In his essay “The Art of Fiction,” Henry James responds to the ideas presented in Sir Walter Besant's “Fiction as One of the Fine Arts.” Besant was a stickler for rules. He argued, for instance, that authors of fiction should write only what they know from their own experiences, that all fiction must have a moral purpose, and that characters must be described in detail.
James agrees with Besant to a point, and he acknowledges that rules and theory are fine and necessary, but they should not be the primary or final concern of writers of fiction. Writers should be free to follow their own inclinations in their works. James notes, “The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel … is that it be interesting.”
James continues to refute Besant's rigid rules. While authors must, of course, write from their experience, James argues that imagination is key and that writers should use it freely to speak the truths they see as they survey the world around them. Further, writers should not start out with a moral purpose. That will come as the story develops. To try to make a story fit a moral can make for dull reading. Artistry should take priority as well as a devotion to presenting life realistically. Morality will naturally follow. Finally, characters should indeed be described but not necessarily artificially or in all details. They should be allowed to present themselves through their words and actions.
Indeed, James asserts, the most important thing writers of fiction can do is be true to their artistic vision and to follow where their creativity takes them rather than being concerned to follow every rule and regulation critics try to set down for them. Fiction is an art, and it demands a commitment to truth, to imagination, and to talent.