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Modern Fiction
by [?]

When, therefore, we say that one of the worst characteristics of modern fiction is its so-called truth to nature, we mean that it disregards the higher laws of art, and attempts to give us unidealized pictures of life. The failure is not that vulgar themes are treated, but that the treatment is vulgar; not that common life is treated, but that the treatment is common; not that care is taken with details, but that no selection is made, and everything is photographed regardless of its artistic value. I am sure that no one ever felt any repugnance on being introduced by Cervantes to the muleteers, contrabandistas, servants and serving-maids, and idle vagabonds of Spain, any more than to an acquaintance with the beggar-boys and street gamins on the canvases of Murillo. And I believe that the philosophic reason of the disgust of Heine and of every critic with the English bourgeoisie novels, describing the petty, humdrum life of the middle classes, was simply the want of art in the writers; the failure on their part to see that a literal transcript of nature is poor stuff in literature. We do not need to go back to Richardson’s time for illustrations of that truth. Every week the English press–which is even a greater sinner in this respect than the American–turns out a score of novels which are mediocre, not from their subjects, but from their utter lack of the artistic quality. It matters not whether they treat of middle-class life, of low, slum life, or of drawing-room life and lords and ladies; they are equally flat and dreary. Perhaps the most inane thing ever put forth in the name of literature is the so-called domestic novel, an indigestible, culinary sort of product, that might be named the doughnut of fiction. The usual apology for it is that it depicts family life with fidelity. Its characters are supposed to act and talk as people act and talk at home and in society. I trust this is a libel, but, for the sake of the argument, suppose they do. Was ever produced so insipid a result? They are called moral; in the higher sense they are immoral, for they tend to lower the moral tone and stamina of every reader. It needs genius to import into literature ordinary conversation, petty domestic details, and the commonplace and vulgar phases of life. A report of ordinary talk, which appears as dialogue in domestic novels, may be true to nature; if it is, it is not worth writing or worth reading. I cannot see that it serves any good purpose whatever. Fortunately, we have in our day illustrations of a different treatment of the vulgar. I do not know any more truly realistic pictures of certain aspects of New England life than are to be found in Judd’s “Margaret,” wherein are depicted exceedingly pinched and ignoble social conditions. Yet the characters and the life are drawn with the artistic purity of Flaxman’s illustrations of Homer. Another example is Thomas Hardy’s “Far from the Madding Crowd.” Every character in it is of the lower class in England. But what an exquisite creation it is! You have to turn back to Shakespeare for any talk of peasants and clowns and shepherds to compare with the conversations in this novel, so racy are they of the soil, and yet so touched with the finest art, the enduring art. Here is not the realism of the photograph, but of the artist; that is to say, it is nature idealized.

When we criticise our recent fiction it is obvious that we ought to remember that it only conforms to the tendencies of our social life, our prevailing ethics, and to the art conditions of our time. Literature is never in any age an isolated product. It is closely related to the development or retrogression of the time in all departments of life. The literary production of our day seems, and no doubt is, more various than that of any other, and it is not easy to fix upon its leading tendency. It is claimed for its fiction, however, that it is analytic and realistic, and that much of it has certain other qualities that make it a new school in art. These aspects of it I wish to consider in this paper.