James, Henry

Assigned: James, Henry. “The Art of Fiction” (721-36). Also read the editors’ introduction (719-21).

“The Art of Fiction” (1884/1888)

1. On 721-22 (“I should not have affixed so…”), what does Henry James suggest about the present moment with regard to the theory of novelistic fiction? What was the prevailing state of theory about the novel before then? Where do James’ sympathies seem to lie with respect to the issue of theorizing about his chosen area of literature?

2. On 722-25 (“It must take itself seriously…”), James writes that moralists have long insisted fiction should apologize for its supposed untruthfulness, its status as “make-believe.” What is it about fiction that causes greater moral anxiety amongst some earnest Protestant readers than a painting? (723-24) How does James begin his defense of the novel against this charge—what does he assert as the rights of the novel over against the trivializing of it as form and as serious representation? (714-15)

3. On 725-28 (“Certainly this might sometimes be…”), how does James characterize the taste of the general public as revealed by the success of the era’s most popular fiction? To what extent does he apparently value the prescriptions of Victorian English critic and novelist Walter Besant? What critique does he offer about Besant’s well-intentioned advice regarding the qualities and shape of a good novel, and what sole “obligation” for the novel does he assert over against such thinking? How does James go on (from 726-28, down to “… people on whom nothing is lost!”) to back up what he means by this obligation and how it can be fulfilled? (In responding, consider in part what James writes about “reality” and “experience” in relation to fiction.)

4. On 728-30 (“I am far from intending by…”), what does James argue in support of his Miltonesque pronouncement, “A novel is a living thing” (729)? What assumptions and claims back up his arguments in favor of great freedom for novelists in terms of their methods as writers, and the form and subject-matter or generic types of the novels they write? At base, what few ways of classifying novels make any sense, according to James?

5. On 730-32 (“Nothing, of course, will ever take…”), what does James say about the matter of “taste,” a subject of importance in any discussion of literature? In what sense is “experience” 731) just as important a criterion in the public’s judging of art as it is in the artist’s creation of it? What more does James add to what he has already written about the art of selecting one’s subjects as a literary artist (731 top) and about the “province” (732) of a novel?

6. On 732-34 (“Mr. Besant has some remarks…”), what does James argue against Walter Besant with regard to distinguishing the “story” of a given novel? How does Besant’s characterization of the “adventure” (733) he thinks must make up a good novel, according to James, narrow the properly wide-open narratival possibilities open to a writer of fiction? How does James also defend the “psychological” dimension of experience as being of equal value with the material dimension of it? (734)

7. On 734-35 (“The most interesting part of…”), we see that Henry James has saved the issue of morality in novels for last. What is the basis of his critique of Walter Besant on this issue, and why does he criticize English novelists for being too fearful and beset by “a diffidence” (735 middle) in their fiction? In James’ view, what do these novelists not do that they should be doing? Overall, what seems to trouble James about the whole affair of “morality” or “immorality” in art?

8. On 735-36 (“There is one point at which…”), what advice does Henry James offer his fellow novelists? What counsel does he offer about the “magnificence of the form” of novels, and of the “freedom” available to writers as they undertake to succeed in novel-writing? How does he briefly assess the work of a few of his illustrious colleagues, and intimate to us a sense of what this business of writing novels is really all about?

9. General question: Henry James is usually said to be a transitional figure between literary realism and the modernism that followed it. That assessment sounds accurate, but to what extent does James’s essay 1884/1888 essay “The Art of Fiction” remind you of impressionist theories of art? What does his discussion of the boundaries of novelistic fiction have in common with, for example, Walter Pater’s exhortations to artists and experiencers of art in the “Conclusion” to Studies in the History of the Renaissance (Leitch 711-19), or for that matter with Oscar Wilde’s notions about art in “The Decay of Lying” and “The Critic as Artist”? (See Leitch 765-83.) How does James differ from the aims and attitudes involved in Paterian and Wildean impressionism and aestheticism?

10. General question: In “The Art of Fiction,” Henry James promotes maximum artistic freedom for novelists to cover whatever they consider appropriate to their expansive art. Postmodern authors certainly take this freedom to new places. Do you find contemporary novels by authors such as Thomas Pynchon, Don Delillo, David Foster Wallace, and Nicholson Baker, among others, with their frequent postmodern departures from realistic narrative, as compelling as older works in the genre? Why or why not? What qualities and stylistic features do you look for in a novel?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake