake of answering that he is not at home. But he must not make the contrary mistake of going out into the highways and hedges to compel them to come within his gates.

The Experiencing Nature.—Undoubtedly, very few people are always at home for every real experience that knocks upon their doors; very few people, to say the thing more simply, have an experiencing nature. But great fiction may be written only by men of an experiencing nature; and here is a basis for confession that, after all, fiction-writers are born, not made. The experiencing nature is difficult to define; but two of its most evident qualities, at any rate, are a lively curiosity and a ready sympathy. A combination of these two qualities gives a man that intensity of interest in human life which is a condition precedent to his ever growing to understand it. Curiosity, for instance, is the most obvious asset in Mr. Kipling's equipment. We did not need his playful confession in the "Just So Stories"_____

"I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew)
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who"

to convince us that from his very early youth he has been an indefatigable asker of questions. It was only through a healthy curiosity that he could have acquired the enormous stores of specific knowledge concerning almost every walk of life that he has displayed in his successive volumes. On the other hand, it was obviously through his vast endowment of sympathy that Dickens was able to learn so thoroughly all phases of the life of the lowly in London.

Curiosity and Sympathy.—Experience gravitates to the man who is both curious and sympathetic. The kingdom of adventure is within us. Just as we create beauty in an object when we look upon it beautifully, so we create adventure all around us when we walk the world inwardly aglow with love of life. Things of interest happened to Robert Louis Stevenson every day of his existence, because he incorporated the faculty of being interested in things. In one of his most glowing essays, "The Lantern-Bearers," he declared that never an hour of his life had gone dully yet; if it had been spent waiting at a railway junction, he had had some scattering thoughts, he had counted some grains of memory, compared to which the whole of many romances seemed but dross. The author who aspires to write fiction should cultivate the faculty of caring for all things that come to pass; he should train himself rigorously never to be bored; he should look upon all life that swims into his ken with curious and sympathetic eyes, remembering always that sympathy is a deeper faculty than curiosity: and because of the profound joy of his interest in life, he should endeavor humbly to earn that heritage of interest by developing a thorough understanding of its source. In this way, perhaps, he may grow aware of certain truths of life which are materials for fiction. If so, he will have accomplished the better half of his work: he will have found something to say.

Loading...

Home | More Articles | Email: info@oldandsold.com