The Novel

Novel and Romance--Romanticism and Realism--Techniques of

Novel and Romance--Incoherence of Novel Relative to Short

Story--Novel as Medium of Self-Expression--Interpolation of

Personal Comment--Significant Simplicity--Permissible

Inclusiveness of Novel--Full Development of Personality--

Variety of Action--Length--Initial Idea--Story--Life--

Society--Singleness of Story--Social Emphasis.

I have a small dictionary on my desk which defines the novel as a

"fictitious prose narrative or tale presenting a picture of real life,"

and the romance as "any fictitious and wonderful tale: a fictitious

narrative in prose or verse which passes beyond the limits of real

life." The definitions state a distinction easier to feel vaguely than

to justify. One may say with truth that Jane Austen's "Sense and

Sensibility" or Trollope's "The Warden" presents a picture of real life,

but can one also say with truth that Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" or

Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" passes essentially beyond the

limits of real life simply because each book states a physically

impossible thing--the brand of his sin over Arthur Dimmesdale's heart

and the metamorphosis of Dr. Jekyll? Either matter is a mere symbol,

devised to give concreteness to a spiritual fact. Is it not true than

human life, the material for fiction, has its spiritual actualities as

well as its physical facts? and does not the romance--as it is commonly

understood--differ from the novel merely in that it narrates a real

adventure of the soul rather than a real adventure of the body?

The fact is patent, I think, that the writer of fiction will gain small

benefit from conceiving the romance as something separate and apart from

the novel; likewise, that a book on technique without confusion may

treat the writing of long fiction generally as the writing of novels. It

is true, of course, that the essential bent of any particular writer may

lead him to deal with the facts of the soul rather than the facts of the

body, or that any particular story may be a spiritual rather than a

physical adventure; nevertheless the story of the spirit must still

develop facts and show their relations, and the technical resources of

its writer are precisely the same as those of the writer who deals

predominately with the more concrete physical facts of life.

It would be interesting to go at some length into this question of

romance, all its connotations and implications. In particular, there is

an antithesis in common thought, with romanticism and realism the two

opposed members, which it would not be too dull to discuss. But the

discussion would not give much light to one who desires to acquire a

knowledge of the mechanics of fiction, long or short. It is permissible

to call a realist one who transcribes predominately physical details,

and it is permissible to call a romanticist one who transcribes

predominated [typo for "predominantly"?] spiritual details, but in both

cases the basic technique is identical. The realist can confine himself

to physical facts because his story deals largely with the everyday

actualities of life, and its subordinate spiritual values will be felt

by a reader through inference from the facts. The romanticist must state

spiritual facts directly because they are the very stuff and essence of

his story. He is none the less a realist if there are spiritual

actualities--an indisputable proposition--and if he states them as they

exist for him.

The critical discussion that treats realism and romanticism as opposed

artistic philosophies is so confused that it would serve no useful

purpose to go into the matter here. What little I have to say on the

subject will be said in the next chapter. But it is not inappropriate to

call attention to the fact that every story conceived--in Stevenson's

phrase--from within outwards, the only genesis for a work of art, is

merely a subjective reality; it never happened. Perhaps it is so

essentially commonplace that it probably has happened sometime; perhaps

it is so little abnormal that very possibly it has happened. Or perhaps

it may be of such a nature that it never could have happened. In any

event, whatever the nature of the story, its verity and reality as a

fiction depend solely upon its writer's elaborative and executive

powers. If his hand falter, tangibility and concreteness in the matter

of the story will not save it, will not make it seem real to a reader.

The lives of most men are commonplace, but the relatively few lives that

are not commonplace are as real and actual as those that follow beaten

paths. In the lives of most, the spiritual element is subordinate,

perhaps, but in the lives of some few it is enormously influential and

supremely real. Realism, the artistic philosophy, asserts that fiction

should present only the real. The assertion is nonsense for two reasons.

First, the commonplace, or, if you please the inevitable, the only

reality which realism admits, is not the only reality. Second, the

verity or reality of fiction cannot be ascertained by any objective

test, cannot be determined by the physical possibility of its matter,

its people and their acts, for a fiction is purely subjective, a

conception, and conceivability is the sole test of its verity. The

writer of a story transcribes what he sees, not necessarily what is.[R]

As stated, the writer of fiction will derive small benefit from

conceiving novel and romance as entirely different types of fiction. The

distinction between them used to be insisted upon much more pedantically

than is the case to-day, and the present tendency to call any story of

book-length a novel is a healthy sign. The technique of the novel, in

the narrow sense of a picture of society, and the technique of the

romance, in the narrow sense of a story not of "real" life, are broadly

the same. And where there is no difference in technique the artist

should admit no difference in type. If he does admit any difference in

type, and allows it to influence him, his conceptive faculty will be

hampered and that is artistic death. It is hard enough to find a story

that is worth while, a story that will interest, without subjecting

one's self to the added and totally unnecessary difficulty to bring all

one's ideas to the measure of some fancied type as a first test. The

writer of fiction should be warned that it is supremely difficult to

avoid becoming artificial and mechanical, and that he will surely become

so if he does his conceptive thinking in terms of analysis. In the first

place, the analytical habit of mind is directly opposed to the creative;

in the second place, the analysis that divides long stories into novels

and romances in the special sense is false. The way to find a story is

to look for a story, forgetting all that pedants have written and

failures practiced. The silly criticism that classifies fiction by its

content is beneath contempt; the writer of fiction who heeds it is

supremely foolish.

In the following discussion the term "novel" will be used simply to

denote a plotted fiction of book-length.

Contrasting the short story and the novel, and dwelling on the relative

coherence of the briefer form, I had occasion to state that the novel is

relatively incoherent in that much of its interest for a reader quite

permissibly may inhere in matter with little or no relation to the main

thread of the story. Of course, incoherence is not a point of the

technique of the novel. Incoherence is not a point of the technique of

anything, except of some of the ultra modern schools in music, painting,

and verse. The statement as to the incoherence of the novel was made

incidentally in developing the argument that the short story cannot be

incoherent because its brevity forbids that it present even its single

story-idea adequately and also set forth irrelevant matter. On the other

hand, the novel may set forth irrelevant matter because its length is

not only a greater but a more elastic quantity than that of the short

story; if the interruptions of the story are not too frequent and

sustained, the power of the story over a reader will not be lessened to

any appreciable extent. That is not to say that the novelist should seek

to interrupt himself.

A good many serious writers--so-called--choose to write the novel simply

because it does offer an opportunity for direct self-expression greater

than any afforded by briefer fiction. They are confined to fiction--may

they pardon the remark--because they have met, or feel that they will

meet, difficulty in finding a publisher for their various theories

stated as such; so they blithely write a novel, with insertions of

politics, religion, sociology, what not, and palm it off on the unhappy

public for a story. Of course such direct expression of one's opinions

is not self-expression through the medium of a work of art. It is only

choosing deliberately to do poor work for the sake of money or

notoriety or vanity. Writing the "problem novel" is not quite the same

thing. If a social problem, as the friction between capital and labor,

is utilized as the fundamental plot--or conflict-theme of a novel, a

good deal of personal opinion may be introduced by the author without

injury to the artistic coherence of the story. But it is well to

remember that the primary aim of fiction is to interest, an aim that can

be achieved most easily and most completely by telling a good story.

Propaganda is apt to be supremely dull anyway, and it is bound to seem

dull to one who is looking for a story and nothing else. The practical

implications of a work of art must be mere implications, resting in

inference, or the work will be feeble and misshapen.

The novelist can indulge in personal comment and yet present the whole

of his story, for his space is practically unlimited. The writer of the

short story must sacrifice either the comment or the story. The result

is that the typical novel is more incoherent than the typical short

story. The finer the book as a whole, the easier it is to forgive or

overlook the defect, for defect it is. One can forgive Thackeray his

rambling asides and his diffidence in approaching his story, for in all

of his books the story is present and in each it is a fine thing. But

"Vanity Fair," for instance, is too significant a fiction to suffer

constant interruption without causing a reader to become impatient. If a

story is essentially weak, interpolating personal comment and unrelated

matter generally will make it weaker; if it is essentially fine and

significant, passages without bearing on the story will irritate the


Whatever the art, whoever the artist, his task is to hold pen or chisel

or brush true to the outlines of his conception. If his hand leave its

proper course, whether of set purpose or through inaptitude, his work

must suffer. The art of fiction is so infinitely difficult that the

practitioner should welcome rather than bewail his obligation to hew to

the line, for by concentrating upon the story and nothing else he will

be led to leave no gaps in his presentment. A work of art is a thing of

significant simplicity. Just because the novelist works in words, just

because his materials have some significance for a reader in

themselves--unlike the clay and marble of the sculptor, the stone of the

architect, and the pigments of the painter, which, unwrought upon, have

no message for an observer--the novelist is not at liberty to throw

words together without some set purpose. The inherent significance of

each word must have just relation to the whole, if the whole is to have

the direction and significant simplicity of a work of art. The real

condition is that the novelist, unlike the writer of the short story,

may tell his story adequately and do something else, but the artistic

quality of his work will suffer, that is, its power over a reader will

be diminished, if he interpolates foreign matter. Artistry is simply the

faculty to realize to the utmost the inherent power of one's

conceptions, and the artistry of any fiction lessens as the appeal of

the story for a reader diminishes. And the appeal of a story as such

must diminish with every interruption, unless its power over a reader be

very great, and in that case any break in its movement will irritate and


I have cited Stevenson's "The Ebb-Tide" a number of times already, and

the book may be instanced here. It is a tremendously powerful bit of

work, considering the nature of its matter, and its power over a reader

in large part results from its author's having confined himself strictly

to the story. The conception is significant, and the story as written is

significant because the conception is set forth whole and unmarred. The

reader's attention is not distracted by matter irrelevant to the story.

Its theme, the impossibility that a weak man should be other than weak,

however he may be circumstanced, is developed adequately, and nothing

else is developed. No book could be more wisely recommended to the

writer of fiction for study of the essential technical processes of

fiction. It shows adequate treatment of personality, adequate treatment

of events, and adequate treatment of setting, shows fictionally real

people doing fictionally real things in a fictionally real environment.

Above all, it is a story, nothing else, and is pointed to bring out its

value as a whole; that is it has the significant simplicity of a true

work of art. It is coherent as to the story it embodies, and in its

coherence lies its power. The bare conception is somewhat weak in that

it tends to arouse an intellectual rather than an emotional interest in

a reader; moreover, the conception is positively unpleasant and

depressing, in the conventional sense; but the book as written is a

powerful thing because it realizes to the full the inherent capacity of

its matter to interest and impress by telling the story adequately and

by bringing out nothing but the story.[S]

The novel, then, should be coherent as to the story it embodies, but

that is not the whole of its peculiar technique. The story itself may be

widely inclusive, may, in a way, involve a number of stories. The

novelist should not seek deliberately to combine the unrelated, but he

need not follow a single thread. He can turn aside into bypaths of

action that will bring out the natures of his people with more fullness

than the straight course of the story itself, and he can involve his

minor characters in sub-plots, relatively unimportant stories of their

own. Generally, the novelist will seek to develop personality with

greater fullness and detail than the writer of the short story, and, as

a result, the action of the novel will be more diffused and looser, less

pointed, than the action of the short story. Or, conversely, the long

story necessarily involves more varied action than the briefer form, and

therefore develops more varied traits in the actors. Relative to the

short story, the novel is a natural type of fiction in that it can make

some approach to presenting the whole man, with all his contradictory

and inconsistent traits and impulses; relative to the novel, the short

story is an artificial type of fiction in that the comparatively direct

and pointed character of its action forbids that it develop more than

one or a few significant traits of personality. The writer of the short

story cannot qualify and distinguish as to his people's natures, and

that is why the fine short story is less humanly significant than the

fine novel, for no man is pure saint or pure villain, pure this or pure

that. We are all bewilderingly inconsistent, wherein lies most of the

interest of life. The novel can show its people blown here and there by

the winds of desire, as in life, and that is what the short story cannot


Each story is a rule to itself, so far as the question of scope and

variety of action is concerned, but the novelist will derive small

benefit from introducing unnecessary people and unnecessary events

merely to lend a greater illusion of movement or bustle to the whole.

Action, in fiction, is action which plays a necessary part in the story,

and the novelist should not interpolate insignificant events any more

than he should interpolate his own opinions on life and morals. His task

is to tell some particular story, no more, no less.

It is difficult to state the relative inclusiveness of the novel without

laying a false emphasis on its permissible scope and variety of content,

for the novel should be exclusive as well as inclusive. That is, it

should not be a mere welter of people and what they do, but should

possess some single human significance, some primary reason for being,

by which its writer can test the availability of matter that suggests

itself to him. Between the conciseness and singleness of "The Ebb-Tide"

and the unnecessary length and complexity of some of the Victorians lies

a golden mean easier to recognize in specific books than to state

abstractedly. "The Ebb-Tide," though not a short story in point of

length, is somewhat brief, and it is a short story in structure, in

point of the singleness of its story-idea, the small number of its

characters, and the comparative simplicity of its action. Of course, it

is none the less a fine novel, a fine long story; the point is that

there are thousands of other stories, equally fine, perhaps more humanly

significant, which cannot be written so concisely, but which need not

run to the length of "David Copperfield," "The Virginians," or "The

Cloister and the Hearth." To attempt to set mechanical limits of length

for the novel would be mere silliness, but it is true that the average

idea for a long story can be given complete and adequate expression in

one or two hundred thousand words. Usually there is no need to write at

much greater or inordinate length, unless irrelevant matter is

introduced for its own sake. And the introduction of such matter for its

own sake can only hinder the effect of the story itself on a reader. It

may render the book, the mere sequence of words, more interesting, but

irrelevant matter cannot render the story itself more interesting. The

distinction should be noted and realized, for the novelist's aim is to

interest through his story, not merely to interest.

There is another way to approach the matter of the novel's relative

inclusiveness and length, perhaps a better way. Where the novelist first

conceives his story definitely as such, as a course of events, he should

bring all matter which suggests itself for writing to the test of

relation to the story. He has only to write the story, duly elaborated,

and thereby he will take care of the matters of length and complexity

and inclusiveness without detached calculation to that end. But if the

novelist finds his initial idea in terms of a life or of a phase of

society, the idea does not plot or diagram the whole story for him. He

has yet to evolve the story as such, and he may devise as short and

simple a thing as "The Ebb-Tide" or as long and complicated a thing as

Tolstoi's "War and Peace." Usually it will be found, I think, that the

very long novel--"Tom Jones," "Jean Christophe," "David Copperfield,"

"Anna Karenina," "Les Miserables," "The Virginians"--was first conceived

in terms of a life or a society, rather than in terms of a definite

story. It is certainly true that only the life of an individual or the

life of a society can serve to bind together the motley elements of a

very long novel, giving it some artistic coherence. "David Copperfield"

can be called one story in that it consists of Copperfield's life and

related matters, but "Our Mutual Friend" is in no sense a single story.

It is merely a number of stories devised to be told together and

therefore dovetailing to some extent.

It all comes down to this: if the novelist conceives a definite story,

he has only to tell it, but if he conceives a life or a society he has

yet to devise his story. And the matters which can have some relation to

a life or a society are much more varied than those which can have some

relation to a course of events. In other words, the conception of a

story as such limits the writer's choice of matter. If one starts with a

story, one can tell only the story. If one starts with a life or a

society, one can write pretty much at large.

In discussing the short story, it was possible to state that it must

embody one story-idea, for the physical brevity of the form prohibits

adequate development of more than a single story. But if I stated that

the novel must embody one story-idea, no more, no less, the statement

would be false, for the length of the form is practically unlimited. As

Dickens did in "Our Mutual Friend" and other books, the novelist can

tell together three or four unrelated stories if he so desires. He has

the space. The question is not whether he can but whether he should tell

more than one. The answer is that he should confine himself to one.

Perhaps a little supporting argument is called for.

The most obvious criticism of this limitation upon the novelist is that

it savors strongly of artificiality, rather than of art. The reader may

think of Dickens himself, his marvelous people, the world of delight in

his books. But Dickens, it may be said with all reverence, was no

story-teller. His is a fictional world turned upside down. His stories

are less than nothing; his major characters are less than nothing; but

his little people are gods. All his books are mere cardboard beside the

works of such a one as Dostoievsky, but in each book--with a few

exceptions--there is some stupendous Weller or Micawber, not a man, but

a god. One goes to Dickens almost as to vaudeville, and "Pickwick" is

his best book because it is no story. In it Weller and the others run

wild unrestrained by the necessities of any predetermined course of

events. But a story is a predetermined course of events, actually or in

effect, and the mere fact that Dickens could write poor stories and yet

interest by his wonderful people does not falsify the technique of


Again, the fact that the novelist should confine himself to one story at

a time does not debar him from following side-issues, provided they have

relation to the main course of events, or from creating minor people

like Dickens', if he has the power. Dickens could have placed his people

in real stories instead of in the weak fictions they serve to ennoble.

