Nov. 18, 1893. Story and Anecdote.
I suppose I am no more favored than most people who write stories in receiving from unknown correspondents a variety of suggestions, outlines of plots, sketches of situations, characters, and so forth. One cannot but feel grateful for all this spontaneous beneficence. The mischief is that in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred (the fraction is really much smaller) these suggestions are of no possible use.
Why should this be? Put briefly, the reason is that a story differs from an anecdote. I take the first two instances that come into my head: but they happen to be striking ones, and, as they occur in a book of Mr. Kipling’s, are safe to be well known to all my correspondents. In Mr. Kipling’s fascinating book, Life’s Handicap, On Greenhow Hill is a story; The Lang Men o’ Larut is an anecdote. On Greenhow Hill is founded on a study of the human heart, and it is upon the human heart that the tale constrains one’s interest. The Lang Men o’ Larut is just a yarn spun for the yarn’s sake: it informs us of nothing, and is closely related (if I may use some of Mr. Howells’ expressive language for the occasion) to “the lies swapped between men after the ladies have left the table.” And the reason why the story-teller, when (as will happen at times) his invention runs dry, can take no comfort in the generous outpourings of his unknown friends, is just this–that the plots are merely plots, and the anecdotes merely anecdotes, and the difference between these and a story that shall reveal something concerning men and women is just the difference between bad and good art.
Let us go a step further. At first sight it seems a superfluous contention that a novelist’s rank depends upon what he can see and what he can tell us of the human heart. But, as a matter of fact, you will find that four-fifths at least of contemporary criticism is devoted to matters quite different–to what I will call Externals, or the Accidents of Story-telling: and that, as a consequence, our novelists are spending a quite unreasonable proportion of their labor upon Externals. I wrote “as a consequence” hastily, because it is always easier to blame the critics. If the truth were known, I dare say the novelists began it with their talk about “documents,” “the scientific method,” “observation and experiment,” and the like.
The Fallacy of “Documents.”
Now you may observe a man until you are tired, and then you may begin and observe him over again: you may photograph him and his surroundings: you may spend years in studying what he eats and drinks: you may search out what his uncles died of, and the price he pays for his hats, and–know nothing at all about him. At least, you may know enough to insure his life or assess him for Income Tax: but you are not even half-way towards writing a novel about him. You are still groping among externals. His unspoken ambitions; the stories he tells himself silently, at midnight, in his bed; the pain he masks with a dull face and the ridiculous fancies he hugs in secret–these are the Essentials, and you cannot get them by Observation. If you can discover these, you are a Novelist born: if not, you may as well shut up your note-book and turn to some more remunerative trade. You will never surprise the secret of a soul by accumulating notes upon Externals.
Then, again, we have Local Color, an article inordinately bepraised just now; and yet an External. For human nature, when every possible allowance has been made for geographical conditions, undergoes surprisingly little change as we pass from one degree of latitude or longitude to another. The Story of Ruth is as intelligible to an Englishman as though Ruth had gleaned in the stubble behind Tess Durbeyfield. Levine toiling with the mowers, Achilles sulking in his tent, Iphigeneia at the altar, Gil Blas before the Archbishop of Granada have as close a claim on our sympathy as if they lived but a few doors from us. Let me be understood. I hold it best that a novelist should be intimately acquainted with the country in which he lays his scene. But, none the less, the study of local color is not of the first importance. And the critic who lavishes praise upon a writer for “introducing us to an entirely new atmosphere,” for “breaking new ground,” and “wafting us to scenes with which the jaded novel-reader is scarcely acquainted,” and for “giving us work which bears every trace of minute local research,” is praising that which is of secondary importance. The works of Richard Jefferies form a considerable museum of externals of one particular kind; and this is possibly the reason why the Cockney novelist waxes eloquent over Richard Jefferies. He can now import the breath of the hay-field into his works at no greater expense of time and trouble than taking down the Gamekeeper at Home from his club bookshelf and perusing a chapter or so before settling down to work. There is not the slightest harm in his doing this: the mistake lies in thinking local color (however acquired) of the first importance.