The Art of Fiction

by Henry James

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 398

Henry James's essay "The Art of Fiction" was written in response to Sir Walter Besant's lecture "Fiction as One of the Fine Arts." James came across an essay version of the lecture, which Besant titled "The Art of Fiction," a title which James famously stole for his rebuttal. Besant argued that plot and moral purpose were imperative in fiction, while James felt that beauty, characterization, and imagination were key to making a great fictional work. The quotes below help illustrate James's point.

  • "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; that is to say, her field is as boundless, her possibilities as vast, her excellences as worthy of admiration, as may be claimed for any of her sister Arts."
  • "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."
  • "That, like the other Fine Arts, 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."

These first three quotes constitute James's thesis for his essay, and he aims to prove them throughout the rest of the work. James takes each point that Besant makes and creates a follow-up describing the ways in which he agrees and disagrees with Besant. His overall point is that fiction is indeed art, and as such, it rebels against rules in favor of beauty and creativity. Here are a few compelling follow-up quotes:

  • "He thought his failure was because the people of Oxford had never even heard of him; I think otherwise. I think it was because it was whispered from house to house and was carried from shop to shop, and was mentioned in the vestry, that this fellow from London, who asked for their votes, was nothing but a common novelist."

  • "One desires, however, that they should approach their work at the outset with the same serious and earnest appreciation of its importance and its difficulties with which they undertake the study of music and painting."

  • "The very first rule in Fiction is that the human interest must absolutely absorb everything else."

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