The Profitable Reading of Fiction

[Forum (New York), March, 1888, pp. 57-70]


        When the editor of this review courteously offered me space in his pages to formulate a few general notions upon the subject of novel reading, considered with a view to mental profit, I could not help being struck with the timeliness of the theme; for in these days the demand for novels has risen so high, in proportion to that for other kinds of literature, as to attract the attention of all persons interested in education.  But I was by no means persuaded that one whose own writings have largely consisted in books of this class was in a position to say anything on the matter, even if he might be supposed to have anything to say.  The field, however, is so wide and varied that there is plenty of room for impersonal points of regard; and I may as well premise that the remarks which follow, where not exclusively suggested by a consideration of the works of dead authors, are mere generalizations from a cursory survey, and no detailed analysis, of those of to-day.

        If we speak of deriving good from a story, we usually mean something more than the gain of pleasure during the hours of its perusal.  Nevertheless, to get pleasure out of a book is a beneficial and profitable thing, if the pleasure be of a kind which, while doing no moral injury, affords relaxation and relief when the mind is overstrained or sick of itself.  The prime remedy in such cases is change of scene, by which, change of the material scene is not necessarily implied.  A sudden shifting of the mental perspective into a fictitious world, combined with the rest, is well known to be often as efficacious for renovation as a corporeal journey afar.

        In such a case the shifting of scene should manifestly be as complete as if the reader had taken the hind seat on a  witch’s broomstick.  The town man finds what he seeks in novels of the country, the countryman in novels of society, the indoor class generally in outdoor novels, the villager in novels of the mansion, the aristocrat in novels of the cottage.

        The narrative must be of a somewhat absorbing kind, if not absolutely fascinating.  To discover a book or books which shall possess, in addition to the special scenery, the special action required, may be a matter of some difficulty, though not always of such difficulty as to be insuperable; and it may be asserted that after every variety of spiritual fatigue there is to be found refreshment, if not restoration, in some antithetic realm of ideas which lies waiting in the pages of romance.

        In reading for such hygienic purposes it is, of course, of the first consequence that the reader be not too critical.  In other words, the author should be swallowed whole, like any other alterative pill.  He should be believed in slavishly, implicitly.  However profusely he may pour out his coincidences, his marvelous juxtapositions, his catastrophes, his conversions of bad people into good people at a stroke, and vice versâ, let him never be doubted for a moment.  When he exhibits people going out of their way and spending their money on purpose to act consistently, or taking a great deal of trouble to move in a curious and roundabout manner when a plain, straight course lies open to them; when he shows that heroes are never faithless in love, and that the unheroic always are so, there should arise a conviction that this is precisely according to personal experience.  Let the invalid reverse the attitude of a certain class of critics–now happily becoming less numerous–who only allow themselves to be interested in a novel by the defeat of every attempt to the contrary.  The aim should be the exercise of a generous imaginativeness, which shall find in a tale not only what was put there by the author, put he it never so awkwardly, but which shall find there what was never inserted by him, never foreseen, never contemplated.  Sometimes these additions which are woven around a work of fiction by the intensitive power of the reader’s own imagination are the finest parts of the scenery.

        It is not altogether necessary to this tonic purpose that the stories chosen should be “of most disastrous chances, of moving accidents by flood and field.”  As stated above, the aim should be contrast.  Directly the circumstances begin to resemble those of the reader, a personal connection, an interest other than an imaginative one, is set up, which results in an intellectual stir that is not in the present case to be desired.  It sets his serious thoughts at work, and he does not want them stimulated just now; he wants to dream.

        So much may be said initially upon alleviating the effects of over-work and carking care by a course of imaginative reading.  But I will assume that benefit of this sort is not that which is primarily contemplated when we speak of getting good out of novels, but intellectual or moral profit to active and undulled spirits.

