Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 391
Henry James's essay, one of the most famous and widely cited theoretical discussions of the novel, is a response Walter Besant's lecture "Fiction as One of the Fine Arts." In his lecture, Besant argues that the novel is a fine art on par with painting, sculpture, music, and poetry and then lays down a list of general compositional rules that, if taught, will allow for the creation of better novels.
James agrees with Besant's claim that the novel has a powerful aesthetic importance, but he disagrees heavily with his attempt to set down prescriptive rules that would aid in the novel's composition. Instead, James believes that the only task of the novelist is to be as true to life as possible. In his own words, "A novel is in its broadest definition a personal impression of life; that, to begin with, constitutes its value, which is greater or less according to the intensity of the impression." His statement recalls George Eliot's memorable assertion that the novel is "the nearest thing to life," one of the primary assumptions on which the realistic genre (of which James is a consummate practitioner) was predicated.
James's rhetorical method throughout the essay is shrewd and light-hearted. He rarely disagrees outright with Besant's assertions, but he sets down many carefully veiled critiques of his reasoning. James argues that Besant's claims are unhelpful in being vague. Most of his assertions—that the novel must have clearly defined characters, be written from experience, and serve an explicit moral function—are impossible to...
(The entire section contains 391 words.)
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