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Henry James and The Art of Fiction

The novel has struggled to be taken seriously as an art form. The very title of James’s essay begins his campaign on its behalf: ‘art’ and ‘fiction’, often seen at odds with each other, are placed side by side here. Prose fiction includes short stories, novellas (longer short stories), and the novel. James regarded the novel as supreme in its importance, not least because of the possibilities it provided for larger-scale plot development and characterization. In this essay, as Mark Spilka has argued, James began ‘an adventure of immense importance to the novel’s history’ (1977: 208).

James begins by referring to ‘the mystery of story-telling’ (1884: 44), and it is worth reminding ourselves that the word ‘mystery’ originally referred to the secrets of a particular trade, or craft, and that ‘art’ was generally applied in mediaeval times and beyond to practical skills. James’s perspective in this essay is very much that of the producer, of the novelist, and he wants to retrieve this older, practical sense of ‘art’, together with the meaning that developed in the Romantic period (in literature, from around the 1780s through to the 1830s). In that period, artists were regarded as creative geniuses involved in the production of beautiful artefacts. What defined art, increasingly in the nineteenth century, was its detachment from the world, or its apparent lack of a specifiable purpose. The best fiction, for James, is an art because it involves both the kind of proficiency in a craft that comes with a long apprenticeship and the individual creative genius celebrated by Romantic writers such as the English poets William Wordsworth (1770–1850) and John Keats (1795– 1821). By combining these meanings of ‘art’, James attempts to fend off those who attack the novel for having ‘no great character’ and for being a ‘commodity so quickly and easily produced’ (1884: 49).

At the core of James’s definition of the novel is what he sees as its responsibility to represent life. He states that this is ‘the only reason for the existence of a novel’ (1884: 46). But it soon emerges that James is committed to a complex and shifting sense of what this responsibility amounts to. Part of the reason for these complications is James’s belief that ‘a novel ought to be artistic’ (1884: 47) as well as a representation of life. In an era of burgeoning popular photography, James wants to put as much distance as possible between the novel and crude realism. He argues that ‘[a] novel is in its broadest definition a personal, a direct impression of life’ (1884: 50). Crucially important here is the imaginative power of the writer; and this is what distinguishes the good novel from the bad, or popular, novel. To write artistic novels, rather than novels merely, the author must have ‘[t]he power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern’ (1884: 53).

A novel should seek not only to represent life, then, but to refract that representation through faculties of the imagination sharpened by sensitive and responsive observations in the world of experience. To say that novels represent experience realistically and leave it at that is to fail to acknowledge ‘that experience is never limited’, and that ‘it is never complete’ (1884: 52). It is also to overlook that ‘the measure of reality is very difficult to fix’ (1884: 51). James is less interested in ‘reality’, much more in the ‘air of reality’ (1884: 53). The central appeal of the novel is in its ability to represent life so interestingly that it actually ‘competes’ with it (1884: 53). Indeed, James was to go much further than this in a letter to the English novelist H. G. Wells (1866–1946), arguing there that ‘it is art that makes life’ (1915: 770). At the very least – because of its scope, flexibility of form, and openness towards experimentation – the novel can have the ‘large, free character of an immense and exquisite correspondence with life’ (1884: 61).

If the novel is a representation of life, its own vitality comes in part from the fusion of that representation with the writer’s own impressions. James’s insistence on the need for novels to be vital, on the analogy between the novel as a form and life, has a significant bearing on his theories of fiction and definition of the novel:

I cannot imagine composition existing in a series of blocks . . . A novel is a living thing, all one and continuous, like any 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. (1884: 54)

What matters here is the emphasis on the artificial nature of any boundaries between character and story, or plot, dialogue, description, and narration. James saw novels, in keeping with his description of them as ‘the most human form of art’ (1880: 868), as ‘organic’ in form. This fear of writing in ‘blocks’ is partly what propels James into condemning novels where the author’s voice, or that of his narrator, is obtrusive.  James was unhappy with facile connections between text and author, and anxious about destructive interferences from the reader at large.

Further at issue are what James regarded as fruitless distinctions, then common, between ‘the novel of character and the novel of incident’ (1884: 54). James was often criticized for focusing too much on psychological analysis at the expense of telling a good story, for elaborating on character rather than concentrating on the plot; and his defence is that the boundaries between these are useless. Such separations result in a dead rather than a living work of art. He regarded characters as analogous to the seeds of a plant: the novel should develop outwardly from the nature of those characters, the plot resulting from their characteristics and not the other way round.

James extends his application of the biological metaphor of an organism when identifying the ‘search for form’ (1884: 48) as a central feature of the art of fiction. The search, among other things, is for the most effective way of structuring and narrating the story as a whole; and it can only be found from within the subject itself, not by imposing existing patterns or applying sterile rules. In his preface to The Spoils of Poynton, James calls this ‘the logic of the particular case’ (1907–9: 1139). This view leads not just to a rejection of any externally imposed purpose on the novel, in keeping with the idea of organic form, but to the repudiation of any kind of ‘conscious moral purpose’ (1884: 62). The alternative is to confine the subject to ‘conventional, traditional moulds’, thereby reducing it to ‘an eternal repetition of a few familiar clichés’ (1884: 58). It is a ‘mistake’ to ‘say so definitely beforehand what sort of an affair the good novel will be’; the ‘only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel . . . is that it be interesting’ (1884: 49).

The Art of Fiction is in large measure a rebuttal of the English novelist and critic Walter Besant’s The Art of Fiction (1884), from where James initially took his title, and its insistence on the novel as an ‘Art’ which is ‘governed and directed by general laws’ (Besant 1884: 3). The most important of these laws was that there should be a ‘conscious moral purpose’ (Besant 1884: 24). Against this, James asserts that ‘[t]here are bad novels and good novels’, but ‘that is the only distinction in which I see any meaning’ (James 1884: 55). The implications of what he goes on to say for the relation between the novel and morality are discussed below:

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 . . . No good novel will ever proceed from a superficial mind. (1884: viii)

The author should be granted his ‘subject’ (1884: 56), the form of which ‘is to be appreciated after the fact’ (1884: 50). If the reader dislikes the subject, then the novel can be abandoned. The measure of a novel’s success is that of how the subject is treated; whether it develops organically, that is, like a seed into a plant, from the centre of its chosen subject. ‘[W]e can estimate quality’, James believed, only by applying the ‘test of execution’ (1884: 50), by judging what an author has done with his or her subject. James criticized George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871–2), for example, for being a ‘treasure-house of details’, but an ‘indifferent whole’ (Rawlings 2002: 2: 301). He saw the character of Dorothea as central to the novel and felt that excursions into other characters and stories were a distraction. For James, George Eliot’s novel not only dealt with its subject in too scattered and distracting a way, it was ultimately irresponsive and irresponsible to what should have been its subject, Dorothea, thereby failing the ‘test of execution’.

The Moral Sense and the Artistic Sense in The Art Of Fiction

James writes in The Art of Fiction that:

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 . . . No good novel will ever proceed from a superficial mind. (1884: 63–4)

A similar idea is expressed in the preface to The Portrait of a Lady. The ‘ “moral” sense of a work of art’ depends ‘on the amount of felt life concerned in producing it’: ‘The question comes back thus, obviously, to the kind and degree of the artist’s prime sensibility, which is the soil out of which his subject springs’. ‘Sense’, especially the peculiarly intense sense of the highly intelligent novelist, connects the moral and the aesthetic for James. This is part of a long tradition of thinking that goes all the way back to the Greek philosopher Plato and beyond. One of its most well-known manifestations is in Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’: ‘Beauty is Truth, – Truth Beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know’ (1820: 321). Experience is at the core of the moral and the aesthetic. The moral and the artistic senses converge if we become ‘one on whom nothing is lost’ (James 1884: 53) as we encounter complex, ambiguous experiences.

We start to become moral, as James defines the word, only as we begin to realize that our perspective is partial and needs to take account of the perspectives of others. Art and morality are social affairs. Novelists and readers, like James’s characters, need to develop their moral intelligence as they steep themselves in the complexity of experiencing the world. But for James ‘experience is never limited and is never complete’. What matters is the extent to which ‘The Art of Fiction’ unites the experiencing subject with experience by suggesting that an ‘immense sensibility’ is the ‘very atmosphere’ of the ‘mind’ (James 1884: 52). Sensibility is always transitive; to be sensible, ultimately, is to be sensible of the world of experience. At this point, as a way of grasping just how inseparable art and morality are for James, you might find it helpful to review the discussion of perspective and consciousness in Chapter 4 (pp. 82–6).

