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On a mellow day in the early autumn of the year 1900, I sat on an old wooden bench in the open air with an English gentleman, and listened to his conversation with a mixture of curiosity and reverence. The place was one of the fairest counties of England, the town on the other side of a screen of trees was Dorchester, and my seat-mate was Thomas Hardy. I remember his saying without any additional emphasis than the weight of the words, that the basis of every novel should be a story. In considering this remark, which came, not from a doctrinaire, but from a master of long and triumphant experience, I could not help thinking that what seems axiomatic is often belied by a majority of instances. Thus, we church-members would agree that religion must take the first place in our lives; yet a disinterested observer, who should begin at the other end of the proposition and examine our lives merely to discover what actually did take the first place therein, might conceivably miss the element of religion altogether. In the same way, while it would theoretically seem that every novel must be a story, an honest critic who should examine the total product of prose fiction for any given year in the twentieth century, might, in a large number of cases, easily fail to find any story at all. As we look back over the history of the English novel, it would appear that every permanent work of fiction has been a great story. Robinson Crusoe, Clarissa, Tom Jones, Humphry Clinker, The Bride of Lammermoor, Pride and Prejudice, Esmond, David Copperfield, The Mill on the Floss, Richard Feverel,The Return of the Native, Treasure Island, The Last of the Mohicans, The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn, although they represent various shades of realism and romanticism, have all been primarily stories, in which we follow the fortunes of the chief actors with steady interest. These books owe their supremacy in fiction—at least, most of them do—to a combination of narrative, character, and style; every one of them, if given in colloquial paraphrase to a group of men around a camp-fire, would be rewarded with attention. Sometimes the very thing that gives a drama or a novel immediate currency makes it smell of mortality; by taking advantage of some hotly-discussed social question, general interest is awakened; but when the question is obsolete, what becomes of the work of art? I shall not venture to make a prediction; but I think it is at least possible that some of the earlier plays of Ibsen, like The Pretenders, may outlast some of the later ones, like Ghosts; the later ones blaze with the flames of public debate, the earlier reflect the light of the stars. Of all forms of literature, the novel has suffered most by its desertion of art for propaganda. It has been debased by its popularity. It lends itself so easily as a channel for political, social or religious oratory. Every theorist uses it as a megaphone. Although novels are as common as grasshoppers, good stories are scarce. Now this desertion of art for propaganda is founded on the fallacy that a work of pure fiction cannot stand or ought not to stand by itself, but should lean on politics, social reform, science, or theology for support. We do not insist on a thesis in sculpture or music or painting or poetry. There have been, indeed, many attempts to turn Pegasus into a cart-horse; and unfortunately, the attempt is almost invariably successful. I prefer novels that express the opinions of the characters in the story to those that express the opinions of the author. I do not mean that all novels ought to be impersonal; such a result, even when most ardently desired by the novelist, is impossible of achievement.Archibald Marshall: A Realistic Novelist - eBook
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William Lyon Phelps
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