THE ART AND THE BUSINESS OF STORY WRITINGby Walter Broughton Pitkin
1. Why write fiction? This question may seem impertinent, at the beginning of a book which will be read chiefly by persons who have resolved to write fiction. But it is not. It leads us into a problem that must be squarely faced and cleanly solved by each man for himself, before he
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1. Why write fiction? This question may seem impertinent, at the beginning of a book which will be read chiefly by persons who have resolved to write fiction. But it is not. It leads us into a problem that must be squarely faced and cleanly solved by each man for himself, before he enters seriously upon literary work. That problem has to do with the purposes of such an undertaking.
Purposes shape one's conduct in literature no less than in war, love, and politics. Whether the author knows it or not, every plot he invents and every turn he gives to its telling are qualified by the use he hopes to make of the finished product. It matters not whether he writes according to some editor's order or to establish a creed or simply to delight himself; the influence of the aim is ever present, subtle and pervasive. So deep is it that many a story theme takes on a very different form with each new purpose of the writer's. Again, some themes and modes of treatment are wonderfully adapted to certain ends and impossible for others. Thus, the severe and swift art of which Maupassant was so fond is peculiarly the weapon of a writer who is more interested in conveying an impression than in interpreting human nature or affairs. Other technical devices have their own exclusive utility, which we shall inspect in other chapters. Hardly any material of fiction or any narrative principle can be employed without regard to the aim of the particular piece of writing attempted.
If this is true, it must be evident that whoever writes fiction aimlessly, never surveying the various advantages of the work nor choosing one advantage as the end to be sought, foredooms himself to much grief. He may win out, in the long run; but his victory will be dearly won. He will probably spend years writing for the public stories which please only himself, and he may wreck his natural style by trying to make it serve an end which it cannot attain. This becomes clear the moment we consider the legitimate purposes of writing fiction.
2. The four ends of writing fiction. There are four obvious rational desires which might, singly or collectively, urge a man to compose a story. First, he might wish for the private gratification of expressing his own fancies. Secondly, he might hope to acquire, through practice, an intimate knowledge of literary values which would heighten his appreciation of books and men. In the third place, he might seek a livelihood by entertaining a large circle of readers. Or, finally, he might aspire to expose some sham, to crush some public infamy, to raise some all but forgotten ideal, or otherwise to better the world. Private pleasure, self-culture, profit, and social service; these are the prospects which may allure. And now a word about each.
a. Writing for pleasure. People differ astonishingly in the immediate satisfaction they gain from imaginative writing. Many who are gifted compose without joy or even with antipathy; and many who are not sweep into raptures at every inconsequential motion of their mediocre wits. It is important to observe this fact here, because of the prevalent instinctive superstition that whoever has a strong impulse to write and finds much pleasure in yielding to it is endowed with those talents which publishers are eager to engage. That this is a superstition and nothing more, every experienced writer and critic knows. There is only the most tenuous connection between the market value of a tale and the fun one gets from producing it.
Consider two opposite modern instances, Edna Ferber and Gellet Burgess. If newspaper interviews are to be trusted, Miss Ferber drags herself gloomily to her faithful typewriter, for the composing of an Emma McChesney story. Nevertheless, her output is the very highest grade of ephemeral writing, immensely popular and correspondingly profitable. How different Burgess and his Lady Méchante! In the confessional introduction to this weird volume, he admits that he is out for a lark and that he is having a glorious time compiling these Precious Episodes in the Life of a Naughty Nonpareille, You can fairly hear him chuckling behind every sentence. But what is the material outcome of this hilarity? 'Helter-skelter rigmarole,' Burgess calls the book; and nobody will challenge the opinion. It reeks with jests comprehensible only to the few who happen to have thought about some things precisely as the author has. Its satire is such as can be sensed from only one point of view, and this point of view cannot be attained save by following Burgess through life and seeing the world through Burgess' eyes. If you have done this, you may scream over some chapters of Lady Méchante . If you haven't, you will fling the book into the waste basket before you have finished the first page....
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