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The Sheltered Life
     

The Sheltered Life

by Ellen Glasgow
 

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Nothing, except the weather report or a general maxim of conduct,
is so unsafe to rely upon as a theory of fiction. Every great
novel has broken many conventions. The greatest of all novels
defies every formula; and only Mr. Percy Lubbock believes that War
and Peace would be greater if it were another and an entirely
different book. By this I do

Overview

Nothing, except the weather report or a general maxim of conduct,
is so unsafe to rely upon as a theory of fiction. Every great
novel has broken many conventions. The greatest of all novels
defies every formula; and only Mr. Percy Lubbock believes that War
and Peace would be greater if it were another and an entirely
different book. By this I do not mean to question Mr. Lubbock's
critical insight. The Craft of Fiction is the best work in its
limited field, and it may be studied to advantage by any novelist.
In the first chapters there is a masterly analysis of War and
Peace. Yet, after reading this with appreciation, I still think
that Tolstoy was the best judge of what his book was about and of
how long it should be.

This brings us, in the beginning, to the most sensitive, and
therefore the most controversial, point in the criticism of prose
fiction. It is the habit of overworked or frugal critics to speak
as if economy were a virtue and not a necessity. Yet there are
faithful readers who feel with me that a good novel cannot be too
long or a bad novel too short. Our company is small but picked
with care, and we would die upon the literary barricade defending
the noble proportions of War and Peace, of The Brothers Karamazov,
of Clarissa Harlowe in eight volumes, of Tom Jones, of David
Copperfield, of The Chronicles of Barsetshire, of A la Recherche du
Temps Perdu, of Le Vicomte de Bragelonne. Tennyson was with us
when he said he had no criticism to make of Clarissa Harlowe except
that it might have been longer.

The true novel (I am not concerned with the run-of-the-mill
variety) is, like pure poetry, an act of birth, not a device or an
invention. It awaits its own time and has its own way to be born,
and it cannot, by scientific methods, be pushed into the world from
behind. After it is born, a separate individual, an organic
structure, it obeys its own vital impulses. The heart quickens;
the blood circulates; the pulses beat; the whole body moves in
response to some inward rhythm; and in time the expanding vitality
attains its full stature. But until the breath of life enters a
novel, it is as spiritless as inanimate matter.

Having said this much, I may confess that spinning theories of
fiction is my favourite amusement. This is, I think, a good habit
to cultivate. The exercise encourages readiness and agility while
it keeps both head and hand in practice. Besides, if it did
nothing else, it would still protect one from the radio and the
moving picture and other sleepless, if less sinister, enemies to
the lost mood of contemplation. This alone would justify every
precept that was ever evolved. Although a work of fiction may be
written without a formula or a method, I doubt if the true novel
has ever been created without the long brooding season.

I have read, I believe, with as much interest as if it were a novel
itself, every treatise on the art of fiction that appeared to me to
be promising. That variable branch of letters shares with
philosophy the favourite shelf in my library. I know all that such
sources of learning as Sir Leslie Stephen, Sir Walter Raleigh, Mr.
Percy Lubbock, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, Mr. E. M. Forster, and
others less eminent but often more earnest, are able to teach me,
or I am able to acquire. Indeed, I know more than they can teach
me, for I know also how very little their knowledge can help one in
the actual writing of novels. If I were giving advice to a
beginner (but there are no beginners nowadays, there is only the
inspired amateur or the infant pathologist), I should probably say
something like this: "Learn the technique of writing, and having
learned it thoroughly, try to forget it. Study the principles of
construction, the value of continuity, the arrangement of masses,
the consistent point of view, the revealing episode, the careful
handling of detail, and the fatal pitfalls of dialogue. Then,
having mastered, if possible, every rule of thumb, dismiss it into
the labyrinth of the memory. Leave it there to make its own
signals and flash its own warnings. The sensitive feeling, 'this
is not right' or 'something ought to be different' will prove that
these signals are working." Or, perhaps, this inner voice may be
only the sounder instinct of the born novelist.

Product Details

BN ID:
2940013695726
Publisher:
WDS Publishing
Publication date:
01/21/2012
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Sales rank:
1,024,886
File size:
271 KB

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