        It is obvious that choice in this case, though more limited than in the former, is by no means limited to compositions which touch the highest level in the essential constituents of a novel–those without which it would be no novel at all–the plot and the characters.  Not only may the book be read for these main features–the presentation, as they may collectively be called–but for the accidents and appendages of narrative; and such are of more kinds than one.  Excursions into various philosophies, which vary or delay narrative proper, may have more attraction than the regular course of the enactment; the judicious inquirer may be on the look-out for didactic reflection, such as is found in large lumps in Rasselas; he may be a picker-up of trifles of useful knowledge, statistics, queer historic fact, such as sometimes occur in the pages of Hugo; he may search for specimens of the manners of good or bad society, such as are to be obtained from the fashionable writers; or he may even wish to brush up his knowledge of quotations from ancient and other authors by studying some chapters of Pelham and the disquisitions of Parson Adams in Joseph Andrews.

        Many of the works which abound in appurtenances of this or a kindred sort are excellent as narrative, excellent as portraiture, even if in spite rather than in consequence of their presence.  But they are the exception.  Directly we descend from the highest levels we find that the majority are not effectual in their ostensible undertaking, that of giving us a picture of life in action; they exhibit a machinery which often works awkwardly, and at the instigation of unlikely beings.  Yet, being packed with thoughts of some solidity, or more probably sprinkled with smart observations on men and society, they may be read with advantage even by the critical, who, for what they bring, can forgive the audible workings of the wheels and wires and carpentry, heard behind the performance, as the wires and trackers of a badly constructed organ are heard under its tones.

        Novels of the latter class–formerly more numerous than now–are the product of cleverness rather than of intuition; and in taking them up–bearing in mind that profit, and not amusement, is the student’s aim–his manifest course is to escape from the personages and their deeds, gathering the author’s wit or wisdom nearly as it would have presented itself if he had cast his thoughts in the shape of an essay.

        But though we are bound to consider by-motives like these for reading fiction as praiseworthy enough where practicable, they are by their nature of an illegitimate character, more or less, and apart from the ruling interest of the genuine investigator of this department of literature.  Such ingredients can be had elsewhere in more convenient parcels.  Our true object is a lesson in life, mental enlargement from elements essential to the narratives themselves and from the reflections they engender.

        Among the qualities which appertain to representations of life, construed, though not distorted, by the light of imagination–qualities which are seldom shared by views about life, however profound–is that of self-proof or obviousness.  A representation is less susceptible of error than a disquisition; the teaching, depending as it does upon intuitive conviction, and not upon logical reasoning, is not likely to lend itself to sophistry.  If endowed with ordinary intelligence, the reader can discern, in delineative art professing to be natural, any stroke at variance with nature, which, in the form of moral essay, pensée, or epigram, may be so wrapped up as to escape him.

        Good fiction may be defined here as that kind of imaginative writing which lies nearest to the epic, dramatic, or narrative masterpieces of the past.  One fact is certain: in fiction there can be no intrinsically new thing at this stage of the world’s history.  New methods and plans may arise and come into fashion, as we see them do; but the general theme can neither be changed, nor (what is less obvious) can the relative importance of its various particulars be greatly interfered with.  The higher passions must ever rank above the inferior–intellectual tendencies above animal,, and moral above intellectual–whatever the treatment, realistic or ideal.  Any system of inversion which should attach more importance to the delineation of man’s appetites than to the delineation of his aspirations, affections, or humors, would condemn the masters of imaginative creation from Æschylus to Shakespeare.  Whether we hold the arts which depict mankind to be, in the words of Mr. Matthew Arnold, a criticism of life, or, in those of Mr. Addington Symonds, a revelation of life, the material remains the same, with its sublimities, its beauties, its uglinesses, as the case may be.  the finer manifestations must precede in importance the meaner, without such a radical change in human nature as we can hardly conceive as pertaining to an even remote future of decline, and certainly do not recognize now.

        In pursuance of his quest for a true exhibition of man, the reader will naturally consider whether he feels himself under the guidance of a mind who sees further into life than he himself has seen; or, at least, who can throw a stronger irradiation over subjects already within his ken than he has been able to do unaided.  the new light needs not be set off by a finish of phraseology or incisive sentences of subtle definition.  The treatment may be baldly incidental, without inference or commentary.  Many elaborate reflections, for example, have been composed by moralizing chroniclers on the effect of prosperity in blunting men’s recollection of those to whom they have sworn friendship when they shared a hard lot in common.  But the writer in Genesis who tells his legend of certain friends in such adverse circumstances, one of whom, a chief butler, afterward came to good fortune, and ends the account of his good fortune with the simple words, “Now the chief butler did not remember Joseph, but forgat him,” brings out a dramatic sequence on ground prepared for assent, shows us the general principle in the particular case, and hence writes with a force beyond that of aphorism or argument.  It is the force of an appeal to the emotional reason rather than to the logical reason; for by their emotions men are acted upon, and act upon others.

        If it be true, as is frequently asserted, that young people nowadays go to novels for their sentiments, their religion, and their morals, the question as to the wisdom or folly of those young people hangs upon their methods of acquisition in each case.  A deduction from what these works exemplify by action that bears evidence of being a counter part of life, has a distinct educational value; but an imitation of what may be called the philosophy of the personages–the doctrine of the actors, as shown in their conversation–may lead to surprising results.  They should be informed that a writer whose story is not a tract in disguise has as his main object that of characterizing the people of his little world.  A philosophy which appears between the inverted commas of a dialogue may, with propriety, be as full of holes as a sieve if the person or persons who advance it gain any reality of humanity thereby.

        These considerations only bring us back again to the vital question how to discriminate the best in fiction.  Unfortunately the two hundred years or so of the modern novel’s development have not left the world so full of fine examples as to make it particularly easy to light upon them when the first obvious list has been run through.  The, at first sight, high-piled granary sifts down to a very small measure of genuine corn.  The conclusion cannot be resisted, notwithstanding what has been stated to the contrary in so many places, that the scarcity of perfect novels in any language is because the art of writing them is as yet in its youth, if not in its infancy.  Narrative art is neither mature in its artistic aspect, nor in its ethical or philosophical aspect; neither in form nor in substance.  To me, at least, the difficulties of perfect presentation in both these kinds appear of such magnitude that the utmost which each generation can be expected to do is to add one or two strokes toward the selection and shaping of a possible ultimate perfection.

        In this scarcity of excellence in novels as wholes the reader must content himself with excellence in parts; and his estimate of the degree to which any given modern instance approximates to greatness will, of course, depend not only upon the proportion that the finer characteristics bear to the mass, but upon the figure cut by those finer characteristics beside those of the admitted masterpieces as yet.  In this process he will go with the professed critic so far as to inquire whether the story forms a regular structure of incident, accompanied by an equally regular development of character–a composition based on faithful imagination, less the transcript than the similitude of material fact.  But the appreciative, perspicacious reader will do more than this.  He will see what his author is aiming at, and by affording full scope to his own insight, catch the vision which the writer has in his eye, and is endeavouring to project upon the paper, even while it half eludes him.

        He will almost invariably discover that, however numerous the writer’s excellencies, he is what is call unequal; he has a specialty.  This especial gift being discovered, he fixes his regard more particularly thereupon.  It is frequently not that feature in an author’s work which common repute has given him credit for; more often it is, while co-existent with his popular attribute, overshadowed by it lurking like a violet in the shade of the more obvious, possibly more vulgar, talent, but for which it might have received high attention.  Behind the broad humor of one popular pen he discerns startling touches of weirdness; amid the colossal fancies of another he sees strokes of the most exquisite tenderness; and the unobtrusive quality may grow to have more charm for him than the palpable one.

        It must always be borne in mind, despite the claims of realism, that the best fiction, like the highest artistic expression in other modes, is more true, so to put it, then history or nature can be.  In history occur from time to time monstrosities of human action and character explicable by no known law which appertains to sane beings; hitches in the machinery of existence, wherein we have not yet discovered a principle, which the artist is therefore bound to regard as accidents hinderances (sic) to clearness of presentation, and, hence, weakeners of the effect.  To take an example from sculpture: no real gladiator ever died in such perfect harmony with normal nature as is represented in the well-known Capitoline marble.  There was always a jar somewhere, a jot or tittle of something foreign in the real death-scene, which did not essentially appertain to the situation, and tended toward neutralizing its pathos; but this the sculptor omitted, and so consecrated his theme.  In drama likewise.  Observe the characters of an sterling play.  No dozen persons who were capable of being animated by the profound reasons and truths thrown broadcast over Hamlet or Othello, of feeling the pulse of life so accurately, ever met together in one place in this world to shape an end.  And, to come to fiction, nobody every met an Uncle Toby who was Uncle Toby all round; no historian’s Queen Elizabeth was ever so perfectly a woman as the fictitious Elizabeth of Kenilworth.  What is called the idealization of characters is, in truth, the making of them too real to be possible.

