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The Writing of Fiction



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About The Book

A rare work of nonfiction from Edith Wharton, The Writing of Fiction contains timeless advice on writing and reading well from the first woman ever to win a Pulitzer Prize—now with a new introduction by Brandon Taylor.

In 1921, Edith Wharton won a Pulitzer Prize for her first novel, The Age of Innocence. Over the course of her career, she would continue to produce beloved, bestselling work—from The House of Mirth to The Custom of the Country—and gained a reputation for her incisive critiques of her upper-class social circle. To each new generation of readers, her work remains fresh, formally remarkable, and endlessly entertaining.

The Writing of Fiction is a window into Wharton’s mind as she ponders the intertwined arts of writing and reading. Wharton provides invaluable insight on the subjects of character, the challenge of finely-tuned short stories, the construction of a novel, and more. Beyond a treatise on craft, The Writing of Fiction is a sweeping meditation by a masterful practitioner and a rare chance to experience the inimitable voice of one of America’s most influential novelists.


The Writing of Fiction I

In General I
To treat of the practice of fiction is to deal with the newest, most fluid and least formulated of the arts. The exploration of origins is always fascinating; but the attempt to relate the modern novel to the tale of Joseph and his Brethren is of purely historic interest.

Modern fiction really began when the “action” of the novel was transferred from the street to the soul; and this step was probably first taken when Madame de La Fayette, in the seventeenth century, wrote a little story called “La Princesse de Clèves,” a story of hopeless love and mute renunciation in which the stately tenor of the lives depicted is hardly ruffled by the exultations and agonies succeeding each other below the surface.

The next advance was made when the protagonists of this new inner drama were transformed from conventionalized puppets—the hero, the heroine, the villain, the heavy father and so on—into breathing and recognizable human beings. Here again a French novelist—the Abbé Prévost—led the way with “Manon Lescaut”; but his drawing of character seems summary and schematic when his people are compared with the first great figure in modern fiction—the appalling “Neveu de Rameau.” It was not till long after Diderot’s death that the author of so many brilliant tales peopled with eighteenth century puppets was found, in the creation of that one sordid, cynical and desolately human figure, to have anticipated not only Balzac but Dostoievsky.

But even from “Manon Lescaut” and the “Neveu de Rameau,” even from Lesage, Defoe, Fielding, Smollett, Richardson, and Scott, modern fiction is differentiated by the great dividing geniuses of Balzac and Stendhal. Save for that one amazing accident of Diderot’s, Balzac was the first not only to see his people, physically and morally, in their habit as they lived, with all their personal hobbies and infirmities, and make the reader see them, but to draw his dramatic action as much from the relation of his characters to their houses, streets, towns, professions, inherited habits and opinions, as from their fortuitous contacts with each other.

Balzac himself ascribed the priority in this kind of realism to Scott, from whom the younger novelist avowedly derived his chief inspiration. But, as Balzac observed, Scott, so keen and direct in surveying the rest of his field of vision, became conventional and hypocritical when he touched on love and women. In deference to the wave of prudery which overswept England after the vulgar excesses of the Hanoverian court he substituted sentimentality for passion, and reduced his heroines to “Keepsake” insipidities; whereas in the firm surface of Balzac’s realism there is hardly a flaw, and his women, the young as well as the old, are living people, as much compact of human contradictions and torn with human passions as his misers, his financiers, his priests or his doctors.

Stendhal, though as indifferent as any eighteenth century writer to atmosphere and “local colour,” is intensely modern and realistic in the individualizing of his characters, who were never types (to the extent even of some of Balzac’s) but always sharply differentiated and particular human beings. More distinctively still does he represent the new fiction by his insight into the springs of social action. No modern novelist has ever gone nearer than Racine did in his tragedies to the sources of personal, of individual feeling; and some of the French novelists of the eighteenth century are still unsurpassed (save by Racine) in the last refinements of individual soul-analysis. What was new in both Balzac and Stendhal was the fact of their viewing each character first of all as a product of particular material and social conditions, as being thus or thus because of the calling he pursued or the house he lived in (Balzac), or the society he wanted to get into (Stendhal), or the acre of ground he coveted, or the powerful or fashionable personage he aped or envied (both Balzac and Stendhal). These novelists (with the solitary exception of Defoe, when he wrote “Moll Flanders”) are the first to seem continuously aware that the bounds of a personality are not reproducible by a sharp black line, but that each of us flows imperceptibly into adjacent people and things.

