The Responsibilities of the Novelist Essay - Critical Essays

Frank Norris

Critical Evaluation

Frank Norris’ one volume of criticism is sometimes referred to but little quoted. If we wonder how one can ignore a volume titled THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE NOVELIST, written by a novelist of critical standing and published immediately after his early death, at a time when only Henry James among practicing writers seemed to be interested in considering the art of the novel and the novelist, the answer is quickly apparent in Norris’ volume. Most of the twenty-five articles (scarcely essays) are written on popular and topical subjects—“Why Women Should Write the Best Novels,” “A Plea for Romantic Fiction”—in a regular length of approximately eighteen hundred words with plenty of free generalization and attacks on popular rivals, all in the inflated windy style of the penny-a-liner. In all this successful literary journalism, however, there are passages which deserve to be better known for the light they shed on the American novel then and now, and on Frank Norris.

In the last four years of his short life Frank Norris turned from roving journalism and short stories and began to publish novels; in his last two years the articles he published were almost all on literature, some in regular series, others as he could place them, generally in WORLD’S WORK and THE CRITIC, and at least fourteen of these appear in the first fifteen essays in the volume. Eight others had been post-humously published in periodicals. The remaining eleven essays were drawn from earlier work and material syndicated after Norris’ death on October 25, 1902. All come from Norris’ sudden interest in his art.

Norris had no voice in the selection or organization of the contents but the restricting of the volume only to fiction is indicated in the opening essay, and the fact that more than half the titles use the words “novel,” “novelist,” or “fiction,” though within the essays Norris uses the larger term “writer.”

Six of the better essays were selected for reprinting in 1949 by a New York publisher, making a slim pamphlet of thirty-five pages and forming a basis for considering the volume as a whole. The title essay begins by asserting that the novel is popular today because it is the best expression of modern life and more potent than press or pulpit; therefore the “popular” novelist (not Norris) who sells one hundred and fifty thousand copies of a novel has a responsibility to be as earnest about his work as Norris intends to be. His carping at popular writers continues in other essays, but his program of reform is not aesthetic; all he wants (as would be obvious from his own work) is truth to the facts of life. This is repeated in his conclusion to the second essay, “The True Reward of the Novelist,” where he attacks popular historical novelists for their accumulation of historical paraphernalia without trying to understand their characters; it would be better for their soul’s sake if they lived among real people and told the truth. This stress on the morality of realism is seen in a number of other essays, as in “The Need of a Literary Conscience” and the extended final essay, “Salt and Sincerity.” This belief is the first article in Norris’ credo as a novelist.

In the third essay, “The Novel with a ’Purpose,’” Norris tries to come to grips with the novel as a literary form. The novel is classified as it performs three functions: telling, showing, and proving; the second class simply selects from the stream of events in the first in order to draw character. THE THREE MUSKETEERS tells what happens, but ROMOLA shows the character involved in the events of the novel. The third and superior class studies social forces...

(The entire section is 1526 words.)