The Writing of Fiction
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The Writing of Fiction

The Classic Guide to the Art of the Short Story and the Novel

Edith Wharton

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eBook - ePub

The Writing of Fiction

The Classic Guide to the Art of the Short Story and the Novel

Edith Wharton

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Essays on the craft of fiction writing from the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, for her novel The Age of Innocence.

In The Writing of Fiction, Edith Wharton, a prolific writer and one of the twentieth century's greatest authors, shares her thoughts on fiction writing, devoting individual chapters to short stories and novels. She stresses the importance of writers putting thought into how they build their story, from selecting subject matter and fashioning characters to crafting situations and settings. She explores the history of modern fiction and the contributions of Honoré de Balzac and Stendhal. She even examines the difference between literary and commercial fiction, as well as the work of Marcel Proust.

Although Wharton passed away in 1937, her advice here endures and is bound to inspire writers for ages to come.

"In The Writing of Fiction Edith Wharton gives us not only a period-appropriate glimpse into the mind of an exceptionally creative writer but also an appreciation for the thoughtfulness and discipline she brought to her craft. We are fortunate she was willing to share her observations." —Ralph White, author of Litchfield

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Constructing a Novel


For convenience of division it may be said that the novel of psychology was born in France, the novel of manners in England, and that out of their union in the glorious brain of Balzac sprang that strange chameleon-creature, the modern novel, which changes its shape and colour with every subject on which it rests.
In the general muster the novel of manners will be found to have played the most important part; and here English influences preponderate. If innate aptitude were enough for the producing of a work of art, the flowering of the English novel of manners in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries might have surpassed in quality, and intrinsic importance, that of all other schools.
Balzac’s debt to Scott has already been touched on; that of the earlier French fiction to Richardson and Sterne is a commonplace in the history of the novel. But the true orientation of English fiction was away from the finedrawn analysis of Richardson, the desultory humours of Sterne, in the direction of an ample and powerful novel of manners. Smollett and Fielding brought fresh air and noise, the rough-and-tumble of the street, the ribaldry of the tavern, into the ceremonious drawing-rooms depicted by Richardson and later by Miss Burney. The great, the distinguishing gift of the English novelist was a homely simplicity combined with an observation at once keen and indulgent; good-humour was the atmosphere and irony the flavour of this great school of observers, from Fielding to George Eliot.
Till the day of Jane Austen it had been possible to treat without apology of the mixed affair of living; but Jane Austen’s delicate genius flourished on the very edge of a tidal wave of prudery. Already Scott was averting his eyes from facts on which the maiden novelist in her rectory parlour had looked unperturbed; when Thackeray and Dickens rose in their might the chains were forged and the statues draped. In the melancholy preface to “Pendennis” Thackeray puts the case bitterly and forcibly: “Since the author of Tom Jones was buried, no writer of fiction among us has been permitted to depict to his utmost power a MAN”; and the stunted conclusion of a tale so largely begun testifies to the benumbing effect of the new restrictions. The novels of Charlotte Brontë, which now seem in some respects so romantically unreal, were denounced for sensuality and immorality; and for a time English fiction was in danger of dwindling to the pale parables of Miss Mulock and Miss Yonge.
But for this reaction against truth, this sudden fear of touching on any of the real issues of the human comedy and tragedy, Thackeray’s natural endowment would have placed him with the very greatest; Trollope might conceivably have been a lesser Jane Austen; and George Eliot, perhaps born with the richest gifts of any English novelist since Thackeray, might have poured out her treasures of wit and irony and tenderness without continually pausing to denounce and exhort.
But the artist depends on atmosphere for the proper development of his gift; and all these novelists were cramped by the hazard of a social convention from which their continental contemporaries had the good fortune to escape. The artist of other races has always been not only permitted but enjoined to see life whole; and it is this, far more than any superiority of genius, that lifts Balzac, Stendhal and Tolstoy so high above even Thackeray when the universal values are to be appraised. The great continental novelists are all the avowed debtors of their English predecessors; they took the English novel of manners in its amplitude, its merriment and pathos, and in their hands “the thing became a trumpet.”
In one respect the English novelists are still supreme; and that is in the diffusion of good humour, good manners one might almost say, which envelops their comedy and tragedy. Much that is savage and acrimonious in the French, dolorous and overwrought in the Russians, is strained away through this fine English bonhomie, leaving a clear, bright draught, not very intoxicating or even stimulating, but refreshing and full of a lasting savour. Nor does this prevalent good humour hinder the full expression of tragedy; it helps rather to extract the final bitterness from certain scenes in “Pendennis” and “Vanity Fair,” in “Middlemarch” and the “Chronicles of Barsetshire.” The last years of Lydgate, the last hour of Mrs. Proudie, seem the more terrible for being muffled in a secure and decent atmosphere of fair play and plumpudding.
Since then all the restraints of prudery which hampered the English novelists of the nineteenth century have come down with a crash, and the “now-that-it-can-be-told-school” (as some one has wittily named it) has rushed to the opposite excess of dirt-for-dirt’s sake, from which no real work of art has ever sprung. Such a reaction was inevitable. No one who remembers that Butler’s great novel, “The Way of All Flesh,” remained unpublished for over twenty years because it dealt soberly but sincerely with the chief springs of human conduct can wonder that laborious monuments of schoolboy pornography are now mistaken for works of genius by a public ignorant of Rabelais and unaware of Apuleius. The balance will right itself with the habit of freedom. The new novelists will learn that it is even more necessary to see life steadily than to recount it whole; and by that time a more thoughtful public may be ripe for the enjoyment of a riper art.


Most novels, for convenient survey, may be grouped under one or the other of three types: manners, character (or psychology) and adventure. These designations may be thought to describe the different methods sufficiently; but as a typical example of each, “Vanity Fair” for the first, “Madame Bovary” for the second, and, for the third, “Rob Roy” or “The Master of Ballantrae,” might be named.
This grouping must be further stretched to include as subdivisions what might be called the farcical novel of manners, the romance and the philosophical romance; and immediately “Pickwick” for the first, “Harry Richmond,” “La Chartreuse de Parme” or “Lorna Doone” for the second, and “Wilhelm Meister” or “Marius the Epicurean” for the third category, suggest themselves to the reader.
Lastly, in the zone of the unclassifiable float such enchanting hybrids as “John Inglesant,” “Lavengro,” and that great Swiss novel, “Der Grüne Heinrich,” in which fantasy, romance and the homeliest realities are so inimitably mingled. It will be noticed that in the last two groups—of romance pure or hybrid—but one French novel has been cited. The French genius, which made “Romanticism” its own (after borrowing it from England), has seldom touched even the hem of Romance: Tristan and Iseult and their long line of descendants come from Broceliande, not from the Ile de France.
Before going farther it should be added that, in a study of the modern novel, the last-named of the three principal groups, the novel of adventure, is the least important because the least modern. That this implies any depreciation of the type in itself will not for a moment be admitted by a writer whose memory rings with the joyous clatter of Dumas the elder, Herman Melville, Captain Marryat and Stevenson; but their gallant yarns might have been sung to the minstrel’s harp before Roland and his peers, and told in Babylonian bazaars to Joseph and his Brethren: the tale of adventure is essentially the parentstock of all subsequent varieties of the novel, and its modern tellers have introduced few innovations in what was already a perfect formula, created in the dawn of time by the world-old appeal: “Tell us another story.”
All attempts at classification may seem to belong to school-examinations and textbooks, and to reduce the matter to the level of the famous examination-paper which, in reference to Wordsworth’s “O cuckoo, shall I call thee bird, or but a wandering voice?” instructed the student to “state alternative preferred, with reasons for your choice.” In a sense, classification is always arbitrary and belittling; yet to the novelist’s mind such distinctions represent organic realities. It does not much matter under what heading a school-girl is taught to class “Vanity Fair”; but from the creator’s point of view classification means the choice of a manner and of an angle of vision, and it mattered greatly that Thackeray knew just how he meant to envisage his subject, which might have been dealt with merely as the tale of an adventuress, or merely as the romance of an honest couple, or merely as an historical novel, and is all of these, and how much more besides—is, indeed, all that its title promises.
The very fact that so many subjects contain the elements of two or three different types of novel makes it one of the novelist’s first cares to decide which method he means to use. Balzac, for instance, gives us in “Le Père Goriot” and in “Eugénie Grandet” two different ways of dealing with subjects that contain, after all, much the same elements; in the one, englobing his tragic father in a vast social panorama, in the other projecting his miser (who should have given the tale its name) in huge Molièresque relief against the narrow background of a sleepy provincial town peopled by three or four carefully-subordinated characters.
There is another kind of hybrid novel, but in which the manner rather than the matter may be so characterized; the novel written almost entirely in dialogue, after the style, say, of “Gyp’s” successful tales. It is open to discussion whether any particular class of subjects calls for this treatment. Henry James thought so, and the oddly-contrived “Awkward Age” was a convinced attempt on his part to write “a little thing in the manner of Gyp”—a resemblance which few readers would have perceived had he not pointed it out. Strangely enough, he was persuaded that certain subjects not falling into the stagecategories require nevertheless to be chattered rather than narrated; and, more strangely still, that “The Awkward Age,” that delicate and subtle case, all half-lights and shades, all innuendoes, gradations and transitions, was typically made for such treatment.
His hyper-sensitiveness to any comment on his own work made it difficult to discuss the question with him; but his greatest admirers will probably feel that “The Awkward Age” lost more than it gained by being powdered into dialogue, and that, had it been treated as a novel instead of a kind of hybrid play, the obligation of “straight” narrative might have compelled him to face and elucidate the central problem instead of suffering it to lose itself in a tangle of talk. At any rate, such an instance will probably not do much to convince either novelists or their readers of the advantage of the “talked” novel. As a matter of fact, the mode of presentation to the reader, that central difficulty of the whole affair, must always be determined by the nature of the subject; and the subject which instantly calls for dialogue seems as instantly to range itself among those demanding for their full setting-forth the special artifices of the theatre.
The immense superiority of the novel for any subject in which “situation” is not paramount is just that freedom, that ease in passing from one form of presentation to another, and that possibility of explaining and elucidating by the way, which the narrative permits. Convention is the first necessity of all art; but there seems no reason for adding the shackles of another form to those imposed by one’s own. Narrative, with all its suppleness and variety, its range from great orchestral effects to the frail vibration of a single string, should furnish the substance of the novel; dialogue, that precious adjunct, should never be more than an adjunct, and one to be used as skillfully and sparingly as the drop of condiment which flavours a whole dish.
The use of dialogue in fiction seems to be one of the few things about which a fairly definite rule may be laid down. It should be reserved for the culminating moments, and regarded as the spray into which the great wave of narrative breaks in curving toward the watcher on the shore. This lifting and scattering of the wave, the coruscation of the spray, even the mere material sight of the page broken into short, uneven paragraphs, all help to reinforce the contrast between such climaxes and the smooth effaced gliding of the narrative intervals; and the contrast enhances that sense of the passage of time for the producing of which the writer has to depend on his intervening narration. Thus the sparing use of dialogue not only serves to emphasize the crises of the tale but to give it as a whole a greater effect of continuous development.
Another argument against the substitution of dialogue for narrative is the wastefulness and round-aboutness of the method. The greater effect of animation, of presentness, produced by its excessive use will not help the reader through more than half the book, whatever its subject; after that he will perceive that he is to be made to pay before the end for his too facile passage through the earlier chapters. The reason is inherent in the method. When, in real life, two or more people are talking together, all that is understood between them is left out of their talk; but when the novelist uses conversation as a means not only of accentuating but of carrying on his tale, his characters have to tell each other many things that each already knows the other knows. To avoid the resulting shock of improbability, their dialogue must be so diluted with irrelevant touches of realistic commonplace, with what might be described as by-talk, that, as in the least good of Trollope’s tales, it rambles on for page after page before the reader, resignedly marking time, arrives, bewildered and weary, at a point to which one paragraph of narrative could have carried him.