Finally, I will state abstractly the conditions from which result the

artistic, not the physical necessity that the novelist confine himself

in each book to a single story-idea.

The aim to interest is the aim of fiction, long and short, and the body

of a writer's resources to accomplish the aim make up the body of

fiction technique. But the aim of the writer of plotted fiction is not

simply to interest; it is to interest through a story, a course of

events functioning together in that they embody some sort of problem.

Leaving aside the matter of executive artistry, and premising that the

writer will realize to the full the possibilities of his story, it is

accurate to state that the interest a story will arouse will be in

accordance with the human significance of the problem it embodies.

Adequate fictional treatment of the problem to win love or to make a

living will be more interesting than adequate fictional treatment of the

problem to escape payment of an income tax. And the possibilities of any

problem of life to arouse a reader's interest can be realized to the

full only by setting out that problem and nothing else. Only by showing

the thing in isolation and high relief can the writer reveal to, and

force home upon a reader its ultimate significance. If anything

unrelated to the story or problem is brought out, something of the power

of the story as such will be lost. Likewise, if two or more stories or

problems are each completely developed in one book, neither will have

that singleness of appeal to a reader which is essential if each is to

have maximum effect.

In other words, a novel does not function as a mere physical spectacle;

being a story, it must have a motive, an artistic purpose; and if it has

more than one it will be at cross purposes as a work of art. That is not

a mere "artistic" defect. It is a practical defect in that motive,

purpose, and story will not have extreme effect. Nor is it to say that

the novel may not be very complicated as to any or all of its three

elements of people, events, and setting. "Anna Karenina" is complicated

enough, in all conscience, but every item of the novel has relation to

its one story either in that it serves directly to develop the horrible

tragedy of Anna's life or in that it forwards the presentment of the

society which she renounced.

The painter cannot put two different pictures side by side on the same

canvas without hampering the effect of each; still less can he commingle

the two. The architect cannot build on two designs at once. Nor can the

novelist--if he would have each story realize to the full its inherent

capacity to interest--combine different stories in the same book. He can

develop personality in great detail; he can follow by-paths of action;

he can involve his minor characters in subplots; but the main course of

the story must be single, not duplicate or triplicate, that the whole

may have point and significance.

The reader will observe that this book lays absolutely no restrictions

on the conceptive faculty. It preaches that the way to write fiction is

to look for a story, and, when it is found, to write it so as to give it

full effect. It may be a short story; it may be a novel. It may have its

genesis in a dream, in a life, in a situation, in a society. But,

whatever its nature, whatever its length, its effect on, its interest

for, a reader, can result only from itself. The story as such cannot be

fortified by the introduction of foreign matter, although the interest

of the writer's text as a mere sequence of words may be heightened

thereby. But the aim of the writer of novel or short story is to

interest through his story as such, not merely to interest. A newspaper

is interesting, yet a newspaper is not a story, however much fiction it

may embody.

The novel or long story is apt to have a strong social emphasis simply

because the interplay of society and the conflict of its members supply

much more material for stories than the more isolated phases of human

life. The novelist is under no obligation to reproduce a social

spectacle in each book, but more often than not he will find that he

must do so to bring out the full value of his conception. It follows

that he will do well to go about with an observant eye, for it is the

little details of the novel of manners that lend verisimilitude to the

whole. And such matters cannot be invented; they must have been

observed; for a reader knows them whether or not the writer does too.


[R] For a plainer, because less philosophical discussion of the

fallacies of realism, the artistic philosophy, see p. 199.

[S] "The Ebb-Tide" is interesting in connection with the general

question of plot. Its plot is the struggle within Robert Herrick between

an artificially stimulated resolution and an essential weakness of moral

fibre. The mere mechanical complication that he and his fellows steal a

schooner laden with bottled water thinking her laden with champagne is

no part of the plot, only a circumstance of the action, yet, as plot is

commonly understood, the circumstance would be taken as the heart of the

plot in itself. Also, "The Ebb-Tide" is interesting in connection with

the matter of realism and the fallacies of the cult. The realists might

claim the book, but they would have a merry time to point any essential

difference between it and "The Master of Ballantrae," which they would

reject. And a distinction that can be justified only when applied to

extreme types-say "Pride and Prejudice" and "Frankenstein"--is not very


The Choice Of Matter The Short Story facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail