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Notions About Novels
by [?]

“You must write a novel,” said my Uncle Peter to the young Man of Letters. “The novel is the literary form in which the psychological conditions of interest are most easily discovered and met. It appeals directly to the reader’s self-consciousness, and invites him to fancy how fine a figure he would cut in more picturesque circumstances than his own. When it simplifies great events, as Stevenson said it must, it produces the feeling of power; and when it dignifies the commonplace, as Schopenhauer said it ought to, it produces the sense of importance. People like to imagine themselves playing on a large stage. The most humdrum of men would be pleased to act a hero’s part, if it could be done without risk or effort; and the plainest of women has the capacity to enjoy, at least in fancy, a greater variety in the affair of love than real life is likely to furnish. Novels give these unsatisfied souls their opportunity. That is why fiction is so popular. You must take advantage of the laws of the human mind if you want to be a successful author. Write a novel.”

This protracted remark was patiently received by the little company of friends, who were sitting on a rocky eminence of the York Harbor Golf Links (near the seventh hole, which was called, for obvious reasons, “Goetterdaemmerung”). My Uncle Peter’s right to make long speeches was conceded. In him they did not seem criminal, because they were evidently necessary. Moreover, in this case, the majority agreed with him, and therefore were not tempted to interrupt.

“A novel,” said the Publisher, “will bear ten times as much advertising as any other kind of book. This is a fact.”

“A novel,” said the Critic, “is the most highly developed type of literature. Therefore, it is the fittest to survive. This is a theory. And I should like—-“

But the Critic did not share the Philosopher’s long-speech prerogative. His audience was inclined to limit him to the time when he could be pungent.

The Business Man broke in upon him: “A novel is good because it is just plain reading–no theories or explanations–or at least, if there are any, you can skip them.”

“Novels,” said the Doctor of Divinity solemnly, “are valuable because they give an insight into life. I deprecate the vice of excessive novel-reading in young persons. But for myself I wish that there were more really interesting novels to read. Most of the old ones I have read already.”

A smile flickered around the circle. “What do you call old?” asked the Cynic. “Have you read ‘The Vulgarities of Antoinette’?”

“Nonsense,” said the Publisher; “some novels grow as old in a twelvemonth as others do in a decade. A book is not really aged until it ceases to be advertised. ‘The Celestial Triplets,’ for example. But fortunately it is a poor year that does not produce at least three new novelists of distinction.”

“For my part,” said the True Story Teller, seated on her throne among the rocks and dispensing gentle influence like the silent sweetness of the summer afternoon, “for my part, I am not sure that fiction is the only kind of literature worth reading. Essays, biography, history and poetry still have their attractions for me. But what I should like to know is what made one kind of novel so popular yesterday, and what puts another kind in its place to-day, and what kind is likely to last forever? What gives certain novels their amazing vogue?”

“A new public,” answered the Cynic. “Popular education has done it. Fifty years ago thinking and reading went together. But nowadays reading is the most familiar amusement of the thoughtless. It is the new public that buys four hundred thousand copies of a novel in a single year.”

“A striking explanation,” said the Critic, “but, you know, De Quincey said practically the same thing more than fifty years ago in his essay on Oliver Goldsmith. Yet the sale of ‘The Prude of Pimlico’ exceeds the sale of the leading novel of De Quincey’s day by at least five hundred per cent. How do you explain that?”