In writing of the short story I may have seemed to dwell too much on the need of considering every detail in its plan and development; yet the short story is an improvisation, the temporary shelter of a flitting fancy, compared to the four-square and deeply-founded monument which the novel ought to be.
It is not only that the scale is different; it is because of the reasons for its being so. If the typical short story be the foreshortening of a dramatic climax connecting two or more lives, the typical novel usually deals with the gradual unfolding of a succession of events divided by intervals of time, and in which many people, in addition to the principal characters, play more or less subordinate parts. No need now to take in sail and clear the decks; the novelist must carry as much canvas and as many passengers as his subject requires and his seamanship permits.
Still, the novel-theme is distinguished from that suited to the short story not so much by the number of characters presented as by the space required to mark the lapse of time or to permit the minute analysis of successive states of feeling. The latter distinction, it should be added, holds good even when the states of feeling are all contained in one bosom, and crowded into a short period, as they are in “The Kreutzer Sonata.” No one would think of classing “The Kreutzer Sonata,” or “Ivan Ilyitch,” or “Adolphe,” among short stories; and such instances prove the difficulty of laying down a hard-and-fast distinction between the forms. The final difference lies deeper. A novel may be all about one person, and about no more than a few hours in that person’s life, and yet not be reducible to the limits of a short story without losing all significance and interest. It depends on the character of the subject chosen.
Since the novel-about-one-person has been touched on, it may be well, before going farther, to devote a short parenthesis to its autobiographical or “subjective” variety. In the study of novel-technique one might almost set aside the few masterpieces in this class, such as the “Princesse de Clèves,” “Adolphe” and “Dominique,” as not novels at all, any more than Musset’s “Confession d’un Enfant du Siècle” is a novel. They are, in fact, all fragments of autobiography by writers of genius; and the autobiographical gift does not seem very closely related to that of fiction. In the case of the authors mentioned, none but Madame de La Fayette ever published another novel, and her other attempts were without interest. In all the arts abundance seems to be one of the surest signs of vocation. It exists on the lowest scale, and, in the art of fiction, belongs as much to the pr...