Notions About Novels


"You must write a novel," said my Uncle Peter to the young Man of Letters. "The novel is the literary form in which the psychological conditions of interest are most easily discovered and met. It appeals directly to the reader's self-consciousness, and invites him to fancy how fine a figure he would cut in more picturesque circumstances than his own. When it simplifies great events, as Stevenson said it must, it produces the feeling of power; and when it dignifies the commonplace, as Schopenhauer said it ought to, it produces the sense of importance. People like to imagine themselves playing on a large stage. The most humdrum of men would be pleased to act a hero's part, if it could be done without risk or effort; and the plainest of women has the capacity to enjoy, at least in fancy, a greater variety in the affair of love than real life is likely to furnish. Novels give these unsatisfied souls their opportunity. That is why fiction is so popular. You must take advantage of the laws of the human mind if you want to be a successful author. Write a novel."

This protracted remark was patiently received by the little company of friends, who were sitting on a rocky eminence of the York Harbor Golf Links (near the seventh hole, which was called, for obvious reasons, "Goetterdaemmerung"). My Uncle Peter's right to make long speeches was conceded. In him they did not seem criminal, because they were evidently necessary. Moreover, in this case, the majority agreed with him, and therefore were not tempted to interrupt.

"A novel," said the Publisher, "will bear ten times as much advertising as any other kind of book. This is a fact."

"A novel," said the Critic, "is the most highly developed type of literature. Therefore, it is the fittest to survive. This is a theory. And I should like----"

But the Critic did not share the Philosopher's long-speech prerogative. His audience was inclined to limit him to the time when he could be pungent.

The Business Man broke in upon him: "A novel is good because it is just plain reading--no theories or explanations--or at least, if there are any, you can skip them."

"Novels," said the Doctor of Divinity solemnly, "are valuable because they give an insight into life. I deprecate the vice of excessive novel-reading in young persons. But for myself I wish that there were more really interesting novels to read. Most of the old ones I have read already."

A smile flickered around the circle. "What do you call old?" asked the Cynic. "Have you read 'The Vulgarities of Antoinette'?"

"Nonsense," said the Publisher; "some novels grow as old in a twelvemonth as others do in a decade. A book is not really aged until it ceases to be advertised. 'The Celestial Triplets,' for example. But fortunately it is a poor year that does not produce at least three new novelists of distinction."

"For my part," said the True Story Teller, seated on her throne among the rocks and dispensing gentle influence like the silent sweetness of the summer afternoon, "for my part, I am not sure that fiction is the only kind of literature worth reading. Essays, biography, history and poetry still have their attractions for me. But what I should like to know is what made one kind of novel so popular yesterday, and what puts another kind in its place to-day, and what kind is likely to last forever? What gives certain novels their amazing vogue?"

"A new public," answered the Cynic. "Popular education has done it. Fifty years ago thinking and reading went together. But nowadays reading is the most familiar amusement of the thoughtless. It is the new public that buys four hundred thousand copies of a novel in a single year."

"A striking explanation," said the Critic, "but, you know, De Quincey said practically the same thing more than fifty years ago in his essay on Oliver Goldsmith. Yet the sale of 'The Prude of Pimlico' exceeds the sale of the leading novel of De Quincey's day by at least five hundred per cent. How do you explain that?"

"Very simply," said the Cynic. "A thousand _per centum_ increase in the new public; stock of intelligence still more freely watered."

"But you are not answering my question about the different kinds of novels," said the lady. "Tell me why the types of fiction change."

"Fashion, dear lady," replied the Cynic. "It is like tight sleeves and loose sleeves. People feel comfortable when they wear what everybody is wearing and read what everybody is reading. The art of modern advertising is an appeal to the instinct of imitation. Our friend the Publisher has become a millionaire by discovering that the same law governs the sale of books and of dry-goods."

"Not at all," interrupted the Critic; "your explanation is too crude for satire and too shallow for science. There is a regular evolution in fiction. First comes the external type, the novel of plot; then the internal type, the novel of character; then the social type, the novel of problem and purpose. The development proceeds from outward to inward, from objective to subjective, from simplicity to complexity."

