Our book today is The Writing of Fiction, Edith Wharton’s 1924 treatise on her chosen profession, and it brings to mind a comment a certain wit made in the 1970s, that writing workshops were places where “the unqualified instruct the untalented the fine art of the unteachable.”
Whether or not the art of writing fiction is teachable is a question for the books on that subject that periodically appear on publisher lists and get review journals all stirred up pro and con. Certainly the ever-expanding shrub-growth of writing courses in the world’s universities implies its own answer, and I myself have not only attended one of those workshops but also done my fair share of teaching the subject, formally and informally, for many years.
I think I side with the academics on this one, at least as far as common sense can take it (which, given the generally addle-pated nature of academic thinking, means I side with them for about ten minutes). The actual intangible talent of writing, that mysterious alchemy by which brain chemistry fires on particular word-choices and narrative structures, obviously can’t be taught, and you wouldn’t want to teach it if you could.
But I’ve come to believe that actual intangible talent accounts for only a very small part of what makes a good writer. There are hard outer skills that need placement around that intangible center, and those skills can certainly be taught: the art of editing yourself, the knack of finding the precise physical rituals that work for your best production, and most of all, so toweringly important that virtually everything else fades into insignificance beside it, the discipline to make yourself actually generate material. Regularly. At length. Without that discipline, it literally doesn’t matter how much intangible talent you have: you’ll just go from being unhappy to being unfulfilled to being unbearable, unless you learn how to make yourself write.
And since discipline is muscle, the more you exercise it, the better it’ll work. I’ve known so many young writers who fought me on this point, who complained that there wasn’t enough time in their day, who worried that the whole making themselves work thing would kill the sweet, pretentious joy they felt every sixteen months when their inner Muse was moved to write two lines, or even a paragraph. And I’ve always had ready answers for those young writers: first, there most certainly is enough time in your day (it’s been my experience that almost every human being on Earth wastes about five of the six hours they’re awake every day). And second, yes: that pretentious joy will indeed die – and not a moment too soon! Not all joys are good, after all, and that one’s really, really bad. The joys that will gradually take its place are really, really good: actually generating material trumps wanting to every day of the week, and there’s an indefinable pride in being able to feel those discipline-muscles getting stronger.
Needless to say, Edith Wharton isn’t really setting out to teach any of those skills, despite the title of her elegant, typically elusive little book. This is one of our greatest American prose writers, after all, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, the creator of The Age of Innocence, The Custom of the Country, and The House of Mirth – you almost don’t expect such an august personage to be able to hunker down and tour your through the mechanics of skill and discipline, and you can breathe easy: Mrs. Wharton doesn’t soil her gloves in such a fashion in The Writing of Fiction.
Instead, she does just what you’d hope: she chats. Oh, she thinks she’s teaching, but everything is delivered in such Olympian tones that it’s like a sunrise thinking it’s teaching you how to shine. The only possible response is grateful absorption. Which isn’t to say she doesn’t often hit on points worth making, things any sensible writing instructor tells beginners. One of the most important of these she puts (naturally) quite well:
No writer – especially at the beginning of his career – can help being influenced by the quality of the audience that awaits him; and the young novelist may ask of what use are experience and meditation, when his readers are so incapable of giving him either. The answer is that he will never do his best till he ceases altogether to think of his readers (or his editor and his publisher) and begins to write, not for himself, but for that other self with whom the creative artist is always in mysterious correspondence, and who, happily, has an objective existence somewhere, and will some day receive the message sent to him, though the sender may never know it.
And she of course has easy access to dudgeon, as successful writers always do:
No one who remembers that Butler’s great novel “The Way of All Flesh” remained unpublished for over twenty years because it dealt soberly but sincerely with the chief springs of human conduct can wonder that laborious monuments of schoolboy pornography are now mistaken for works of genius by a public ignorant of Rabelais and unaware of Apuleius.
And, since writers (especially great writers) are among the least informed about how it is they do what they do, she sometimes contradicts herself, following her points into box canyons from which the only escape is the bluff of authority:
When I read M. Maeterlinck’s book on the bee (which had just made a flight into fame as high as that of the insect it celebrates) I was first dazzled, then oppressed, by the number and the choice of his adjectives and analogies. Every touch was effective, every comparison striking; but when I had assimilated them all, and remade out of them the ideal BEE, that animal had become a winged elephant. The lesson was salutary for a novelist.
The lesson in question might be salutary for the author of Ethan Frome, but how much poorer would we all be if the author of The House of Mirth had taken it to heart! In her big novels, the exact opposite of this sequence occurs: we are first oppressed, then dazzled by the blizzard of perfectly-selected details in which we find ourselves, and we would have it no other way.
The Writing of Fiction (in any of its various elegant editions) belongs on any shelf reserved for great writers chatting about their craft, but it will always be a slightly maddening presence there. Like her famously undisclosing autobiography, this little treatise is at times gorgeously opaque, and not in the accidental-feeling sense that Henry James’ writings on the same subject sometimes are. No, instead this is Mrs. Wharton saying what she always says in her nonfiction: of me, this much and no more. Even so, we read it again and again.
And for those of you who just know you want to ask me, the answer’s yes: Maeterlinck’s book is wonderful.