Quite simply, James believes that to become an intelligent novelist is to reach a moral stature beyond narrow, conventional, thinking. He further believes that this should be a general aspiration, while still holding to the view that intelligence is often the preserve of the few. In such a world, he observes wistfully, ‘are we not moreover – and let it pass this time as a happy hope! – pretty well all novelists now?’ (1902a: 346). The novel, for both the writer and the reader, is the road not to moral principles, but to the moral sense; and where the novelist is intelligent, the novel will offer an experience that has the potential for shaping and developing the reader’s own intelligence. The novel is ‘the great extension, great beyond all others, of experience and of consciousness’ (1907–9: 1061); and ‘experience’ is, for James, ‘our appreciation and our measure of what happens to us as social creatures’ (1907–9: 1091). If the novel is intelligently controlled, all the necessary moral ground will be covered, and ‘all prate of its representative character, its meaning and its bearing, its morality and humanity, [is] an impudent thing’ (1907–9: 1068). Novels should not transmit moral principles and rules as such, but renovate and develop the mind by attempting to engage the reader in the pursuit of intricate combinations of form, content, and germinating subjects.

James connects morality and realism in The Art of Fiction by arguing that novelists should not limit what they represent to the morally exemplary by excluding aspects of human experience: ‘the essence of moral energy is to survey the whole field’ (1884: 63). Two things will guarantee the broader moral reach of the novel: the acuity of the novelist, and the degree to which his or her novels can stimulate critical investigation and reflection. James strikingly defined ‘moral consciousness’ as ‘stirred intelligence’ (1907–9: 1095) in his New York prefaces; and he believed that a sharp, responsive intellect and a sense of morality were much the same thing. The clarifying expression of some of these ideas came eight years before The Art of Fiction in an essay entitled The Minor French Novelists (1876):

Every out-and-out realist who provokes curious meditation may claim that he is a moralist, for that, after all, is the most that the moralists can do for us. They sow the seeds of virtue; they can hardly pretend to raise the crop. (1876: 169–70,)

Further Reading
Blackmur, Richard P. (1934) Introduction to The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces by Henry James, New York: Scribner.
Daugherty, Sarah B. (1981) The Literary Criticism of Henry James, Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.
Falk, Richard P. (1955) ‘The Literary Criticism of the Genteel Decades, 1870–1900’, in Floyd Stovall (ed.) The Development of American Literary Criticism, New Haven, CT: College and University Press.
Fergusson, Francis (1943) ‘James’s Idea of Dramatic Form’, Kenyon Review, 5: 495–507.
Friedman, Norman (1975) Form and Meaning in Fiction, Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
Goode, John (1966) ‘The Art of Fiction: Walter Besant and Henry James’, in David Howard, John Lucas, John Goode (eds) Tradition and Tolerance in Nineteenth-Century Fiction: Critical Essays on Some English and American Novels, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul: 243–81 (see also Spilka 1973). Situates ‘The Art of Fiction’ in its historical context. Jones, Vivien (1984) James the Critic, London: Macmillan.
Lubbock, Percy (1921) The Craft of Fiction, London: Jonathan Cape. The classic early study of James’s New York Edition prefaces. McWhirter, David (ed.) (1995) Henry James’s New York Edition: The Construction of Authorship, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Henry James’s New York Edition Prefaces’: 206–39. Marshall, Adré (1998) The Turn of the Mind: Constituting Consciousness in Henry James, London: Associated University Presses.
Morrison, Sister Kristin (1961) ‘James’s and Lubbock’s Differing Points of View’, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 16: 245–55.
Nussbaum, Martha C. (1990) Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Peterson, Dale E. (1975) The Clement Vision: Poetic Realism in Turgenev and James, Port Washington, NY and London: Kennikat Press.
Rawlings, Peter (ed.) (1993) Critical Essays on Henry James, Critical Thought Series 5, Aldershot and Brookfield, VT: Scolar Press.
Rowe, John Carlos (1984) The Theoretical Dimensions of Henry James, London: Methuen.
Rowe, John Carlos (1998) The Other Henry James, New Americanists, Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press.
Seed, David (1981) ‘The Narrator in James’s Criticism’, Philological Quarterly 60: 501–21.
Spilka, Mark (1973) ‘Henry James and Walter: “The Art of Fiction” Controversy’, in Mark Spilka (ed.) (1977) Towards a Poetics of Fiction, Bloomington, IN and London: Indiana University Press: 190–208.
Ward, J. A. (1967) The Search for Form: Studies in the Structure of James’s Fiction, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
Wellek, René (1965) ‘Henry James’, A History of Modern Criticism: 1750–1950, Vol. 4, The Later Nineteenth Century, London: Jonathan Cape: 213–37.
Source: Rawlings, Peter. American Theorists of the Novel. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.

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