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: