Wharton’s brief guide “to the Art of the Short Story and the Novel” is a clear, informative, and invaluable text that all fiction writers should have on their shelves. Though I am not a fiction writer, books about how one should write fiction, especially ones by classic authors, fascinate me because I believe that in the world of writing, fiction is the most difficult genre to work in.
Wharton begins with a short introductory chapter about modern fiction and how we got there. She tells us that the “action” of the novel has been shifted from the street (the external world) to the soul and that after this, the “puppet” nature of the characters gave way to living, breathing human beings. For Wharton, Balzac and Stendhal brought a great change to the novel in how they viewed “each character first of all as a product of particular material and social conditions,” thus coinciding with the height of the Industrial Revolution.
A key step in writing fiction, Wharton notes a few times throughout her book, is the one which all writers must take first—selecting the most pertinent material from the plenty we are always surrounded by. As she argues, all the numerous details radiating from a character, situation, or object must be carefully chosen among to illuminate the particular experience the author wishes to focus on, as the details that are more and more remote from the core of the person, object, or situation serve no purpose in directing the narrative’s development and so must be discarded.
A fascinating truth she speaks of is how the drama of the story is created from “the conflicts produced between social order and individual appetites, and the art of rendering life in fiction can never . . . be anything . . . but the disengaging of crucial moments from the welter of existence. . . . [And] there must be something that makes them [these moments] crucial, some recognizable relation to a familiar social or moral standard, some explicit awareness of the eternal struggle between man’s contending impulses . . .” All of this instantly recalls Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. As Wharton makes plain, character is developed through conflict, the conflict that takes place not just between characters, but within, in an internal drama wherein we struggle to give vent to our desires without devastating the stasis of our relationships or that of the wider social world. This is the drama that propels fiction.
Another key aspect of writing fiction for Wharton is the long, concentrated effort one must engage in before one puts pen to paper, to work out the most necessary elements of experience and character (the stuff of fiction) one wishes to utilize in storytelling. In short, writing fiction is not simple or quick for Wharton; it is something to be mentally and emotionally involved in for a long time, something that cannot and should not be rushed, for it will only mar the story if it is written with an eye on the clock or the calendar.
On the concept of the story’s subject, she is brilliantly succinct: “A good subject . . . must contain in itself something that sheds light on our moral experience. . . . Subjects which . . . are a kind of summary or foreshortening of life’s dispersed and inconclusive occurrences.”
In her chapters on writing a short story and a novel she discourses on several things, carefully illuminating central topics including character and situation, style and form, how to make the reader feel secure and guard them against “the appearance of improbability,” and the importance of how one creates the illusion of the passing of time, of the seasons, in the lives of one’s characters, modifying them as a “natural result of growth in age and experience.” Her last chapter is devoted to a discussion of the early twentieth-century French novelist Marcel Proust and the immense powers (along with a distinct weakness) he displays in his well-known masterpiece In Search of Lost Time. The Writing of Fiction, in short, is worth any writer’s time and brims with thought-provoking philosophical ideas and comprehensible instruction that will well serve new writers and writers of other genres alike who want to try their hand at writing fiction.