The Art of Fiction

by Henry James
Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 520

"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."

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1177

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 vagueness of these principles also makes them impossible to positively agree with. Besant’s notion of writing from experience, for example, includes such injunctions as advising a lower middle-class writer to avoid introducing scenes among the upper classes. James argues that experience is much more complicated than membership in a socioeconomic class; he conceives of experience as the product of an acute and always highly individual artistic sensibility. The consciousness of the gifted novelist is compared to a huge spider web of fine silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, catching every airborne impression in its tissue.

For James, true experience consists fundamentally of mental impressions, and it is the intensity and directness with which the novelist registers, and then represents, these myriad impressions of life that matter, not simply the quantity of material at hand. For the sensitive and receptive mind “upon whom nothing is lost,” accidents of residence or social scale are trivial; what matters is the imaginative power to take hints and fleeting observations and to guess the unseen from the seen, to infer the complete pattern from a fragment. Only exact truth to detail can provide the air of reality, the “solidity of specification” in representing lived experience that is the supreme virtue of the novel, but no one can tell the writer exactly how to achieve it through the mysterious process of selection, synthesis, and arrangement that constitutes the novelist’s treatment of that material.

James agrees with Besant that characters should be rendered clearly, but asks if that task is best accomplished by description, through dialogue, or by means of incidents. In James’s organic view of form, these categories are artificial and inseparable in practice, as incidents and dialogue function to illustrate character, and the characters dictate our reaction to the incidents and dialogue. He extends his questioning of categories to such traditional distinctions as that made between the romance and the novel, distinctions he finds similarly unhelpful.

James’s critique of the importance of the story follows the same pattern of deconstructing implicit oppositions. He concedes that a novel must consist of adventures, but then stipulates that these may be adventures of consciousness, internal and psychological rather than external and purely physical. As to the conscious moral purpose of a novel, he again shifts the ground by pointing up the vagueness of Besant’s terms and emphasizing the practical difficulty of setting out to paint a moral picture. James extends his argument by returning to his initial premise: Good novels are works of fine art and, thus, should be evaluated by their formal execution, not their morals. Morality will take care of itself unconsciously, in James’s view, precisely because of the high artistic challenges posed by the novel. [T]he deepest quality of a work of art will always be the quality of the mind of the producer. . . . No good novel will ever proceed from a superficial mind; that seems to me an axiom which, for the artist in fiction, will cover all needful moral ground.

James’s conclusion, expressed as advice to young novelists, is to be true to their own artistic vision, to reject public opinion and critical dogma because the essential condition of the genre is its inclusiveness and freedom. James’s insistence that there could be no limits on subject matter, and that stylistic technique and the representation of consciousness must be central concerns of critical discussion and evaluation, seems visionary in hindsight, blazing the trail for the narrative innovations to come from such modernist writers as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner.

“The Art of Fiction” does not present a complete overview of James’s thinking about the novel, which, taken as a whole, constitutes the invention of the discipline of narrative theory. A notable omission in the essay is any discussion of point of view, one of his most original and important contributions to narrative analysis. His ideas on point of view developed later in the prefaces written for the New York editions of his novels.

In a letter to Stevenson, James characterized “The Art of Fiction” as “simply a plea for liberty.” The essay stands as the most concise and durable general statement of James’s philosophy of literature.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access