Essay on imagination in fiction writing, Literary criticism, Literary theory

Impression vs Experience

On April 25 1884 Walter Besant, English novelist and historian, gave a lecture at the Royal Institution, the London organisation devoted to scientific research founded in 1799. It was called Fiction as One of the Fine Arts. Besant’s novel All Sorts and Conditions of Men was published two years earlier and sold over 250,000 copies. It anticipated the rise of the slum novel and with the publication of The Revolt of Man (1882), The Inner House (1888) and The Children of Gibeon (1896), he consolidated his fame as a master of dystopian fiction.

British novelist, historian and humanitarian, Walter Besant (1836 - 1901)

British novelist, historian and humanitarian, Walter Besant (1836 – 1901)

However he is best known today for the little pamphlet of his speech given at the Royal Institution that April day, which was published as The Art of Fiction. Most importantly it surprised everyone that people seemed to be interested in such a subject.

Besant’s little speech started an excited debate on the purpose of literary fiction and since that time many writers have weighed in to the argument with their own thoughts, beliefs, and theories on the subject.

Besant believed that writing fiction should be considered as a ‘fine art’ and like other fine arts – painting, sculpture, music and poetry – it “is governed and directed by general laws; and that these laws may be laid down and taught with as much precision and exactness as the laws of harmony, perspective, and proportion.” But fiction, like the other fine arts, is “so far removed from the mere mechanical arts that no laws or rules whatever can teach it to those who have not already been endowed with the natural and necessary gifts.”

Prior to this time “the general – The Philistine – view of the Profession is, first of all, that it is not one which a scholar and a man of serious views should take up: the telling of stories is inconsistent with a well-balanced mind.”

Everyone, it seems, agreed with what Mr Besant had to say, especially the belief that Fiction is an Art; but what started the debate was his assertion that “a young lady brought up in a quiet country village should avoid descriptions of garrison life; a writer whose friends and personal experiences belong to what we call the lower middle class should carefully avoid introducing his characters into Society … never go beyond your own experience.”

As an exponent of the ‘slum’ novel Mr Besant seems to be saying that when writing fiction one can write ‘down’ from your own experience but not ‘up’.

You can find most of Walter Besant’s work, fiction and non-fiction, including his essay, The Art of Fiction, at http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au where you can download them for free.

Henry James: The Art of Fiction.

James’s famous ‘reply’ using the same title as Basent’s pamphlet has become the cornerstone of fiction writing as an art, far outshining Besant’s in the fame stakes. His rebuttal is extremely polite to Besant and he certainly agrees with his elder that fiction writing is an art. However James took a more light-hearted tone and what the general pubic at the time thought of the novel, James famously wrote, “there was a comfortable, good humoured feeling abroad that a novel is a novel, as a pudding is a pudding and that our only business with it could be to swallow it.” This attitude, in some quarters, persists today.

James explains his ideas thus …

Experience “is the very atmosphere of the mind; and when the mind is imaginative … it takes to itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of the air into revelations… I remember an English novelist, a woman of genius, telling me that she was much commended for the impression she had managed to give in one of her tales of the nature and way of life of the French Protestant youth. She had been asked where she learned so much about this recondite being, she had been congratulated on her peculiar opportunities. These opportunities consisted in her having once, in Paris, as she ascended a staircase, passed an open door where, in the household of a pasteur, some of the young Protestants were seated at table round a finished meal. The glimpse made a picture; it lasted only a moment, but that moment was experience. She had got her impression, and she evolved her type. She knew what youth was, and what Protestantism; she also had the advantage of having seen what it was to be French; so that she converted these ideas into a concrete image and produced a reality.”

James sums up his advice to novice novelists as,

“Above all, however, [the novelist must be] blessed with the faculty which when you give it an inch takes an ell, and which for the artist is a much greater source of strength than any accident of residence or of place in the social scale. The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it.”

In other words, impressions are experience; and the novelist’s task is to convert those impressions into reality: “the power to guess the unseen from the seen…”

You can read James’s The Art of Fiction at
http://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/artfiction.html

Other writers who have written on this subject.

Robert Louis Stevenson (1885): Essays in the Art of Writing
Free ebook at http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au

Arthur Schopenhauer (1891): the Art of Literature
Free ebook at http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au

Anonymous (1901): How to Write a Novel
Free ebook at http://manybooks.net

Clayton Hamilton (1918): A Manual of the Art of Fiction
Free ebook at http://manybooks.net

E. M. Forster (1927): Aspects of the Novel
Available through Amazon.com, BukuKita.com and Gramedia

John Gardner (1983): The Art of Fiction
Available on Kindle (ebook) through Amazom.com

Ray Bradbury (1990): Zen in the Art of Writing
New and used editions available on Amazon.com

David Lodge (1992): The Art of Fiction
Available through Amazon.com, BukuKita.com and Gramedia

Ayn Rand (2000): The Art of Fiction
Available through Amazon.com, BukuKita.com and Gramedia

Stephen King (2000): On Writing
Available through Amazon.com, BukuKita.com and Gramedia

John Mullen (2006): How Novels Work
Available through Amazon.com, BukuKita.com and Gramedia

James Wood (2009): How Fiction Works
Available on Kindle (ebook) through Amazom.com

Colm Toibin (2010): All a Novelist Needs: Colm Toibin on Henry James
Available from Amazon.com

The Paris Review: The Art of Fiction Interviews
(from 1953 to 2015 and continuing)

http://theparisreview.org/interviews

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