        It may seem something of a paradox to assert that the novels which most conduce to moral profit are likely to be among those written without a moral purpose.  But the truth of the statement may be realized if we consider that the didactic novel is so generally devoid of vraisemblance as to teach nothing but the impossibility of tampering with natural truth to advance dogmatic opinions.  Those, on the other hand, which impress the reader with the inevitableness of character and environment in working out destiny, whether that destiny be just or unjust, enviable or cruel, must have a sound effect, if not what is called a good effect, upon a healthy mind.

        Of the effects of such sincere presentation on weak minds, when the courses of the characters are not exemplary, and the rewards and punishments ill adjusted to deserts, it is not our duty to consider too closely.  A novel which does moral injury to a dozen imbeciles, and has bracing results upon a thousand intellects of normal vigor, can justify its existence; and probably a novel was never written by the purest-minded author for which there could not be found some moral invalid or other whom it was capable of harming.

        To distinguish truths which are temporary from truths which are eternal, the accidental from the essential, accuracies as to custom and ceremony from accuracies as to the perennial procedure of humanity, is of vital importance in our attempts to read for something more than amusement.  There are certain novels, both among the works of living and the works of deceased writers, which give convincing proof of much exceptional fidelity, and yet they do not rank as great productions; for what they are faithful in is life garniture and not life.  You are fully persuaded that the personages are clothed precisely as you see them clothed in the street, in the drawing-room, at the assembly.  Even the trifling accidents of their costume are rendered by the honest narrator.  They use the phrases of the season, present or past, with absolute accuracy as to idiom, expletive, slang.  They lift their tea-cups or fan themselves to date.  But what of it, after our first sense of its photographic curiousness is past?  In aiming at the trivial and the ephemeral they have almost surely missed better things.  A living French critic goes even further concerning the novelists of social minutiae.  “They are far removed,” says he, “from the great imaginations which create and transform.  They renounce free invention; they narrow themselves to scrupulous exactness; they paint clothes and places with endless detail.”

        But we must not, as inquiring readers, fail to understand that attention to accessories has its virtues when the nature of its regard does not involve blindness to higher things; still more when it conduces to the elucidation of higher things.  The writer who describes his type of a jeweled leader of society by saying baldly how much her diamonds cost at So-and-So’s, what the largest of them weighted and measured, how it was cut and set, the particular style in which she wore her hair, cannot convey much profit to any class of readers save two–those bent on making a purchase of the like ornaments or of adorning themselves in the same fashion; and, a century hence, those who are studying the costumes and expenditure of the period.  But, supposing the subject to be the same, let the writer be one who takes less of a broker’s view of his heroine and her adornments; he may be worth listening to, though his simplicity be quite childlike.  It is immaterial that our example is in verse:


        Be you not proud of that rich hair

        Which wantons with the love-sick air;

        Whenas that ruby which you wear,

        Sunk from the tip of your soft ear,

        Will last to be a precious stone

        When all your world of beauty’s gone.–Herrick


        And thus we are led to the conclusion that, in respect of our present object, our concern is less with the subject treated than with its treatment.  There have been writers of fiction, as of poetry, who can gather grapes of thorns and figs of thistles.

