- The Art of Fiction
Consult just about any anthology of modern literary criticism and you are likely to find Henry James's "The Art of Fiction" somewhere on the premises. This 1884 essay—I am not going out on a limb here—is the best-known theoretical statement on the novel published in Victorian England. Together with a handful of other essays and, more pyrotechnically, the 1907-09 prefaces to the New York edition of his works, "The Art of Fiction" established James's posthumous reputation as the foremost narrative theorist of his era. For Anglo-American critics in the middle decades of the twentieth century, that reputation was decisively shaped by Percy Lubbock and R.P. Blackmur. Lubbock's The Craft of Fiction (1921) and Blackmur's introductory essay to The Art of the Novel (1934) celebrate James for shaking the novel—theory and practice alike—out of its cozy Victorian slumber and charging it with modern sophistication and rigour. For the New Critics who read him by way of Lubbock and Blackmur, it was James's mastery of technique and his attention to novelistic form that separated his achievement from those loose, baggy monsters casually turned out by his immediate forebears. It was likewise, in this view, James's conception of his art as a sacred office that helped deliver narrative fiction from the banal moralism and misguided social activism characteristic of the Victorian novel.
Such views have not worn well, and few would now argue either that Victorian novelists were unsophisticated in the practice of their craft or that James's own novels conform more than intermittently to New Critical standards. (Then again, neither would James.) If "The Art of Fiction" no longer seems the proto-Modernist manifesto it once was taken for, it nevertheless remains essential reading for literary critics. Its interest is not merely antiquarian, either. At this historical remove, what is most striking about the essay is the continuing relevance of the case it makes for the activity of criticism itself. In terms that are still recognizable, "The Art of Fiction" validates what we do. If some of James's evaluative criteria seem less compelling than they once did, his impassioned defence of the importance—as well as the pleasure—of criticism retains its freshness. This is not always the case with Matthew Arnold, whose apologies for criticism often sound, well, apologetic, as if Arnold were disappointed with the world for getting itself into such a state that criticism had become necessary and disappointed with himself for giving in to the critical impulse. It is doubtful that Arnold ever believed, as James did, that to exercise our critical faculties is to "enjoy one of the most charming of pleasures" (50). "The successful application of any art is a delightful spectacle," James avers a few pages earlier, "but the theory too is interesting" (45). The occasional [End Page 53] dilettantishness of his phrasing should not obscure the serious, indeed crucial, benefits James attributes to acts of responsible criticism. He does not, as Oscar Wilde would a half-decade later, go so far as to say that criticism is on par with the other creative arts, but he does insist that the arts are immeasurably enriched by creative criticism.
It seems clear that James was moved to write "The Art of Fiction" primarily in the hope of getting a discussion going. He is less concerned, that is, to insist on the validity of his own critical methodology (though he does so insist) than to open a space for critical debate. Throughout the 1880s, James continually presents himself as a critic in search of someone to talk with. Later commentators have pointed out that the critical landscape was not quite so arid as James made it out to be. There is some truth to their claim, but only some, as anyone who has spent much time reading Victorian periodical literature dating from prior to 1890 will probably attest. Much more common are sentiments such as those expressed by Walter Besant in the lecture to which James's essay was a direct response. "I, for one...