Johnson's essay in Rambler 4, "Contemporary Novels," begins with one of the advantages novels have over drama or heroic romances:
The works of fiction [such as novels by Fielding, Smollett, Richardson and Defoe] are such as exhibit life in its true state, diversified only by accidents that daily happen in the world . . . .
In this paragraph, Johnson articulates his belief that the best novels are mimetic, that is, they accurately imitate life.
A few paragraphs later Johnson defines the task of novelists--to capture experience that cannot be achieved by one person's experience but comes from "general converse and accurate observation with the living world," again referring to the importance of the novel reflecting real life and being able to draw on much more experience than one person can have.
One of the potential advantages inherent in novel writing, which can also be a disadvantage if the novel goes beyond the depiction of actual life, is that the young must be preserved from writing that creates "unjust prejudices, perverse opinions, and incongruous combinations of images"--his target again is the historical romance that contains elements not drawn from real life (supernatural incidents and beings, for example).
True to his attachment to rationalism, Johnson argues that the novel can be a useful educational tool for society's young. If the main character in a novel acts in the manner of a normal man in a particular situation, then
. . .young spectators fix their eyes upon him with closer attention, and hope, by observing this behavior and success, to regulate their own practices when they shall be engaged in the like part.
In other words, a properly written novel, with a realistic hero or main character, will actually provide an example of appropriate behavior for youthful readers who, by imitating the actions of a novel's main character, will have a better chance of succeeding themselves.
To further the goal of properly instructing youth, Johnson suggests that novelists have the ability to choose the best models of behavior for their novels. More important, however, is that novelists need to choose "those parts of nature which are most proper for imitation," which means they have to avoid depicting "passion" or "wickedness" because those things, even though they exist, do not provide appropriately model behavior.
And as a practical man, Johnson sees the potential for novels to "teach the means of avoiding the snares which are laid by treachery for innocence" and "to give the power of counteracting fraud without the temptation to practice it"--novels, in essence, become not only sources of appropriate behavior but also guide youth in ways of avoiding "snares."
Johnson advocates using novels as instructional manuals to guide youth to virtuous behavior and avoid the traps laid by the dishonest and unscrupulous. In this, Johnson reflects one of the tenets of the Augustan Age--literature should be practical and elevate positive virtues.