Tag Archives: Henry James

Commonplace 2

He stood before her still—her question kept him motionless.  He took it in, so much there was of it; and indeed his not otherwise meeting it testified to that.  “I know at least what I am,” he simply went on; “the other side of the medal’s clear enough.  I’ve not been edifying—I believe I’m thought in a hundred quarters to have been barely decent.  I’ve followed strange paths and worshipped strange gods; it must have come to you again and again—in fact you’ve admitted to me as much—that I was leading, at any time these thirty years, a selfish frivolous scandalous life.  And you see what it has made of me.”

She just waited, smiling at him.  “You see what it has made of me.”

-Henry James (The Jolly Corner )

Writing from Experience

It is equally excellent and inconclusive to say that one must write from experience; to our supposititious aspirant such a declaration might savour of mockery. What kind of experience is intended, and where does it begin and end? 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.


What James brings to the table here is quite philosophical.  If we are constantly experiencing, then there should truly be no end to what we have experienced.  Not only can we take from what we have honestly gone through in life, but we can take advantage of our endless imagination.   Fiction isn’t necessarily embellishing the truth, it can be entirely produced in one’s imagination. Writers need not rely on first hand experiences to construct a story, but may begin from nothing and create something artificial, yet seemingly real to the readers.

Henry James, “The Art of Fiction”. <public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/artfiction.html> Longman’s Magazine 4, September 1884


“Make-believe” is No Excuse

“It is still expected, though perhaps people are ashamed to say it, that a production which is after all only a “make-believe” (for what else is a “story”?) shall be in some degree apologetic–shall renounce the pretension of attempting really to represent life. […] The only reason for the existence of a novel is that is does attempt to represent life. When it relinquishes this attempt, the same attempt that we see on the canvas of painter, it will have arrived at a very strange pass” (James 377-8).

In this passage James addresses peoples’ fault in excusing “make-believe” stories from the normal practice of using stories to represent life. James believes that even the most fantastic stories are related to reality.

I like how James is not afraid to state what other people are ashamed to say.


James, Henry. “The Art of Fiction.” Partial Portraits. New York: Macmillion, 1894. Internet Archive. 424-463.  https://archive.org/details/partialportraits00jameiala


Art Needs to be Liked

Nothing, of course, will ever take the place of the good old fashion of
“liking” a work of art or not liking it: the most improved criticism will
not abolish that primitive, that ultimate test. I mention this to guard myself
from the accusation of intimating that the idea, the subject, of a novel
or a picture, does not matter. It matters, to my sense, in the highest
degree, and if I might put up a prayer it would be that artists should
select none but the richest.

Henry James, Major Stories and Essays (New York:Literary Classics of the United States, 1999), 585.

As James argues of the novel’s perception as an art, he makes a digression to point
out that what will remain consistent, regardless on how novels should be viewed and written, is that the work needs be, at the very least, liked. He adds to this view by stating that he simply wishes the work of a writer, or any other artist, to be good and of value. Otherwise, the work will not be perceived with any regard, regardless of style or medium.

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.


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.”