The characterization of all the novelists who preceded these two masters seems, in comparison, incomplete or immature. Even Richardson’s seems so, in the most penetrating pages of “Clarissa Harlowe,” even Goethe’s in that uncannily modern novel, the “Elective Affinities”—because, in the case of these writers, the people so elaborately dissected are hung in the void, unvisualized and unconditioned (or almost) by the special outward circumstances of their lives. They are subtly analyzed abstractions of humanity, to whom only such things happen as might happen to almost any one in any walk of life—the inevitable eternal human happenings.

Since Balzac and Stendhal, fiction has reached out in many new directions, and made all sorts of experiments; but it has never ceased to cultivate the ground they cleared for it, or gone back to the realm of abstractions. It is still, however, an art in the making, fluent and dirigible, and combining a past full enough for the deduction of certain general principles with a future rich in untried possibilities.
On the threshold of any theory of art its exponent is sure to be asked: “On what first assumption does your theory rest?” And in fiction, as in every other art, the only answer seems to be that any theory must begin by assuming the need of selection. It seems curious that even now—and perhaps more than ever—one should have to explain and defend what is no more than the rule underlying the most artless verbal statement. No matter how restricted an incident one is trying to give an account of, it cannot but be fringed with details more and more remotely relevant, and beyond that with an outer mass of irrelevant facts which may crowd on the narrator simply because of some accidental propinquity in time or space. To choose between all this material is the first step toward coherent expression.

A generation ago this was so generally taken for granted that to state it would have seemed pedantic. In every-day intercourse the principle survives in the injunction to stick to the point; but the novelist who applies—or owns up to applying—this rule to his art, is nowadays accused of being absorbed in technique to the exclusion of the supposedly contrary element of “human interest.”

Even now, the charge would hardly be worth taking up had it not lately helped to refurbish the old trick of the early French “realists,” that group of brilliant writers who invented the once-famous tranche de vie, the exact photographic reproduction of a situation or an episode, with all its sounds, smells, aspects realistically rendered, but with its deeper relevance and its suggestions of a larger whole either unconsciously missed or purposely left out. Now that half a century has elapsed, one sees that those among this group of writers who survive are still readable in spite of their constricting theory, or in proportion as they forgot about it once they closed with their subject. Such are Maupassant, who packed into his brief masterpieces so deep a psychological significance and so sure a sense of larger relations; Zola, whose “slices” became the stuff of great romantic allegories in which the forces of Nature and Industry are the huge cloudy protagonists, as in a Pilgrim’s Progress of man’s material activities; and the Goncourts, whose French instinct for psychological analysis always made them seize on the more significant morsel of the famous slices. As for the pupils, the mere conscientious appliers of the system, they have all blown away with the theory, after a briefer popularity than writers of equal talent might have enjoyed had they not thus narrowed their scope. An instance in proof is Feydeau’s “Fanny,” one of the few “psychological” novels of that generation, and a slight enough adventure in soul-searching compared with the great “Madame Bovary” (which it was supposed at the time to surpass), but still readable enough to have kept the author’s name alive, while most of his minor contemporaries are buried under the unappetizing débris of their “slices.”

It seemed necessary to revert to the slice of life because it has lately reappeared, marked by certain unimportant differences, and relabelled the stream of consciousness; and, curiously enough, without its new exponents’ appearing aware that they are not also its originators. This time the theory seems to have sprung up first in England and America; but it has already spread to certain of the younger French novelists, who are just now, confusedly if admiringly, rather overconscious of recent tendencies in English and American fiction.

The stream of consciousness method differs from the slice of life in noting mental as well as visual reactions, but resembles it in setting them down just as they come, with a deliberate disregard of their relevance in the particular case, or rather with the assumption that their very unsorted abundance constitutes in itself the author’s subject.

