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.

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