The Writing of Fiction – Book Review

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. – from The Writing of Fiction, page 10 –

Edith Wharton was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for her very first novel – The Age of Innocence. The Writing of Fiction is a glimpse into her view of the craft of writing…an expose which looks at the history of the novel and the authors who most influenced Wharton, as well as her theories on writing. In this slim book, Wharton examines the art of the short story and how it differs from writing a novel, the development of character, the difference between the novel of situation and that of the novel of character, and finishes with a short chapter on the brilliance of Proust.

I was impressed by how current Wharton’s theories and observations are more than 80 years after she penned them. It is not unusual to have writers voice the fear that what they are writing may have already been done before. And it is this common fear which Wharton first addresses in her guide:

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. – from The Writing of Fiction, page 17 –

She then goes on to define her concept of originality:

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 accumulated wealth of knowledge and experience. – from The Writing of Fiction, page 17 –

I found many of Wharton’s observations to be truths I have experienced not only as a writer, but as a reader, as evidenced by the following quotes:

The moment the reader loses faith in the author’s sureness of foot the chasm of improbability gapes. – from The Writing of Fiction, page 31 –

Quiet iteration is far more racking than diversified assaults; the expected is more frightful than the unforeseen. – from The Writing of Fiction, page 32 –

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. – from The Writing of Fiction, page 55 –

It is obvious that a mediocre book is always too long, and that a great one usually seems too short. – from The Writing of Fiction, page 74 –

A novelist who does not know when his story is finished, but goes on stringing episode to episode after it is over, not only weakens the effect of the conclusion, but robs of significance all that has gone before. – from The Writing of Fiction, page 78 –

I especially enjoyed Wharton’s advice regarding point of view: ‘One thing more is needful for the ultimate effect of probability; and that is, never to let the character who serves as reflector record anything not naturally within his register.‘ She goes on to caution the writer against shifting point of view too often, and when using multiple points of view to take care that each character provides a piece of the whole history in order to provide a unity of impression. Wharton’s philosophy was that the novel writer should tell his or her story from not more than two or three different perspectives.

Wharton also address the plot driven novel vs. the character driven novel – and notes that ‘the novel of character and manners may seem superior in richness, variety and play of light and shade‘ and ‘…so far the greatest novels have undoubtedly dealt with character and manners rather than with mere situation.‘ Lest one think Wharton is being self-serving in this observation, she quickly points out the danger of too much focus on character:

In the inevitable reaction against the arbitrary “plot” many novelists have gone too far in the other direction, either swamping themselves in the tedious “stream of consciousness,” or else – another frequent error – giving an exaggerated importance to trivial incidents when the tale is concerned with trivial lives. – from The Writing of Fiction, page 102 –

If there is a weakness in Wharton’s book about writing fiction, it is her abrupt last chapter which extols the brilliance of Proust. Since up to this point, The Writing of Fiction focused almost entirely on the history and craft of the art of writing, her switch to discussing Proust and his work felt out of place. Perhaps she desired to profile an author who exhibited what she felt were the best attributes of a writer. Indeed, in reference to Proust, she states:

Out of all the flux of judgments and theories which have darkened counsel in respect of novel-writing, one stable fact seems always to emerge; the quality the greatest novelist have always had in common is that of making their people live. – from The Writing of Fiction, page 111 –

In this quote, Wharton could almost have been writing of herself.

The Writing of Fiction is a gem of a book, allowing readers to glimpse the brilliance of a great female writer whose work still resonates with truth in today’s world. Writers in all stages of their development would do themselves a favor to pick up Wharton’s acutely observed guide to writing.

As part of The Classics Circuit tour for Edith Wharton, you might be interested in another review of this book:

Joyfully Retired

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    • Kathy on January 27, 2010 at 10:08

    It sure sounds like I need to read some Edith Wharton! I’m wondering why I never have.

  1. I love these kinds of books that look into their writing lives…thanks for bringing this to my attention.

    • Wendy on January 27, 2010 at 10:53

    Kathy: She is worth reading – my favorite (so far) of hers is Ethan Frome (which is also quite short).

    Serena: I agree – it is fascinating to get a glimpse of the real person behind the book…glad I was able to steer you towards this one.

    • Valerie on January 27, 2010 at 13:25

    I had no idea that Edith Wharton wrote a book on writing. I recently read books on writing by Stephen King and Anne Lamott, it would be interesting to compare Wharton’s to theirs!

    • Molly on January 27, 2010 at 14:49

    I have not had the fortune to read any of Ms. Wharton’s works, but I did just recently download The Age of Innocence to my Kindle and hope to read it soon.

    On the other hand, I have found myself reading countless books over the past two weeks on the art of writing in general, and writing fiction in particular. I LOVE the quotes you highlighted in this post, and plan to check out this book as soon as possible!

    • Teddy on January 27, 2010 at 22:33

    I will have to take a look at this book. Not only am I a Wharton fan but I am also a short story fan. I would love to read her observations and comparisons to the novel.

    When people tell me that they don’t like short stories, I tell them that they have not read any good ones then. I explain the short story is a art form and when well crafted is a real treat.

  2. Although I don’t consider myself a writer of fiction, this interests me because as you say it relates to how we read too: I’m always looking for great fiction!

  3. 🙂 Adding this to my list, too!

    • Wendy on January 31, 2010 at 10:13

    Valerie: I’ve also read King and Lamott’s books on writing – and Wharton’s is VERY different from both of those books, but still quite fascinating!

    Molly: Oh, I think given your profession…you would really find this book interesting. I’ll be looking for your thoughts on it!

    Teddy: I agree with you 100% re: short stories (which I actually think are harder to write well than a novel). I was not surprised that two of my top 10 books in 2009 were short story collections!

    • Wendy on January 31, 2010 at 10:43

    Rebecca: Hope you’ll enjoy it – it definitely gives the reader insight!

    Jenclair: Looking forward to hearing your thoughts about it 🙂

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