This attempt to note down every half-aware stirring of thought and sensation, the automatic reactions to every passing impression, is not as new as its present exponents appear to think. It has been used by most of the greatest novelists, not as an end in itself, but as it happened to serve their general design: as when their object was to portray a mind in one of those moments of acute mental stress when it records with meaningless precision a series of disconnected impressions. The value of such “effects” in making vivid a tidal rush of emotion has never been unknown since fiction became psychological, and novelists grew aware of the intensity with which, at such times, irrelevant trifles impinge upon the brain; but they have never been deluded by the idea that the subconscious—that Mrs. Harris of the psychologists—could in itself furnish the materials for their art. All the greatest of them, from Balzac and Thackeray onward, have made use of the stammerings and murmurings of the half-conscious mind whenever—but only when—such a state of mental flux fitted into the whole picture of the person portrayed. Their observation showed them that in the world of normal men life is conducted, at least in its decisive moments, on fairly coherent and selective lines, and that only thus can the great fundamental affairs of bread-getting and home-and-tribe organizing be carried on. Drama, situation, is made out of the conflicts thus produced between social order and individual appetites, and the art of rendering life in fiction can never, in the last analysis, be anything, or need to be anything, but the disengaging of crucial moments from the welter of existence. These moments need not involve action in the sense of external events; they seldom have, since the scene of conflict was shifted from incident to character. But there must be something that makes them crucial, some recognizable relation to a familiar social or moral standard, some explicit awareness of the eternal struggle between man’s contending impulses, if the tales embodying them are to fix the attention and hold the memory.
The distrust of technique and the fear of being unoriginal—both symptoms of a certain lack of creative abundance—are in truth leading to pure anarchy in fiction, and one is almost tempted to say that in certain schools formlessness is now regarded as the first condition of form.

Not long ago I heard a man of letters declare that Dostoievsky was superior to Tolstoy because his mind was “more chaotic,” and he could therefore render more “truthfully” the chaos of the Russian mind in general; though how chaos can be apprehended and defined by a mind immersed in it, the speaker did not make clear. The assertion, of course, was the result of confusing imaginative emotivity with its objective rendering. What the speaker meant was that the novelist who would create a given group of people or portray special social conditions must be able to identify himself with them; which is rather a long way of saying that an artist must have imagination.

The chief difference between the merely sympathetic and the creative imagination is that the latter is two-sided, and combines with the power of penetrating into other minds that of standing far enough aloof from them to see beyond, and relate them to the whole stuff of life out of which they but partially emerge. Such an all-round view can be obtained only by mounting to a height; and that height, in art, is proportioned to the artist’s power of detaching one part of his imagination from the particular problem in which the rest is steeped.

One of the causes of the confusion of judgment on this point is no doubt the perilous affinity between the art of fiction and the material it works in. It has been so often said that all art is re-presentation—the giving back in conscious form of the shapeless raw material of experience—that one would willingly avoid insisting on such a truism. But while there is no art of which the saying is truer than of fiction, there is none in respect of which there is more danger of the axiom’s being misinterpreted. The attempt to give back any fragment of life in painting or sculpture or music presupposes transposition, “stylization.” To re-present in words is far more difficult, because the relation is so close between model and artist. The novelist works in the very material out of which the object he is trying to render is made. He must use, to express soul, the signs which soul uses to express itself. It is relatively easy to separate the artistic vision of an object from its complex and tangled actuality if one has to re-see it in paint or marble or bronze; it is infinitely difficult to render a human mind when one is employing the very word-dust with which thought is formulated.

Still, the transposition does take place as surely, if not as obviously, in a novel as in a statue. If it did not, the writing of fiction could never be classed among works of art, products of conscious ordering and selecting, and there would consequently be nothing to say about it, since there seems to be no way of estimating aesthetically anything to which no standard of choice can be applied.

Another unsettling element in modern art is that common symptom of immaturity, the dread of doing what has been done before; for though one of the instincts of youth is imitation, another, equally imperious, is that of fiercely guarding against it. In this respect, the novelist of the present day is in danger of being caught in a vicious circle, for the insatiable demand for quick production tends to keep him in a state of perpetual immaturity, and the ready acceptance of his wares encourages him to think that no time need be wasted in studying the past history of his art, or in speculating on its principles. This conviction strengthens the belief that the so-called quality of “originality” may be impaired by too long brooding on one’s theme and too close a commerce with the past; but the whole history of that past—in every domain of art—disproves this by what survives, and shows that every subject, to yield and to retain its full flavour, should be long carried in the mind, brooded upon, and fed with all the impressions and emotions which nourish its creator.

