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The Choice Of Matter

Selection--Sincerity--Adventure--Common Problems of Life--
Originality--Novelty and Worth--Three Elements of Fictional
Literature--Interest--Elements of Interest.

Life is infinitely various, and the possibilities of the imagination are
even more extensive; the writer of fiction has enough material at hand.
His primary task, to pitch upon a theme, is almost wholly selective,
unless he is cursed with a paucity of observation or barrenness of
imagination, in which case he has mistaken his calling. And in this task
of selection the writer must bear in mind several considerations, his
own predilections, his own powers, the intrinsic worth of the idea,
and--last but not least--the audience he is to address. The writer
should give ear to his own personal likings because he will do better
work when he has interest in the matter under his hands; he should
consider his own powers lest he attempt too much; he must consider the
intrinsic worth of his theme lest his work be essentially feeble; and he
must ponder his audience that his work may not go for naught. As to this
last, a word of advice may not be out of place. Though the average
reader may have little power to express, he usually has a well developed
power to appreciate, and there is no need to "write down" to him.
Condescension on the part of the writer of fiction is less obtrusive
than in more directly informative writing, but it is instantly perceived
and resented when present. The best audience for the writer to imagine
is simply the best audience, alive in sensibilities and intelligence.

Stories--and therefore potential stories--may be divided roughly into
two classes, those meant frankly to entertain and those designed to
perform a higher function in addition. The line between them is not hard
and fast; the same basic idea will slip from one side to the other under
different handling by different authors. But there is a real difference,
and that difference is made by the presence or absence of sincerity in
the writer. The complete and rounded story will interest, which is the
element of bare matter, will be so perfectly told that its mere
structure will give pleasure, which is the element of artistry, and will
truly express some phase of life as the author sees it, which is the
element of sincerity. Stories may possess all, some, or none of these
elements, but no story which does not possess them all can be said to
fulfil completely the ideals of the art of fiction. There is no abstract
obligation to be sincere resting on a writer of fiction; he should be
sincere because his work will gain in power. A reader will feel the
presence or lack of the quality.

This does not mean that the writer of fiction should take himself and
life too seriously, a fault of which George Eliot is perhaps an example.
He should simply be true to his own artistic convictions. If he must
write "pot-boilers" for a living, he should refuse to let the hours so
spent dull his artistic sense. No taint attaches to writing an
entertaining story for the money in it; the elder Dumas, for instance,
was a far greater artist in letters than hosts of more sombre writers
who preceded and have succeeded him. And the writer who has Dumas'
intrinsic gaiety and verve may write adventure and write literature too.

Back of the possibility lies the fact that the more bizarre phases of
life are somewhat accidental and not very inclusive. The writer who
deals with them must draw on his imagination heavily, not only for
initial conceptions but for details. Very possibly he may miss some of
the warm verisimilitude that derives from writing of familiar things and
constitutes the keystone of the fictional arch. The strange and striking
may gain a reader's superficial interest very easily, but "easy come,
easy go" and the story of deep-rooted appeal is the story that displays
to a reader sharply individualized human beings meeting the daily
problems that are our common human lot. These problems are not dull
because they are common and universal; their universality is the source
of their interest. The writer who can reduce a general problem of love,
hate, or labor to specific terms of persons and events, and can invest
the whole with that certain momentousness, as of life raised to a higher
power, which is the hallmark of literature, fulfils the highest
possibilities of the art, whether he be as realistic in method as
Dostoievsky in "Crime and Punishment" or as romantic in spirit as
Hawthorne in "The Scarlet Letter."

Perhaps all this is somewhat repellent. We are not all Hawthornes in
embryo--worse luck!--and though a good many aspire to do something worth
while in itself some day, another good many are more humble, and incline
to view the editor's check as sufficient warranty of success. Such an
attitude is much healthier than that of the persecuted genius who
refuses to investigate present conditions in the public taste and to
coax and take advantage of them. But it may be carried to extremes. I do
not think that many deliberately write trash, but it is apparent that a
good deal of trash is written through too sedulous imitation of the
tone of current literature. There is a recognizable type of machine-made
story used by all the all-fiction magazines, and so forth. Subject to
correction, I believe that the greater part of this cut-and-dried
product is owing less to editorial conservatism than to authorial
diffidence toward truly original work. Work may be original in
substance, method, and viewpoint without being obscene or even "frank."
When they do leave trodden ways, too many young writers persist in
opposing the justifiable editorial reluctance to print anything that
might give offense in a magazine of general circulation. The sex
relation is not the whole of life, and even the sex relation may be
treated, without the conventional sugar coating, to give all essential
facts and make all essential comments and not be forbidding. We have a
great world spread before us, and there is more in it for telling than
is already printed and on the newsstands. When looking for a story, the
thing to do is to forget those that have been written, to forget
everything except the spectacle of life.

