About Fiction
#1
H. RIDER HAGGARD

ABOUT FICTION


THE love of romance is probably coeval with the existence of humanity. So far as we can follow the history of the world we find traces of it and its effects among every people, and those who are acquainted with the habits and ways of thought of savage races will know that it flourishes as strongly in the barbarian as in the cultured breast. In short, it is like the passions, an innate quality of mankind.

In modern England this love is not by any means dying out, as must be clear, even to that class of our fellow-countrymen who, we are told, are interested in nothing but politics and religion. A writer in the Saturday Review computed not long ago that the yearly output of novels in this country is about eight hundred; and probably he was within the mark. It is to be presumed that all this enormous mass of fiction finds a market of some sort, or it would not be produced. Of course a large quantity of it is brought into the world at the expense of the writer, who guarantees or deposits his thirty or sixty pounds, which in the former case he is certainly called upon to pay, and in the latter he never sees again. But this deducted, a large residue remains, out of which a profit must be made by the publisher, or he would not publish it.

Now, most of this crude mass of fiction is worthless. If three-fourths of it were never put into print the world would scarcely lose a single valuable idea, aspiration, or amusement. Many people are of opinion in their secret hearts that they could, if they thought it worth while to try, write a novel that would be very good indeed, and a large number of people carry this opinion into practice without scruple or remorse. But as a matter of fact, with the exception of perfect sculpture, really good romance writing is perhaps the most difficult art practised by the sons of men. It might even be maintained that none but a great man or woman can produce a really great work of fiction. But great men are rare, and great works are rarer still, because all great men do not write. If, however, a person is intellectually a head sand shoulders above his or her fellows, that person is prima facie fit and able to write a good work. Even then he or she may not succeed, because in addition to intellectual pre-eminence, a certain literary quality is necessary to the perfect flowering of the brain in books. Perhaps, therefore, the argument would stand better conversely. The writer who can produce a noble and lasting work of art is of necessity a great man, and one who, had fortune opened to him any of the doors that lead to material grandeur and to the busy pomp of power, would have shown that the imagination, the quick sympathy, the insight, the depth of mind, and the sense of order and proportion which went to constitute the writer would have equally constituted the statesman or the general.

It is not, of course, argued that only great writers should produce books, because if this was so publishing as a trade would come to an end, and Mudie would be obliged to put up his shutters. Also there exists a large class of people who like to read, and to whom great books would scarcely appeal. Let us imagine the consternation of the ladies of England if they were suddenly forced to an exclusive fare of George Eliot and Thackeray! But it is argued that a large proportion of the fictional matter poured from the press into the market is superfluous, and serves no good purpose. On the contrary, it serves several distinctly bad ones. It lowers and vitiates the public taste, and it obscures the true ends of fiction. Also it brings the high and honourable profession of authorship into contempt and disrepute, for the general public, owing perhaps to the comparative poverty of literary men, has never yet quite made up its mind as to the status of their profession. Lastly, this over-production stops the sale of better work without profiting those who are responsible for it.

The publication of inferior fiction can, in short, be of no advantage to any one, except perhaps the proprietors of circulating libraries. To the author himself it must indeed be a source of nothing but misery, bitterness, and disappointment, for only those who have written one can know the amount of labour involved in the production of even a bad book. Still, the very fact that people can be found to write and publishers to publish to such an unlimited extent, shows clearly enough the enormous appetite of readers, who are prepared, like a diseased ostrich, to swallow stones, and even carrion, rather than not get their fill of novelties. More and more, as what we call culture spreads, do men and women crave to be taken out of themselves. More and more do they long to be brought face to face with Beauty, and stretch out their arms towards that vision of the Perfect, which we only see in books and dreams. The fact that we, in these latter days, have as it were macadamized all the roads of life does not make the world softer to the feet of those who travel through it. There are now royal roads to everything, lined with staring placards, whereon he who runs may learn the sweet uses of advertisement; but it is dusty work to follow them, and some may think that our ancestors on the whole found their voyaging a shadier and fresher business. However this may be, a weary public calls continually for books, new books to make them forget, to refresh them, to occupy minds jaded with the toil and emptiness and vexation of our competitive existence.

In some ways this demand is no doubt a healthy sign. The intellect of the world must be awakening when it thus cries aloud to be satisfied. Perhaps it is not a good thing to read nothing but three-volumed novels of an inferior order, but it, at any rate, shows the possession of a certain degree of intelligence. For there still exists among us a class of educated people, or rather of people who have had a certain sum of money spent upon their education, who are absolutely incapable of reading anything, and who never do read anything, except, perhaps, the reports of famous divorce cases and the spiciest paragraphs in Society papers. It is not their fault; they are very often good people enough in their way; and as they go to church on Sundays, and pay their rates and taxes, the world has no right to complain of them. They are born without intellects, and with undeveloped souls, that is all, and on the whole they find themselves very comfortable in that condition. But this class is getting smaller, and all writers have cause to congratulate themselves on the fact, for the dead wall of its crass stupidity is a dreadful thing to face. Those, too, who begin by reading novels may end by reading Milton and Shakespeare. Day by day the mental area open to the operations of the English-speaking writer grows larger.

At home the Board schools pour out their thousands every year, many of whom have acquired a taste for reading, which, when once it has been born, will, we may be sure, grow apace. Abroad the colonies are filling up with English-speaking people, who, as they grow refined and find leisure to read, will make a considerable call upon the literature of their day. But by far the largest demand for books in the English tongue comes from America, with its reading population of some forty millions.

Most of the books patronized by this enormous population are stolen from English authors, who, according to American law, are outcasts, unentitled to that protection to the work of their brains and the labour of their hands which is one of the foundations of common morality. Putting aside this copyright question, however (and, indeed, it is best left undiscussed), there may be noted in passing two curious results which are being brought about in America by this wholesale perusal of English books. The first of these is that the Americans are destroying their own literature, that cannot live in the face of the unfair competition to which it is subjected. It will be noticed that since piracy, to use the politer word, set in with its present severity, America has scarcely produced a writer of the first class—no one, for instance, who can be compared to Poe, or Hawthorne, or Longfellow. It is not, perhaps, too rash a 'prophecy to say that, if piracy continues, American literature proper will shortly' be chiefly represented by the columns of a very enterprising daily press. The second result of the present state of affairs is that the whole of the of the American population, especially the younger portion of it, must be in course of thorough impregnation with English ideas and modes of thought as set forth by English Writers.

We all know the extraordinary effect books read in youth have upon the fresh and imaginative mind. It is not too much to say that many a man's whole life is influenced by some book read in his teens, the very title of which he may have forgotten. Consequently, it would be difficult to overrate the effect that must be from year to year produced upon the national character of America by the constant perusal of books born in England. For it must be remembered that for every reader that a writer of merit finds in England, he will find three in America.

In the face of this constant and ever-growing demand at home and abroad writers of romance must often find themselves questioning their inner consciousness as to what style of art it is best for them to adopt, not only with the view of pleasing their readers, but in the interests of art itself. There are several schools from which they may choose. For instance, there is that followed by the American novelists. These gentlemen, as we know, declare that there are no stories left to be told, and certainly, if it may be said without disrespect to a clever and laborious body of writers, their works go far towards supporting the statement. They have developed a new style of romance. Their heroines are things of silk and cambric, who soliloquize and dissect their petty feelings, and elaborately review the feeble promptings which serve them for passions. Their men—well, they are emasculated specimens of an overwrought age, and, with culture on their lips, and emptiness in their hearts, they dangle round the heroines till their three—volumed fate is accomplished. About their work is an atmosphere like that of the boudoir of a luxurious woman, faint and delicate, and suggesting the essence of white rose. How different is all this to the swiftness, and strength, and directness of the great English writers of the past. Why,

"The surge and thunder of the Odyssey"

is not more widely separated from the tinkling of modern society verses, than the laboured nothingness of this new American school of fiction from the giant life and vigour of Swift and Fielding, and Thackeray and Hawthorne. Perhaps, however, it is the art of the future, in which case we may hazard a shrewd guess that the literature of past ages will be more largely studied in days to come than it is at present.

Then to go from Pole to Pole, there is the Naturalistic school, of which Zola is the high priest. Here things are all the other way. Here the chosen function of the writer is to

"Paint the mortal shame of nature with the living hues of art."


Here are no silks and satins to impede our vision of the flesh and blood beneath, and here the scent is patchouli. Lewd, and bold, and bare, living for lust and lusting for this life—and its good things, and naught beyond, the heroines of realism dance, with Bacchanalian revellings, across the astonished stage of literature. Whatever there is brutal in humanity—and God knows that there is plenty—whatever there is that is carnal and filthy, is here brought into prominence, and thrust before the reader's eyes. But what becomes of the things that are pure and high—of the great aspirations and the lofty hopes and longings, which do, after all, play their part in our human economy, and which it is surely the duty of a writer to call attention to and nourish according to his gifts?

Certainty it is to be hoped that this naturalistic school of writing will never take firm root in England, for it is an accursed thing. It is impossible to help wondering if its followers ever reflect upon the mischief that they must do, and, reflecting, do not shrink from the responsibility. To look at the matter from one point of view only, Society has made a rule that for the benefit of the whole community individuals must keep their passions within certain fixed limits, and our social system is so arranged that any transgression of this rule produces mischief of one sort or another, if not actual ruin, to the transgressor. Especially is this so if she be a woman. Now, as it is, human nature is continually fretting against these artificial bounds, and especially among young people it requires considerable fortitude and self-restraint to keep the feet from wandering. We all know, too, how much this sort of indulgence depends upon the imagination, and we all know how easy it is for a powerful writer to excite it in that direction. Indeed, there could be nothing more easy to a writer of any strength and vision, especially if he spoke with an air of evil knowledge and intimate authority. There are probably several men in England at this moment who, if they turned their talents to this bad end, could equal, if not outdo, Zola himself, with results that would shortly show themselves in various ways among the population. Sexual passion is the most powerful lever with which to stir the mind of man, for it lies at the root of all things human; and it is impossible to overestimate the damage that could be worked by a single English or American writer of genius, if he grasped it with a will. "But," say these writers, "our aim is most moral; from Nana and her kith and kin may be gathered many a virtuous lesson and example." Possibly this is so, though as I write the words there rises in my mind a recollection of one or two French books where—but most people have seen such books. Besides, it is not so much a question of the object of the school as of the fact that it continually, and in full and luscious detail, calls attention to erotic matters. Once start the average mind upon this subject, and it will go down the slope of itself. It is useless afterwards to turn round and say that, although you cut loose the cords of decent reticence which bound the fancy, you intended that it should run uphill to the white heights of virtue. If the seed of eroticism is sown broadcast its fruit will be according to the nature of the soil it falls on, but fruit it must and will. And however virtuous may be the aims with which they are produced, the publications of the French Naturalistic school are such seed as was sown by that enemy who came in the night season.

In England, to come to the third great school of fiction, we have as yet little or nothing of all this. Here, on the other hand, we are at the mercy of the Young Person, and a dreadful nuisance most of us find her. The present writer is bound to admit that, speaking personally and with humility, he thinks it a little hard that all fiction should be judged by the test as to whether or no it is suitable reading for a girl of sixteen. There are plenty of people who write books for little girls in the schoolroom; let the little girls read them, and leave the works written for men and women to their elders. It may strike the reader as inconsistent, after the remarks made above, that a plea should now be advanced for greater freedom in English literary art. But French naturalism is one thing, and the unreal, namby- pamby nonsense with which the market is flooded here is quite another. Surely there is a middle path! Why do men hardly ever read a novel? Because, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, it is utterly false as a picture of life; and, failing in that, it certainly does not take ground as a work of high imagination. The ordinary popular English novel represents life as it is considered desirable that schoolgirls should suppose it to be.

Consequently it is for the most part rubbish, without a spark of vitality about it, for no novel written on those false lines will live. Also, the system is futile as a means of protection, for the young lady, weaned with the account of how the good girl who jilted the man who loved her when she was told to, married the noble lord, and lived in idleness and luxury for ever after, has only to turn to the evening paper to see another picture of existence. Of course, no humble producer of fiction, meant to interest through the exercise of the intelligence rather than through the senses, can hope to compete with the enthralling details of such cases as that of Lord Cohn Campbell and Sir Charles Duke. That is the naturalism of this country, and, like all filth, its popularity is enormous, as will be shown by the fact that the circulation of one evening paper alone was, I believe, increased during the hearing of a recent case by 60,000 copies nightly. Nor would any respectable author wish to compete with this. But he ought, subject to proper reservations and restraints, to be allowed to picture life as life is, and men and women as they are. At present, if he attempts to do this, he is denounced as immoral; and perchance the circulating library, which is curiously enough a great power in English literature, suppresses the book in its fear of losing subscriptions. The press, too—the same press that is so active in printing "full and special" reports—is very vigilant in this matter, having the Young Person continually before its eyes. Some time ago one of the London dailies reviewed a batch of eight or nine books. Of these reviews nearly every one was in the main an inquiry into the moral character of the work, judged from the standpoint of the unknown reviewer. Of their literary merits little or nothing was said. Now, the question that naturally arose in the mind of the reader of these notices was—Is the novelist bound to inculcate any particular set of doctrines that may at the moment be favoured by authority? If that is the aim and end of his art, then why is he not paid by the State like any other official? And why should not the principle be carried further? Each religion and every sect of each religion might retain their novelist. So might the Blue Ribbonites, and the Positivists, and the Purity people, and the Social Democrats, and others without end. The results would be most enlivening to the general public. Then, at any rate, the writer would be sure of the approbation of his own masters; as it is, he is at the mercy of every unknown reviewer, some of whom seem to have peculiar views—though, not to make too much of the matter, it must be remembered that the ultimate verdict is with the public.

Surely, what is wanted in English fiction is a higher ideal and more freedom to work it out. It is impossible, or, if not impossible, it requires the very highest genius, such as, perhaps, no writers possess to-day, to build up a really first- class work without the necessary materials in their due proportion. As it is, in this country, while crime may be used to any extent, passion in its fiercer and deeper forms is scarcely available, unless it is made to receive some conventional sanction. For instance, the right of dealing with bigamy is by custom conceded to the writer of romance, because in cases of bigamy vice has received the conventional sanction of marriage. True, the marriage is a mock one, but such as it is, it provides the necessary cloak But let him beware how he deals with the same subject when the sinner of the piece has not added a sham or a bigamous marriage to his evil doings, for the book will in this case be certainly called immoral.

English life is surrounded by conventionalism, and English fiction has come to reflect the conventionalism, not the life, and has in consequence, with some notable exceptions, got into a very poor way, both as regards art and interest.

If this moderate and proper freedom is denied to imaginative literature alone among the arts (for, though Mr. Horsley does not approve of it, sculptors may still model from the naked), it seems probable that the usual results will follow. There will be a great reaction, the Young Person will vanish into space and be no more seen, and Naturalism in all its horror will take its root among us. At present it is only in the French tongue that people read about the inner mysteries of life in brothels, or follow the interesting study of the passions of senile and worn-out debauchees. By-and-by, if liberty is denied, they will read them in the English. Art in the purity of its idealized truth should resemble some perfect Grecian statue It should be cold but naked, and looking thereon men should be led to think of naught but beauty. Here, however, we attire Art in every sort of dress, some of them suggestive enough in their own way, but for the most part in a pinafore. The difference between literary Art, as the present writer submits it ought to be, and the Naturalistic Art of France is the difference between the Venus of Milo and an obscene photograph taken from the life. It seems probable that the English-speaking people will in course of time have to choose between the two.

But however this is—and the writer only submits an opinion—one thing remains clear, fiction à l'Anglaise becomes, from the author's point of view, day by day more difficult to deal with satisfactorily under its present conditions.

This age is not a romantic age. Doubtless under the surface human nature is the same to-day as it was in the time of Rameses. Probably, too, the respective volumes of vice and virtue are, taking the altered circumstances into consideration, much as they were then or at any other time. But neither our good nor our evil doing is of an heroic nature, and it is things heroic and their kin and not petty things that best lend themselves to the purposes of the novelist, for by their aid he produces his strongest effects. Besides, if by chance there is a good thing on the market it is snapped up by a hundred eager newspapers, who tell the story, whatever it may be, and turn it inside out, and draw morals from it till the public loathes its sight and sound.

Genius, of course, can always find materials wherewith to weave its glowing web. But these remarks, it is scarcely necessary to explain, are not made from that point of view, for only genius can talk of genius with authority, but rather from the humbler standing-ground of the ordinary conscientious labourer in the field of letters, who, loving his art for her own sake, yet earns living by following her, and is anxious to continue to do so with credit to himself. Let genius, if genius there be, come forward and speak on its own behalf! But if the reader is inclined to doubt the proposition that novel writing is becoming every day more difficult and less interesting, let him consult his own mind, and see how many novels proper among the hundreds that have been published within the last five years, and which deal in any way with every day contemporary life, have excited his profound interest. The present writer can at the moment recall but two—one was called "My Trivial Life and Misfortunes," by an unknown author, and the other, "The Story of a South African Farm," by Ralph Iron. But then neither of these books if examined into would be found to be a novel such as the ordinary writer produces once or twice a year. Both of them are written from within, and not from without; both convey the impression of being the outward and visible result of inward personal suffering on the part of the writer, for in each the key-note is a note of pain. Differing widely from the ordinary run of manufactured books, they owe their chief interest to a certain atmosphere of spiritual intensity, which could not in all probability be even approximately reproduced. Another recent work of the same powerful class, though of more painful detail, is called "Mrs. Keith's Crime." It is, however, almost impossible to conceive their respective authors producing a second "Trivial Life and Misfortunes" or a further edition of the crimes of Mrs. Keith. These books were written from the heart. Next time their authors write it will probably be from the head and not from the heart, and they must then come down to the use of the dusty materials which are common to us all.

There is indeed a refuge for the less ambitious among us, and it lies in the paths and calm retreats of pure imagination. Here we may weave our humble tale, and point our harmless moral without being mercilessly bound down to the prose of a somewhat dreary age. Here we may even—if we feel that our wings are strong enough to bear us in that thin air—cross the bounds of the known, and, hanging between earth and heaven, gaze with curious eyes into the great profound beyond. There are still subjects that may be handled there if the man can be found bold enough to handle them. And, although some there be who consider this a lower walk in the realms of fiction, and who would probably scorn to become a "mere writer of romances," it may be urged in defence of the school that many of the most lasting triumphs of literary art belong to the producers of purely romantic fiction, witness the "Arabian Nights," "Gulliver's Travels," "The Pilgrim's Progress," "Robinson Crusoe," and other immortal works. If the present writer may be allowed to hazard an opinion, it is that, when Naturalism has had its day, when Mr. Howells ceases to charm, and the Society novel is utterly played out, the kindly race of men in their latter as in their earlier developments will still take pleasure in those works of fancy which appeal, not to a class, or a nation, or even to an age, but to all time and humanity at large.

----------

"In the winter of 1886, as I remember very much against my own will, I was worried into writing an article about 'Fiction' for the Contemporary Review.

"It is almost needless for me to say that for a young writer who had suddenly come into some kind of fame to spring a dissertation of this kind upon the literary world over his own name was very little short of madness. Such views must necessarily make him enemies, secret or declared, by the hundred. There are two bits of advice which I will offer to the youthful author of the future. Never preach about your trade, and, above all, never criticise other practitioners of that trade, however profoundly you may disagree with them. Heaven knows there are critics enough without your taking a hand in the business. Do your work as well as you can and leave other people to do theirs, and the public to judge between them. Secondly, unless you are absolutely driven to it, as of course may happen sometimes, never enter into a controversy with a newspaper.

"To return: this unfortunate article about "Fiction" made me plenty of enemies, and the mere fact of my remarkable success made me plenty more. Through no fault of mine, also, these foes found a very able leader in the person of Mr. Stead, who at that time was the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette. I should say, however, that of late years Mr. Stead has quite changed his attitude towards me and has indeed become very complimentary, both with reference to my literary and to my public work. For my part, too, I have long ago forgiven his onslaughts, as I can honestly say I have forgiven everybody else for every harm that they have done, or tried to do me."

https://web.archive.org/web/202205172153...ction.html

Some nice articles for context:

https://web.archive.org/web/202205161638...an-howells

https://web.archive.org/web/202205171634...er-haggard
#2
Very agreeable. What prompted you to share this?
#3
Just something I came across while web surfing. I was interested to hear from a 19th century fantasy author. Some things he said seemed relevant to multiple conversations we have had on Amarna.
#4
Yes he's quite on the mark, and a lot hasn't changed since.
#5
So, garbage tier "novels for 16 year old schoolgirls" w/ time period dependent acts of girlbossing have been a thing for quite a while - but I detect a faint idea of moralism that led to this initially, attempting to "protect the mental purity of the girls." We know today that this ended disastrously, of course.

Also, raunchy garbage tier novels too. Looking at you, 50 shades... These books, coincidentally, also for women.
#6
(01-12-2023, 09:11 PM)BillyONare Wrote: We all know the extraordinary effect books read in youth have upon the fresh and imaginative mind. It is not too much to say that many a man's whole life is influenced by some book read in his teens, the very title of which he may have forgotten.
Quote:“As an adult, Raniere reported that he read Isaac Asimov's mind control-themed work Second Foundation at age 12 and credited the novel with inspiring his work in NXIVM.”


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