True originality consists not in a new manner but in a new vision. That new, that personal, vision is attained only by looking long enough at the object represented to make it the writer’s own; and the mind which would bring this secret germ to fruition must be able to nourish it with an accumulated wealth of knowledge and experience. To know any one thing one must not only know something of a great many others, but also, as Matthew Arnold long since pointed out, a great deal more of one’s immediate subject than any partial presentation of it visibly includes; and Mr. Kipling’s “What should they know of England who only England know?” might be taken as the symbolic watchword of the creative artist.

One is sometimes tempted to think that the generation which has invented the “fiction course” is getting the fiction it deserves. At any rate it is fostering in its young writers the conviction that art is neither long nor arduous, and perhaps blinding them to the fact that notoriety and mediocrity are often interchangeable terms. But though the trade-wind in fiction undoubtedly drives many beginners along the line of least resistance, and holds them there, it is far from being the sole cause of the present quest for short-cuts in art. There are writers indifferent to popular success, and even contemptuous of it, who sincerely believe that this line marks the path of the true vocation. Many people assume that the artist receives, at the outset of his career, the mysterious sealed orders known as “Inspiration,” and has only to let that sovereign impulse carry him where it will. Inspiration does indeed come at the outset to every creator, but it comes most often as an infant, helpless, stumbling, inarticulate, to be taught and guided; and the beginner, during this time of training his gift, is as likely to misuse it as a young parent to make mistakes in teaching his first child.

There is no doubt that in this day of general “speeding up,” the “inspirational” theory is seductive even to those who care nothing for easy triumphs. No writer—especially at the beginning of his career—can help being influenced by the quality of the audience that awaits him; and the young novelist may ask of what use are experience and meditation, when his readers are so incapable of giving him either. The answer is that he will never do his best till he ceases altogether to think of his readers (and his editor and his publisher) and begins to write, not for himself, but for that other self with whom the creative artist is always in mysterious correspondence, and who, happily, has an objective existence somewhere, and will some day receive the message sent to him, though the sender may never know it. As to experience, intellectual and moral, the creative imagination can make a little go a long way, provided it remains long enough in the mind and is sufficiently brooded upon. One good heart-break will furnish the poet with many songs, and the novelist with a considerable number of novels. But they must have hearts that can break.

Even to the writer least concerned with popularity it is difficult, at first, to defend his personality. Study and meditation contain their own perils. Counsellors intervene with contradictory advice and instances. In such cases these counsellors are most often other people’s novels: the great novels of the past, which haunt the beginner like a passion, and the works of his contemporaries, which pull him this way and that with too-persuasive hands. His impulse, at first, will be either to shun them, to his own impoverishment, or to let his dawning individuality be lost in theirs; but gradually he will come to see that he must learn to listen to them, take all they can give, absorb it into himself, and then turn to his own task with the fixed resolve to see life only through his own eyes.

Even then another difficulty remains; the mysterious discrepancy which sometimes exists between a novelist’s vision of life and his particular kind of talent. Not infrequently an innate tendency to see things in large masses is combined with the technical inability to render them otherwise than separately, meticulously, on a small scale. Perhaps more failures than one is aware of are due to this particular lack of proportion between the powers of vision and expression. At any rate, it is the cause of some painful struggles and arid dissatisfactions; and the only remedy is resolutely to abandon the larger for the smaller field, to narrow one’s vision to one’s pencil, and do the small thing closely and deeply rather than the big thing loosely and superficially. Of twenty subjects that tempt the imagination (subjects one sees one’s self doing, oh so wonderfully, if only one were Mérimée or Maupassant, or Conrad or Mr. Kipling!) probably but one is “fit for the hand” of the limited person one happens to be; and to learn to renounce the others is a first step toward doing that particular one well.
These considerations have led straight to the great, the central, matter of subject; and inextricably interwoven with it are the subsidiary points of form and style, both of which ought, as it were, to spring naturally out of the particular theme chosen for representation.

Form might perhaps, for present purposes, be defined as the order, in time and importance, in which the incidents of the narrative are grouped; and style as the way in which they are presented, not only in the narrower sense of language, but also, and rather, as they are grasped and coloured by their medium, the narrator’s mind, and given back in his words. It is the quality of the medium which gives these incidents their quality; style, in this sense, is the most personal ingredient in the combination of things out of which any work of art is made. Words are the exterior symbols of thought, and it is only by their exact use that the writer can keep on his subject the close and patient hold which “fishes the murex up,” and steeps his creation in unfading colours.