"But," said the lady, "if I remember rightly, the facts happened the other way. 'Pamela' and 'Joseph Andrews' and 'Caleb Williams' are character novels; 'Waverley' and 'Ivanhoe' are adventure novels. Kingsley wrote 'Yeast' and 'Alton Locke' before 'Westward Ho!' and 'Hypatia.' 'Bleak House' and 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' are older than 'Lorna Doone' and 'David Balfour.' The day before yesterday it was all character-sketching, mainly Scotch; the day before that it was all problem-solving, chiefly religious; yesterday it was all adventure-seeking, called historical because it seems highly improbable; and to-day it is a mixture of automobile-journeys and slum-life. It looks to me as if there must be somebody always ready to read some kind of fiction, but his affections are weather-cocky."

"I don't object to a few characters in a novel," said the Man of Business, "provided they do something interesting."

"Right," said the Publisher; "the public always knows what is interesting, provided it is properly pointed out. Now here is a little list of our most profitable new books: a story of a beautiful Cow-boy, a Kentucky love-tale, a narrative of the Second Crusade, a romance about an imaginary princess and two motor-cars, a modern society story with vivid descriptions of the principal New York restaurants and Monte Carlo--all of these have passed the forty-thousand line. We send out the list with a statement to that effect, and advise people not to lose the chance of reading books that have aroused so much interest."

"It seems to me," put in the Doctor of Divinity, "that some of the modern books do not give me as much insight into life as I should like. I perused 'The Prisoner on a Bender' the other day without getting a single illustration for a sermon. But I continue to read novels from a sense of duty, to keep in touch with my young people."

"I think," began my Uncle Peter (and this solemn announcement made everyone attentive), "I think you have failed to discern a certain law of periodicity which governs the formal variations of fiction. This periodicity is natural to the human mind, and it also has relations to profound social movements. The popularity of the novels of Fielding, Richardson, and Smollett, whose characters were mainly drawn from humble life, was due to the rise of the same spirit of democracy that produced the American and French Revolutions. The reaction to the romantic and historical novel, under Scott and his followers, was a revival of the aristocratic spirit. It took a historical form because the past had been made vivid to the popular imagination by the great historians of the eighteenth century. The purpose novels, which took the lead in the middle of the nineteenth century, were another reaction, and came out of the social ferment of the times. The general pictures of society and manners which followed were written for a public that was fairly well-to-do and contented with itself. The later realistic studies of life in its lowest forms were the offspring of the scientific spirit. And the latest reaction to the novel of adventure, with its emphasis on daring and virility, is connected with the remarkable revival of imperialism. But while fiction is specifically the most transient of forms, generically it is the most permanent. Therefore, our young Man of Letters must write a novel. That is what the public wants."

"Yes," cried the Publisher, "a novel of adventure in Cromwell's time. That period is up, just now, and has not been worked out."

"A novel of purpose," said the Critic; "that is the highest type of fiction."

"A novel of character," said the Cynic. "A change in fashion is due. Take the President of a Trust for your hero, and make him repent under the pressure of the Social Boycott. The public loves surprises."

"Why not write the Great American Novel?" said the Doctor of Divinity. "I have heard several demands for it."

"A good love story," said the Man of Business, "or perhaps a detective story, would be the best thing to sell."

"The one point on which your friends seem agreed," said the True Story Teller, with a smile, "is that the public gives you an order for a novel."

"Well, you know, I have written one already," answered the young Man of Letters, very quietly.

"Why didn't you tell us?" chorused the others. "Why haven't you published it?"

He hesitated a moment before answering: "It did not seem to me good enough."

"My young friend," said the Publisher, with his most impressive and benevolent air, "we have your welfare at heart. You may write essays and stories and poems as a recreation, or for some future age. But this is the day of the novel, and you are wasting your chance unless you publish one as soon as possible. Touch your novel up, or give it to me as it is. You will certainly make a big thing out of it."

"Perhaps," said the young Man of Letters, thoughtfully; "but what if I would rather write the things that please me most, and try to do good work?"

My Uncle Peter looked at him half-quizzically, yet with a smile of benevolent approval, and conferred upon him the honour and reward of escorting the True Story Teller home in his canoe that evening, across the swirling river, where the molten gold of sunset ran slowly to the sea.


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