Henry James's“The Art of Fiction”
Why is it revolutionary?
1. Choice of subject belongs to the artist without restriction.
- We must grant the artist his subject, his idea, his donnée; our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it. (561)
2. Conscious artistry and treatment of the subject is the key.
- Art is essentially selection. (563).
- Questions of art are questions (in the widest sense) of execution. (655)
3. Organic structure is important.
- A novel is a living thing, all one and continuous, like any other organism, and in proportion as it lives will be found, I think, that in each of the parts there is something of each of the other parts. (560) (Note: This idea dates back to Romantics such as Wordsworth and Coleridge in poetry, but James here asserts the principle on behalf of the novel.)
4. Artistry, not morality, should be the criterion. "Bad" novels and "good" novels are a matter of taste, not morality or choice of subject matter.
- Nothing, of course, will ever take the place of the good old fashion of "liking" a work or not liking it. (562). [Note: This also encompasses the high culture/low culture issue we discussed the other day.]
- There are bad novels and good novels, as there are bad pictures and good pictures; but that is the only distinction in which I can see any meaning. (560)
5. Faithfulness to life (realism) is the important factor.
- The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent life. (554).
- The air of reality (solidity of specification) seems to me to be the supreme virtue of a novel (559).
6. The expertise of the writer, like that of the painter, depends upon an artistic sensibility and openness to impressions.
- Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spiderweb of the finest silk threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness. (559).
- A novel is in its broadest definition a personal, a direct impression of life. (557)
- It goes without saying that you will not write a good novel unless you possess the sense of reality; but it will be difficult to give you a recipe for calling that sense into being. (558).
- “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!” (559)
7. Critics must judge works by the standards the artists have established.
- Moreover, it isn’t till I have accepted your data that I can begin to measure you. I have the standard, the pitch; I have no right to tamper with your flute and then criticize your music. (562)
8. Too many critics have drawn false distinctions, such as that between novels of action and novels of character. Novels representing reality ultimately address character.
- The novel and the romance, the novel of incident and that of character—these clumsy separations appear to me to have been made by critics and readers for their own convenience. (561)
9. Although it was formerly held in disrepute, the novel is a true art form and expresses legitimate truths, as do painting and history.
- The old superstition about fiction being "wicked" has certainly died out in England; but the spirit of it lingers in a certain oblique regard directed toward any story which does not more or less admit that it is only a joke. (554)
- It is not expected of the picture that it will make itself humble in order to be forgiven; and the analogy between the art of the painter and the art of the novelist is, so far as I am able to see, complete. (5550
- History also is allowed to represent life . . . [T]he subject-matter of fiction is stored up likewise in documents and records, and if it will not give itself away, as they say in California, it must speak with assurance, with the tone of the historian. (555)
10. Accordingly, the author should take his obligation seriously and keep himself out of the text, or at least treat his subject matter seriously.
- [James speaks of being shocked that Anthony Trollope acknowledges to his readers that "he and this trusting friend are only 'making believe.'"] Such a betrayal of a sacred office seems to me, I confess, a terrible crime. (555)