The Art of Fiction

by Henry James

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

"The Art of Fiction" is Henry James's attempt to rebuke the claims made in Sir Walter Besant's lecture "Fiction as One of the Fine Arts."

Besant argued that fiction required both talent and the following of certain rules that govern the creation of an appropriate piece. It's the second point that James disagrees with, as he sets out to prove in his essay.

James begins with stating the three points he plans to make throughout the essay:

  1. "Fiction is an Art in every way worthy to be called the sister and the equal of the Arts of Painting, Sculpture, Music, and Poetry"

    In other words, James plans to show that fiction, like all other arts, is limitless.

  2. "That it is an Art which, like them, is governed and directed by general laws; and that these laws may be laid down and taught with as much precision and exactness as the laws of harmony, perspective, and proportion."

    Here, James directly rebuts Besant's claim that rules are necessary, or even possible, to guide any form of art.

  3. "Fiction is so far removed from the mere mechanical arts, that no laws or rules whatever can teach it to those who have not already been endowed with the natural and necessary gifts."

    James's final point is that natural talent is required to excel in writing fiction and that rules are fine to guide but cannot replace natural talent if it doesn't exist.

James goes on to explore this thesis by analyzing the stages of creating a work of fiction and how they fail or succeed depending on certain qualities in a writer. James agrees with Besant in general ways.

Besant tries to limit what an author can experience by dictating that one must write from experience. James argues that while it's true that writers should write what they know, this does not pigeonhole them into only writing about what they themselves have done from their own perspective. Instead, writers are a collection of their own experiences, varied and complicated, and so their works can hold many facets of the world and still be true to the authors' own experiences.

Besant dictates that characters should be clearly illustrated, and he goes on to create a list of rules that designate clear illustration. James agrees that characters must be understandable and relatable, but instead of suggesting that this requires a description of a character's facial hair, he argues that there are myriad ways to describe a character that will make them believable to an audience.

The story, Besant argues, must have a moral principle. James, on the other hand, feels that a story must be interesting and that a set of rules dictating what constitutes a moral storyline remove the art from the story. A true artist will not be able to create an interesting story without imbibing morals into it.

James closes the essay by encouraging writers to stay true to themselves and their vision and to worry less about following rules and more about creating art. He suggests they do what feels, looks, and sounds real rather than what feels, looks, or sounds right.

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