Tag Archives: The Art of Fiction

James on experience

“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 particles 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.”

Henry James, The Art of Fiction in Majors stories and essays. Literary classics of the United States, New-York, 1999, p580.

 

Good Novels v. Bad Novels

It must be admitted that good novels are somewhat compromised by bad ones, and that the field, at large, suffers discredit from overcrowding. I think, however, that this injury is only superficial, and that the superabundance of written fiction proves nothing against the principle itself. It has been vulgarised, like all other kinds of literature, like everything else, to-day, and it has proved more than some kinds accessible to vulgarisation. But there is as much difference as there ever was between a good novel and a bad one: the bad is swept, with all the daubed canvases and spoiled marble, into some unvisited limbo or infinite rubbish-yard, beneath the back-windows of the world, and the good subsists and emits its light and stimulates our desire for perfection.

James, Henry. “The Art of Fiction”. <http://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/artfiction.html>. Longman’s Magazine. September 1884.

The increased production of fiction has not affected the content of the writing. A good novel will still be recognized, while a bad novel will be “swept” or forgotten. James reveals that the genre of a novel will not matter, only the quality of its writing. Many other forms of writing have been “vulgarized” just as fiction has been, but there are still good novels that become acknowledged literary works.

A “good” novel: expectations and interpretations

“They would argue, of course, that a novel ought to be “good,” but they would interpret this term in a fashion of their own, which indeed would vary considerably from one critic to another. One would say that being good means representing virtuous and aspiring characters, placed in prominent positions; another would say that it depends on a “happy ending,” on a distribution at the last of prizes, pensions, husbands, wives, babies, millions, appended paragraphs, and cheerful remarks. Another still would say that it means being full of incident and movement so that we shall wish to jump ahead, to see who was the mysterious stranger, and if the stolen will was ever found, and shall not be distracted from this pleasure by any tiresome analysis or “description.” But they would all agree that the “artistic” idea would spoil some of their fun.”

Henry James, “The Art of Fiction” Major Stories and Essays (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1999), 576.

Everyone has different interpretations when it comes to reading a novel. There are certain expectations from the reader when getting deeper into a story that cannot and will not always be fulfilled. When it comes to characters and the situations those characters find themselves in, the reader will either be for or against the way the story plays out. When reading a fiction novel, we realize that our interpretations and expectations are just that. The author will end the story the way he or she wants. How we interpret the stories determines whether or not the novel is “good.”

The Definition of Literature

Literature should be either instructive or amusing; and there is in many minds an impression that these artistic preoccupations, the search for form, contribute to neither end, interfere indeed with both. They are too frivolous to be edifying, and too serious to be diverting; and they are moreover priggish and superfluous.

Henry James, “The Art of Fiction” Major Stories and Essays (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1999), 576.

Every person has different interests and feelings on what good literature is. Henry James feels that literature should only be one or other and should stay within the definitions of amusing or instructive. Otherwise, it does not reach the potential and becomes superfluous rather than literature.

The distinction between a good and bad novel

There are bad novels and good novels, as there are bad pictures and good pictures; but that is the only distinction in which I see any meaning, and I can as little imagine speaking of a novel of character as I can imagine speaking of a picture of a character.

Henry James, “The Art of Fiction” Major Stories and Essays (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1999), 583.

Every reader has their own taste in novels (“in which I can see any meaning”) and it is not up to the reader to judge what is a bad novel and what is a good novel. Every reader has their own impression on the novel based on the experiences they have been through; therefore, not every novel can be “liked” and enjoyed but that does not make it a “bad novel.”