Style in this definition is discipline; and the self-consecration it demands, and the bearing it has on the whole of the artist’s effort, have been admirably summed up by Marcel Proust in that searching chapter of “A I’Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleurs” where he analyzes the art of fiction in the person of the great novelist Bergotte. “The severity of his taste, his unwillingness to write anything of which he could not say, in his favourite phrase: ‘C’est doux’ [harmonious, delicious], this determination, which had caused him to spend so many seemingly fruitless years in the ‘precious’ carving of trifles, was in reality the secret of his strength; for habit makes the style of the writer as it makes the character of the man, and the author who has several times contented himself with expressing his thought in an approximately pleasing way has once and for all set a boundary to his talent, and will never pass beyond.”

These definitions of form and style being established, and the preliminary need of the harmony between an author’s talent and his argument being assumed, one is next faced by the profounder problem of the inherent fitness of any given subject as material for the imagination.

It has been often said that subject in itself is all-important, and at least as often that it is of no importance whatever. Definition is again necessary before the truth can be extracted from these contradictions. Subject, obviously, is what the story is about; but whatever the central episode or situation chosen by the novelist, his tale will be about only just so much of it as he reacts to. A gold mine is worth nothing unless the owner has the machinery for extracting the ore, and each subject must be considered first in itself, and next in relation to the novelist’s power of extracting from it what it contains. There are subjects trivial in appearance, and subjects trivial to the core; and the novelist ought to be able to discern at a glance between the two, and know in which case it is worth while to set about sinking his shaft. But the novelist may make mistakes. He is exposed to the temptation of the false good-subject, and learns only by prolonged experience to resist surface-attractions, and probe his story to the depths before he begins to tell it.

There is still another way in which subject must be tested. Any subject considered in itself must first of all respond in some way to that mysterious need of a judgment on life of which the most detached human intellect, provided it be a normal one, cannot, apparently, rid itself. Whether the “moral” be present in the guise of the hero rescuing the heroine from the villain at the point of the revolver, or whether it lurk in the quiet irony of such a scene as Pendennis’s visit to the Grey Friars’ Chapel, and his hearing the choir singing “I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging their bread,” at the very moment when he discovers the bent head of Colonel Newcome among the pauper gentlemen—in one form or another there must be some sort of rational response to the reader’s unconscious but insistent inner question: “What am I being told this story for? What judgment on life does it contain for me?”

There seems to be no escape from this obligation except into a pathological world where the action, taking place between people of abnormal psychology, and not keeping time with our normal human rhythms, becomes an idiot’s tale, signifying nothing. In vain has it been attempted to set up a water-tight compartment between “art” and “morality.” All the great novelists whose books have been used to point the argument have invariably declared themselves on the other side, not only by the inner significance of their work, but also, in some cases, by the most explicit statements. Flaubert, for instance, so often cited as the example of the writer viewing his themes in a purely “scientific” or amoral light, has disproved the claim by providing the other camp with that perfect formula: “Plus la pensée est belle, plus la phrase est sonore”—not the metaphor, not the picture, but the thought.

A good subject, then, must contain in itself something that sheds a light on our moral experience. If it is incapable of this expansion, this vital radiation, it remains, however showy a surface it presents, a mere irrelevant happening, a meaningless scrap of fact torn out of its context. Nor is it more than a half-truth to say that the imagination which probes deep enough can find this germ in any happening, however insignificant. The converse is true enough: the limited imagination reduces a great theme to its own measure. But the wide creative vision, though no fragment of human experience can appear wholly empty to it, yet seeks by instinct those subjects in which some phase of our common plight stands forth dramatically and typically, subjects which, in themselves, are a kind of summary or foreshortening of life’s dispersed and inconclusive occurrences.

About The Author

Edith Wharton (1862–1937) was an American novelist—the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Age of Innocence in 1921—as well as a short story writer, playwright, designer, reporter, and poet. Her other works include Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth, and Roman Fever and Other Stories. Born into one of New York’s elite families, she drew upon her knowledge of upper-class aristocracy to realistically portray the lives and morals of the Gilded Age.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (October 8, 1997)
  • Length: 128 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780684845319

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"There are only three or four American novelists who can be thought of as 'major'--and Edith Wharton is one."--Gore Vidal

"Edith Wharton is my favorite writer and her incisive indictments of the wealthy class she was a part of, are endlessly interesting to me."--Roxane Gay, Medium

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