The Art of Fiction

by Henry James

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

“The Art of Fiction” by Henry James is a critical essay originally published in 1884 in Longman’s Magazine. In it, James directly addresses a lecture given earlier that year by the English novelist Sir Walter Besant.

Originally called “Fiction as One of the Fine Arts,” Besant’s lecture was later published under the title “The Art of Fiction.” In it, Besant had laid out certain principles about writing fiction, including the idea that story or plot, rather than characterization, is the most important element of fiction, that the novelist must write from his or her own experience, and that all fiction must have a “conscious moral purpose.”

“I should find it difficult to dissent from any one of these recommendations,” James writes. “At the same time I should find it difficult positively to assent to them,” he continues, given how vague Besant’s principles were. James argues that literary realism is very complicated and that a novelist’s writing can be made up not just from his life circumstances and his observations on reality, but also from his imagination and artistic sensibility.

As he writes: “Experience is never limited and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web, of the finest silken threads, suspended in the chamber of consciousness and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind; and when the mind is imaginative much more when it happens to be that of a man of genius—it takes to itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of the air into revelations.”

“The Art of Fiction” is James’s best known essay on the theory of fiction. It is a compelling argument for the inclusion of fiction among the fine arts; it also argues that novelists should enjoy freedom in their choice of subject matter and the way in which they write about their subject.

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