The Craft of Fiction

by Michaela Bronstein

Percy Lubbock’s 1921 volume was one of the first major works of literary criticism to focus on the novel as a form. Literary criticism itself was in its infancy, but more importantly the novel seemed a less notable subject for criticism at the time than poetry and drama. Lubbock’s book is not just an argument about fiction, but for fiction—an attempt to provide a rationale for the novel as a high art form.

His guiding principle is to ask the question “How [novels] are made” (12): by this he does not mean writers’ inspirations or procedures; he refers to formal techniques that hold together a novel into a coherent whole: authors’ choices to use characters’ perspective to tell the story, or to intervene as omniscient narrators; the relation between one major plotline to another. Most chapters mix praise with critique—he evokes Tolstoy’s achievement, and then asks whether War and Peace would not be better if a particular formal incoherence were eliminated.

The central problem that leads him to this question is the contrast between a desire to see novels as completed whole works of art and the stubbornly fleeting temporality of the reading experience: “As quickly as we read, it melts and shifts in the memory” (1). For Lubbock, the thinness of our memory of reading is of a piece with an easy sympathetic imagination he associates with shallow reading, with reading that easily identifies with characters and takes the world of the novel as though it were real. Instead, he advocates an “effort … to keep the world of Anna [Karenina] at a distance” (17). For him, reading to experience the novel’s world leads to a kind of unthinking consumption of the novel merely as entertainment.

Lubbock’s work is thus part of the larger modernist turn against populism in literary art. Rather than embracing the wide audience the novel held, with its array of uncritical reading practices, Lubbock argues that the novel can and should be read for a specific critical purpose, blurring the boundaries: “The reader of a novel—by which I mean the critical reader” (17). Reading fiction becomes an inevitably critical task.

Lubbock’s key authors are Leo Tolstoy, Gustave Flaubert, William Makepeace Thackeray, Honoré de Balzac, and Henry James. One of the unstated premises of his inquiry is that all these novelists are essentially working on the same aesthetic project, that the novel is a coherent genre from its early to later days and across multiple cultures. Rather than connecting literary forms to particular societies and social dynamics, he argues that the novel be viewed from the perspective of the reader—who may be many years distant from the moment of authorship.

The central distinction the book makes is between “pictorial” and “dramatic” methods of writing. Lubbock introduces the “pictorial” method as part of a discussion of Thackeray, describing the way “the reader faces towards the story-teller and listens to him”; the contrasting “dramatic” method describes fiction in which it seems that “the recording, registering mind of the author is eliminated” (111). By the end of the book, which Lubbock concludes with a valorization of the methods of Henry James, it becomes clear that the ideal, Jamesian technique is a climactic hybrid that takes the best from both methods: it is “the method by which the picture of a mind is fully dramatized” (156). By no means could James’s drama in The Ambassadors be shown on stage; on the other hand, the author here “has so fashioned his book that his own part in the narration is now unobtrusive to the last degree” (164). Pictorial and dramatic techniques meet.

In describing what he sees as the perfection of James’s art, Lubbock constantly imagines and dismisses alternatives—how, for instance, a first-person narration would make one kind of effect impossible, or a more obtrusive author would ruin another. For him, the novelist is above all a craftsman—an ingenious maker of the novel as an object for readerly analysis. The task of the critic-reader is in appreciation of the ingenuity that goes into these objects.

Lubbock’s book didn’t just influence critics; it was also a spur to contemporary novelists. Virginia Woolf vacillated between echoing and condemning his ideas. Woolf’s lengthiest engagement with Lubbock was her 1922 essay “On Re-reading Novels,” which primarily praises and extends Lubbock’s argument. However, in her Diary in October 15, 1923, she found herself disagreeing with him from an artistic perspective: his ideal aesthetic form, she says, cannot be accomplished consciously.

Although she ultimately found his theory useless for novel-writing, many of his concerns remained live in the work of the modernists generally—Woolf and Ford, for instance, share his concern to let the minds of characters, not the work of the author, be the object of readers’ attentions; his emphasis on intelligent readers appreciating form from a detached perspective rather than readers enjoying the temporal experience of reading is similar to the “spatial form” Joseph Frank would later apply to modernist fiction. Though his criticism is not primarily of modernist authors, it too is modernist work—informed by many of the same aesthetic goals.

An e-text of The Craft of Fiction is here:

Works Cited and Further Reading

Dames, Nicholas. “The Disease of Temporality; or, Forgetful Reading in James and Lubbock.” The Henry James Review 25.3 (Fall 2004), Pp. 246-253.

Frank, Joseph. “Spatial Form in Modern Literature: An Essay in Three Parts.” The Sewanee Review 53.4 (Autumn 1945), pp. 643-653.

Lubbock, Percy. The Craft of Fiction. New York: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith, 1929.

Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf Volume Two. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell and Andrew McNeillie. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.

—. “On Re-reading Novels.” The Essays of Virginia Woolf Volume Three. Ed. Andrew McNeillie. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988. 336-346.

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