How Not To Do It
The Speaker, March 23, 1901
How To Write Fiction. ("How to" Series.) London: Grant Richards
It is a very extraordinary circumstance that humanity appears to entertain an everlasting resentment against the fact that certain things cannot be reduced to a science. The most remarkable instance is the literary faculty and instinct. It is perfectly clear to any one who can think for a moment of the proper meaning of the word literature and the proper meaning of the word science, that we do not know the psychological nature of literary pleasure or the rules which will with certainty govern it. But yet the whole course of history is strewn with the ruins of the false sciences of literature, from the fixed canons of Aristotle to those of the eighteenth century. Each elaborate and classical edifice only existed until some natural man of letters trampled it into fragments without seeing it. But the "Art is Unmoral" school has arisen in our own time to define the indefinable once more. Such is the strange enmity of men towards the mysterious element in man- as if it were not, in truth, what makes life worth living.
Another school has also arisen to-day with the same idea in a much grosser form. It is the school which believes that everything can be learnt: that success in art and commerce is equally an ingenious trick. A series is issued entitled the "How To" series. It teaches in one volume "How to Choose Your Banker," in another "How to Dine in Paris," and in a third, which now lies before us, "How to Write a Novel." It never seems to strike the writers of this school that there is some difference between the psychological profundity and delicacy of choosing your banker and that of choosing your idea. An idea is a nameless thing; it melts into all other ideas, whereas a banker is detachable and does not melt into any one. The same is true, though in a lesser degree, of the comparison which the author makes in his first chapter. He says, with some apparent reason, that as painting and sculpture require training on fixed lines there is no reason why such training should not be given in fiction. Surely the answer is distinct. Fiction is more dark and chaotic than painting because, though both arts symbolise spiritual conditions, painting employs as its symbol the bodily form, which has been measured, while fiction employs as its symbol the thoughts and actions which have never been measured. Painting deals with what a man looks like, which we can all know; fiction deals with what he means, which he generally does not know himself. It is not possible to know how many thoughts a man has; it is possible to know, with reasonable industry, how many legs he has.
Painting has an intellectual object also; and may modify physical facts to attain it, but only within limits. By giving a figure unusually long legs a painter may suggest heroic stature; but in no painting are a gentleman's legs depicted as endless legs; whereas his thoughts and aspirations, the matter of fiction, are endless. It is this uncounted and eternal element in men that cheats all the sciences of letters, which destroys and survives all its own definitions. We have dwelt on this first thesis of the author because it is very vital to the matter. The author exhibits no reverence in approaching literature. He does not seem to realise that so divine has the art of writing always appeared, that the very word "scripture" has come to mean a sacred scripture. No man, as we say, can define literature at any time; but no man can even understand it unless he approaches it as a little child. It does not belong to the class of things that can be gained by mere experience, such as "How to Dine in Paris." We understand the next volumes of this series are to be called "How to Become a Saint," "How to Fall in Love," " How to Die for One's Country," and "How to Reconcile the More Inspiring Claims of Ethical Citizenship with the Subtler Phases of the Inner Life."
But if the didactics of literature would be enough to bewilder anybody, the didactics of fiction are peculiarly shadowy. For there is no such form of art as the novel; not, at least, in the sense that there are such forms of art as the lyric, the epic and the tragedy. We call any prose narrative of a certain length a novel, quite apart from the real nature of its structure. There is really less artistic kinship between Pickwick and The Scarlet Letter than there is between AEdipus Tyrannus and The Ode to the West Wind. And in this matter divisions made by the author of How to Write Fiction by no means satisfy us. His account of the "Realistic Novel" is that it is "life in action, without comment or philosophy, and minus the pre-eminent factor of art." If it is really this (which we cannot think) a writer on the novel has simply no more concern with it than he has with a furniture catalogue or a Bradshaw, which is really life in action without comment or philosophy, and minus the pre-eminent factor of art. The next section he recognizes is the novel of manners, on which his remarks are unobjectionable, and the section after that, the novel of incident or romance. But romance is not, to our mind, mere incident. This is the error which is responsible for the flood of conventional historic romances in which the hero is never for an instant out of prison or a duel, in which swords and swordthrusts are innumerable, and in which the whole clatter of steel is as commonplace as a cutler's shop. Romance is a condition of the soul, like all other phases of literature: a broker on a Putney omnibus might possibly be bursting with romance. But the exact note of place and time which tingles with romance in a novel is quite as recondite and hard to strike as the note of fear in Maeterlinck or vitality in Balzac. We hear much, for example, of the fights in Dumas, but really there are far fewer fights in The Three Musketeers than one fancies. Dumas did not employ to enliven his story one half of the combats which make dull those of his imitators. What there is in Dumas always is not fighting, but the sense of the sword at the hip; the sense of self-reliance and of the possibilities of life. His heroes pass their time in other matters, the greater part of it, perhaps, in eating, but in one man of Dumas sitting blandly on an innbench there is more romance, more sense of the inexhaustibility of existence, than in all the breathless obstacle-race of battles common in later stories. If the reader wishes for another instance of the same brooding spirit of romance, the disembodied soul, as it were, of incident, resting on a humdrum scene, we may refer him to the scene at the Colonel's house in Guy Mannering. where the supper-party are awaiting the strange carriage that is to bring the chosen of Meg Merrilies. The conversation is almost entirely about ducks and peas, and is conducted between a fantastic old lawyer and a frivolous girl, and yet we know no scene in fiction where the cord of romantic excitement is stretched so tight.
Thus the author of How to Write Fiction is in reality wrong at the very start. He treats a novel as if it was based on its plot. There are some novels which are so based: The Moonstone, for example. But he does not realise that the real germ of a novel may be any kind of matter- a man, a society, a curse, a landscape, a vision, a school of thought, a joke. When Thackeray called Vanity Fair a novel without a hero, he spoke the strict truth, for the protagonist in Vanity Fair is not a man, but a crowd, jostling, noisy, and monstrous. The hero of Notre Dame is a stone church, the hero of The Wrong Box is a wooden barrel, the hero of Peleas and Melisandre is an atmosphere. The author of this book seems to us very much beside the mark when he says of Maeterlinck that his atmosphere, "put into bald language, means that he has succeeded in creating an artistic environment for his weird characters," and proceeds to compare it with the darkness and strangeness of the first scene in Hamlet. In Hamlet the sombre background symbolises the human figure: in Maeterlinck the human figures themselves merely symbolise the sombre background. He does not "create an artistic environment for his characters:" the environment creates the characters and then kills them- no very difficult task, for they are a small and frightened race, like men created by a man and not by God. And this contradiction is merely typical of the thousand contradictions which render a science of fiction impossible. The fact is that every novelist begins to draw his figure at a different extremity. There can be no biology of these strange creatures of the brain in one of which the centre of life is in the tail, in another in the horns, in another in the stomach, in another in the wings.
Consequently we have nothing to say to Wilkie Collins and Sir Walter Besant and other authorities from whom explanations of artistic method are quoted here, except that, with the deepest faith in their talents and veracity, we do not believe a word they say. We do not believe that they wrote their books as they say and think they did; we know that the power to write a good story is one thing, the power to analyse one's own thoughts quite another, and we simply find evidence in the books themselves that they had their origin in infinitely higher and more mysterious forces than the simple rule of thumb to which their authors ascribe them. We should not believe that St. Paul's Cathedral was built especially for a stable even if Sir Christopher Wren said it was, nor do we believe that The Woman in White was written by Wilkie Collins because he had invented a certain plot which required a villain, and that villain must be a foreigner. A villain is a dull person both in fiction and in real life: Count Fosco was an inspiration from on high.
Sir Walter Besant gives an outline of an imaginary story about a jewel robbery, and lays down a series of rules, by violating each of which consistently admirable stories could be written. This is the sort of thing which clever men write when they conceive it to be their duty to bind the sweet influence of the Pleiades and loose the bands of Orion. "You will perceive the robbery must be a big and important thing; no little shop-lifting business. Next, the person robbed must not be a mere diamond merchant, but a person whose loss will interest the reader." Why must the robbery be big and important? We can imagine Balzac or Stevenson making an incomparable story about the robbery of something that had no value at all. Why should not the reader be interested in a diamond-merchant if he was well presented, as much as in anybody else? These rules impress us as mere solemn gibberish. We feel as we should if someone said that every hero who was a Romanist must have red hair, that three successive scenes must not take place in Yorkshire, that a heroine may have either a dog or a mother, but not both, that every fifth chapter must end with the word "hat," and that no Scotch accountant must be introduced into a forest scene. The best that could be said for these rules of ours would be that it might be possible to write a good novel while observing them. And that is certainly the best that can be said for Sir Walter Besant's rules.
We do not wish to convey the idea that this book is without merit. Many of its remarks, especially towards the end, are useful and almost valuable. But in the author's idea of a school of fiction we cannot concur. We think it would lead to nothing but a pseudo-science, like alchemy or astrology, to deceive the world for the hundredth time. The power of the man with the latest news and the best trick is increasing around us in many things. It must be resolutely proclaimed that into the world of wonder there is no gate but the low gate of humility, through the arch of which the earth shines like elfland.