        Closely connected with the humanizing education found in fictitious narrative which reaches to the level of an illuminant of life, is the aesthetic training insensibly given by familiarity with story which, presenting nothing exceptional in other respects, has the merit of being well and artistically constructed.  To profit of this kind, from this especial source, very little attention has hitherto been paid, though volumes have been written upon the development of the aesthetic sense by the study of painting and sculpture, and thus adding to the means of enjoyment.  Probably few of the general body denominated the reading public consider, in their hurried perusal of novel after novel, that, to a masterpiece in story there appertains a beauty of shape, no less than to a masterpiece in pictorial or plastic art, capable of giving to the trained mind an equal pleasure.  To recognize this quality clearly when present, the construction of the plot, or fable, as it used to be called, is to be more particularly observed than either in a reading for sentiments and opinions, or in a reading merely to discover the fates of the chief characters.  For however real the persons, however profound, witty, or humorous the observations, as soon as the book comes to be regarded as an exemplification of the art of story-telling, the story naturally takes the first place, and the example is not noteworthy as such unless the telling be artistically carried on.

        The distinguishing feature of a well-rounded tale has been defined in various ways, but the general reader need not be burdened with many definitions.  Briefly, a story should be an organism.  To use the words applied to the epic by Addison, whose artistic feeling in this kind was of the subtlest, “nothing should go before it, be intermixed with it, or follow after it, that is not related to it.”  Tested by such considerations as these there are obviously many volumes of fiction remarkable, and even great, in their character-drawing, their feeling, their philosophy, which are quite second-rate in their structural quality as narratives.  Instances will occur to every one’s mind; but instead of dwelling upon these it is more interesting to name some which most nearly fulfill the conditions.  Their fewness is remarkable, and bears out the opinion expressed earlier  in this essay, that the art of novel-writing is as yet in its tentative stage only.  Among them Tom Jones is usually pointed out as a near approach to perfection in this as in some other characteristics; though, speaking for myself, I do not perceive its great superiority in artistic form over some other novels of lower reputation.  The Bride of Lammermoor is an almost perfect specimen of form, which is the more remarkable in that Scott, as a rule, depends more upon episode, dialogue, and description, for exciting interest, than upon the well-knit interdependence of parts.  And the first thirty chapters of Vanity Fair may be instanced as well-nigh complete in artistic presentation, along with their other magnificent qualities.

        Herein lies Richardson’s real if only claim to be placed on a level with Fielding: the artist spirit that he everywhere displays in the structural parts of his work and in the interaction of the personages, notably those of Clarissa Harlowe.  However cold, even artificial, we may, at times, deem the heroine and her companions in the pages of that excellent tale, however numerous the twitches of unreality in their movements across the scene beside those in the figures animated by Fielding, we feel, nevertheless, that we are under the guidance of a hand which has consummate skill in evolving a graceful, well-balanced set of conjectures, forming altogether one of those circumstantial wholes which, when approached by events in real life, cause the observer to pause and reflect, and say, “What a striking history!”  we should look generously upon his deficiency in the robuster touches of nature, for it is the deficiency of an author whose artistic sense of form was developed at the expense of his accuracy of observation as regards substance.  No person who has a due perception of the constructive art shown in Greek tragic drama can be blind to the constructive art of Richardson.

        I have dwelt the more particularly upon this species of excellence, not because I consider it to rank in quality beside truth of feeling and action, but because it is one which so few nonprofessional readers enjoy and appreciate without some kind of preliminary direction.  It is usually the latest to be discerned by the novel consumer, and it is often never discerned by him or her at all.  Every intelligent reader with a little experience of life can perceive truth to nature in some degree; but a great reduction must be made for those who can trace in narrative the quality which makes the Apollo and the Aphrodite a charm in marble.  Thoughtful readers are continually met with who have no intuition that such an attribute can be claimed by fiction, except in so far as it is included in style.

        The indefinite word style may be made to express almost any characteristic of story-telling other than subject and plot, and it is too commonly viewed as being some independent, extraneous virtue or varnish with which the substance of a narrative is artificially overlaid.  Style, as far as the word is meant to express something more than literary finish, can only be treatment, and treatment depends upon the mental attitude of the novelist; thus entering into the very substance of a narrative, as into that of any other kind of literature.  A writer who is not a mere imitator looks upon the world with his personal eyes, and in his peculiar moods; thence grows up his style, in the full sense of the term.


                        Cui lecta potenter erit res,

                Nec facundia deseret hunc, nec lucidus ordo. [Hor. “De Arte Poetica,” 40. – Hardy’s note]


        Those who would profit from the study of style should formulate an opinion of what it consists in by the aid of their own educated understanding, their perception of natural fitness, true and high feeling, sincerity, unhampered by considerations of nice collocation and balance of sentences, still less by conventionally accepted examples.  They will make the discovery that certain names have, by some accident or other, grown to be regarded as of high, if not of supreme merit in the catalogue of exemplars, which have no essential claims, in this respect, to be rated higher than hundreds of the rank and file of literature who are never mentioned by critic or considered by reader in that connection.  An author who has once acquired a reputation for style may write English down to the depths of slovenliness if he choose, without losing his character as a master; and this probably because, as before observed, the quality of style is so vague and inapprehensible as a distinct ingredient that it may always be supposed to be something else than what the reader perceives to be indifferent.

        Considerations as to the rank or station in life from which characters are drawn can have but little value in regulating the choice of novels for literary reasons, and the reader may leave thus much to the mood of the moment.  I remember reading a lecture on novels by a young and ingenious, though not very profound, critic, some years ago, in which the theory was propounded that novels which depict life in the upper walks of society must, in the nature of things, be better reading than those which exhibit the life of any lower class, for the reason that the subjects of the former represent a higher stage of development than their less fortunate brethren.  At the first blush this was a plausible theory; but when practically tested it is found to be based on such a totally erroneous conception of what a novel is, and where it comes from, as not to be worth a moment’s consideration.  It proceeds from the assumption that a novel is the thing, and not a view of the thing.  It forgets that the characters, however they may differ, express mainly the author, his largeness of heart or otherwise, his culture, his insight, and very little of any other living person, except in such an inferior kind of procedure as might occasionally be applied to dialogue, and would take the narrative out of the category of fiction; i.e., verbatim reporting without selective judgment.

        But there is another reason, disconnected entirely from methods of construction, why the physical condition of the characters rules nothing of itself one way or the other.  All persons who have thoughtfully compared class with class–and the wider their experience the more pronounced their opinion–are convinced that education has as yet but little broken or modified the waves of human impulse on which deeds and words depend.  So that in the portraiture of scenes in any way emotional or dramatic–the highest province of fiction–the peer and the peasant stand on much the same level; the woman who makes the satin train and the woman who wears it.  In the lapse of countless ages, no doubt, improved systems of moral education will considerably and appreciably elevate even the involuntary instincts of human nature; but a present culture has only affected the surface of those lives with which it has come in contact, binding down the passions of those predisposed to turmoil as by a silken thread only, which the first ebullition suffices to break.  With regard to what may be termed the minor key of action and speech–the unemotional, every-day doings of men–social refinement operates upon character in a way which is oftener than not prejudicial to vigorous portraiture, by making the exteriors of men their screen rather than their index, as with untutored mankind.  Contrasts are disguised by the crust of conventionality, picturesqueness obliterated, and a subjective system of description necessitated for the differentiation of character.  In the one case the author’s word has to be taken as to the nerves and muscles of his figures; in the other they can be seen as in an écorché.

        The foregoing are a few imperfect indications how, to the best of my judgment, to discriminate fiction which will be the most desirable reading for the average man or woman of leisure, who does not wish the occupation to be wholly barren of results except in so far as it may administer to the pleasure of the hour.  But, as with the horse and the stream in the proverb, no outside power can compel or even help a reader to gain good from such reading unless he has some natural eye for the finer qualities in the best productions of this class.  It is unfortunately quite possible to read the most elevating works of imagination in our own or any language, and, by fixing the regard on the wrong sides of the subject, to gather not a grain of wisdom from them, nay, sometimes positive harm.  What author has not had his experience of such readers?–the mentally and morally warped ones of both sexes, who will, when practicable, so twist plain and obvious meanings as to see in an honest picture of human nature an attack on religion, morals, or institutions.  Truly has it been observed that “the eye sees that which it brings with it the means of seeing.”

                                                                                                                                                    THOMAS HARDY.


(Reproduced from Harold Orel, ed. Thomas Hardy’s Personal Writings. London: Macmillan, 1966. 134-138).