In the choice of matter the two main considerations are novelty and
worth. Freshness in substance or form will go far to stimulate the
writer and to sell the result of his labor, and essential worth is
inspiring. No man finds pleasure in trivial and useless labor, but all
normal men find pleasure and exhilaration in labor that is worth while.
The writer who has worthy matter beneath his hands, and who knows it,
will remain keyed to the requisite pitch during the labor of
composition. Numbers have testified that the truest joy of authorship is
found in conceiving and elaborating a tale before setting pen to paper,
and time spent in estimating an idea and exhausting its possibilities
and deficiencies before writing is necessary to make certain that the
idea is worth while. Moreover, it is necessary that the writer know
precisely what his idea is in order to develop it properly by excising
the superfluous and emphasizing the significant. Conscious artistry is
impossible unless the author knows definitely what he is striving to

The writer of fiction should bear in mind the three elements of the
story that is literature, and should ask himself whether his projected
tale is interesting, whether it is capable of being cast in literary
form, and whether it is worth while. If the idea meets all these
requirements, any failure in the completed work will be due to defective
execution, not to deficiency in the conception. If the idea fails to
meet the test as to form and worth, it may yet be worth while to write
the story, for it may sell; if the idea is not interesting, it should be
rejected without remorse. The first and highest function of a story is
to interest and entertain; indeed, artistic form is but a means to that
end, as is essential worth; and the dull, uninteresting story--a
contradiction in terms--is the most woebegone literary failure under the

The writer who allows any discussion of the art of fiction or the
content of fiction to cloud for him the basic fact that fiction must be
interesting is on the highroad to failure. It would be better for him
had he never opened a book, except of frank adventure. Nine tenths of
the ponderous and silly comment on fiction past and fiction present is
written by critics and professors who first kick up a great dust over a
work in order to display their insight in seeing through it, and nine
tenths of that nine tenths--written purely from a reader's and not from
a writer's standpoint--consists in appraising character by conventional
ethical standards and in attributing to the writer whose work is under
examination intentions and philosophies of which he never dreamed. It is
at once very dull and very amusing, but the young writer whose
eagerness for all information about his craft leads him to take such
matter too seriously is in grave danger.

The writer of good fiction and the reader of good fiction are alike in
that they both realize that the chief end of fiction is to entertain and
interest, that perfection of form is desirable simply because it
heightens the illusion of a story, and that worth of matter is necessary
if the story is to be true literature because the cultured mind cannot
find interest in the trivial. Culture has been finely defined as "the
quality of a mind instinct with purpose, conscious of a tendency and
direction in human affairs, able and industrious in distinguishing the
great from the trivial." If this definition is valid--it bears its
credentials on its face--great fiction may be defined as fiction which
interests the cultured mind. The quality of arousing interest is the
criterion and determinant, and implies perfection of form and essential
worth of substance. The writer of fiction must never lose sight of the
fact, nor of the resulting necessity that all his work be interesting.
The fortunate thing is that fiction deals with so universal a thing as
life; it need not repel the ignorant and uneducated in order to attract
the abler mind.

The twin elements of fictional interest are the story and its people,
and here becomes apparent the essential weakness of the story of mere
incident. It cannot evoke interest as deep as that called forth by the
story having closer relation to character. The range of character
required by the story of incident is narrow; there are a thousand
pregnant human qualities which the story of incident cannot first
develop by action and then utilize to hold a reader's interest, but
which the writer of the more leisurely and inclusive tale of everyday
life can common can be truly vivified only by showing the person in
acts displaying his essential traits, and the less dependence the action
of a story has upon character, the less real to a reader will be the
persons involved. The story of complication of incident, of mere
structural ingenuity of plot, is superficially interesting, but it lacks
the deeper appeal of the story which develops its people adequately. At
any rate, it is true that a reader can love or hate characters, beside
being interested in them; he can only be interested in an event. The
people of a story are not to be neglected as sources of interest. They
are harder to display than mere events, but they are infinitely more
compelling. A bare series of events may interest, but the interest and
appeal of what happens will be doubled if the observer is a friend of
the persons affected, that is, if he knows them. The same is true in the
case of a story. Its reader stands in the position of observer of events
and people. The only trouble is that some stories have little action
significant in relation to character, and when that is the case the
writer loses one means to make his people real for a reader. The point
to remember in searching for an interesting story is that the people are
as influential an element as the events.

Next: Conceptive Technique: Story Types

Previous: The Writer Himself Or Herself

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