I’m glad I read this book, which is well-written and researched but truly an artifact of its age. Much of the discourse relates to outmoded critical concerns, and I did not learn nearly as much as I’d hoped about the art of writing compelling fiction. Nonetheless, there are useful pointers, more reminders than epiphanies, about form and subject whose application once created works of fiction to be valued and remembered.
A fairly thrilling quotation for me–and one I may have come across before and forgotten–is Kipling’s observation: “What should they know of England who only England know?” This is a call for a wide breadth of knowledge in writing about a subject, knowledge not necessarily deployed but essential as a shaping intelligence.
Nearly a century after the publication of THE WRITING OF FICTION, it’s clear that this narrative is a history about the advance and retrograde steps in the process of reproducing the forms and substance of early 20th-century fiction. Most 21st-century readers have probably never read or even heard about half of these novels or short stories Ms. Wharton holds up as exemplars, or if we did, we forgot them long ago.
Ms. Wharton’s essay is loaded with admonishments for writers to do this rather than that in creating “works of art” in fictional form. She encourages us to admire certain writers for their strengths in inventiveness and depth of feeling and to relegate other writers to dark corners of the library for their failure to elicit Ms. Wharton’s approval. (And this animous is quite apart from her disdain for “magazine” short stories and “railway” novels. It grieves me to find slighted Dickens and Hardy, whatever the perceived faults of their novels in structural integrity or point of view.)
That being said, I discovered nuggets of wisdom in the chapters documenting the rise of the short story and the types (she eschews the term genre) of novels flourishing in the public sphere during (and before) Ms. Wharton’s lifetime. Our contemporary interests reflected in income and time expended serve to waft “work of art” literary fiction into the hands of critics and highbrows, while ordinary readers tend to favor more entertaining and keenly-plotted forms of genre fiction—adventure, fantasy, science-fiction, and thrillers. Whether these will stand the test of time is anyone’s guess in this, our wired, reality.
Ms. Wharton shares techniques to produce eerie or frightening short stories, the effective use of dialog, and the necessity of grabbing the reader’s attention from the first page to the last. This constancy is maintained by an austere selection of incidents and the presentation of “living” characters that make the narrative relevant to a reader. (Ms. Wharton asks: “what judgement on life does it contain for me?” We might tackle important social issues in our writing, but we’re probably rather more anxious to bring awareness to an egregious injustice than elevating a reader’s moral capacity. I may be wrong about that.)
If this book comes to hand, it’s a useful tool in documenting the values of an era gone by but remains relevant to modern fiction if only as a standard against which we might measure the longevity of our own work.