Henry James’s “The Art of Fiction” remains one of the most influential statements on the theory of the novel. The essay concisely assesses the condition of the genre up to his own time and accurately anticipates the direction of its future development. Much as Edgar Allan Poe did for the short story a generation earlier, James establishes the novel as a serious artistic genre, identifies its unique characteristics, and lays out the fundamental principles for its critical analysis. Prior to that time, the novel was treated as an inferior literary form, considered at best as light entertainment and at worst as pandering to escapism and immorality; in either case, it was generally regarded as unworthy of serious critical analysis.
The catalyst for James’s essay was a lecture by novelist-historian Walter Besant, “Fiction as One of the Fine Arts,” delivered in 1884. James came across the essay when it was published later that same year as “The Art of Fiction,” and he adopted the same title for his response, published in Longman’s Magazine in September, 1884. The essay created enough of a stir to draw out additional comments on the discussion (including one from Robert Louis Stevenson, which led to a strong friendship between Stevenson and James). The following year, Besant’s and James’s articles were published together as a book.
Besant’s original essay presents three main arguments. First, narrative fiction is a fine art in its own right and should be valued with the arts of painting, sculpture, music, and poetry. Second, the novel is governed and directed by general laws, which may be laid down and taught with as much precision and exactness as the laws of harmony, perspective, and proportion that guide the other fine arts. Third, mastering these rules is necessary, but not sufficient, for success: The novelist also must have powerful artistic talent. James agrees with Besant about the importance and aesthetic interest of the novel and about the high degree of artistic ability demanded by the form, but doubts the existence of general rules or laws that could govern its composition or evaluation. He gathers his various objections together under one main criticism of Besant’s approach: Besant is mistaken in his attempt to develop precise criteria for what makes a good novel. In James’s view, the only purpose of the novel is to represent life; other than this, the “only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel . . . is that it be interesting.”
James diplomatically concedes that most of Besant’s principles are on the surface impossible to disagree with. These principles include the following: the novelist must write from experience, characters should be clearly outlined, the story is the most important element, and a novel should have a conscious moral purpose. However, James then argues that the...
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