Arnold Bennett in The Author's Craft (a long essay first published in 1913) wrestles with a variety of important issues. He begins with questions of seeing, thinking, and motivation:
- "... in the matter of looking without seeing we are all about equal. We all go to and fro in a state of the observing faculties which somewhat resembles coma. We are all content to look and not see. And if and when, having comprehended that the rôle of observer is not passive but active, we determine by an effort to rouse ourselves from the coma and really to see the spectacle of the world (a spectacle surpassing circuses and even street accidents in sustained dramatic interest), we shall discover, slowly in the course of time, that the act of seeing, which seems so easy, is not so easy as it seems."
- "Good observation consists not in multiplicity of detail, but in co-ordination of detail according to a true perspective of relative importance, so that a finally just general impression may be reached in the shortest possible time."
- "Human curiosity counts among the highest social virtues (as indifference counts among the basest defects), because it leads to the disclosure of the causes of character and temperament and thereby to a better understanding of the springs of human conduct. Observation is not practised directly with this high end in view (save by prigs and other futile souls); nevertheless it is a moral act and must inevitably promote kindliness --- whether we like it or not. It also sharpens the sense of beauty. An ugly deed --- such as a deed of cruelty --- takes on artistic beauty when its origin and hence its fitness in the general scheme begin to be comprehended."
- "... all physical phenomena are inter-related ... there is nothing which does not bear on everything else. The whole spectacular and sensual show --- what the eye sees, the ear hears, the nose scents, the tongue tastes and the skin touches --- is a cause or an effect of human conduct. Naught can be ruled out as negligible, as not forming part of the equation."
- "The novelist is he who, having seen life, and being so excited by it that he absolutely must transmit the vision to others, chooses narrative fiction as the liveliest vehicle for the relief of his feelings. He is like other artists --- he cannot remain silent; he cannot keep himself to himself, he is bursting with the news; he is bound to tell --- the affair is too thrilling! Only he differs from most artists in this --- that what most chiefly strikes him is the indefinable humanness of human nature, the large general manner of existing."
- "In considering the equipment of the novelist there are two attributes which may always be taken for granted. The first is the sense of beauty --- indispensable to the creative artist. Every creative artist has it, in his degree. He is an artist because he has it. An artist works under the stress of instinct. No man's instinct can draw him towards material which repels him --- the fact is obvious. Obviously, whatever kind of life the novelist writes about, he has been charmed and seduced by it, he is under its spell --- that is, he has seen beauty in it. He could have no other reason for writing about it. He may see a strange sort of beauty; he may --- indeed he does --- see a sort of beauty that nobody has quite seen before; he may see a sort of beauty that none save a few odd spirits ever will or can be made to see. But he does see beauty."
- "The other attribute which may be taken for granted in the novelist, as in every artist, is passionate intensity of vision. Unless the vision is passionately intense the artist will not be moved to transmit it. He will not be inconvenienced by it; and the motive to pass it on will thus not exist. Every fine emotion produced in the reader has been, and must have been, previously felt by the writer, but in a far greater degree."
- "A sense of beauty and a passionate intensity of vision being taken for granted, the one other important attribute in the equipment of the novelist --- the attribute which indeed by itself practically suffices, and whose absence renders futile all the rest --- is fineness of mind. A great novelist must have great qualities of mind. His mind must be sympathetic, quickly responsive, courageous, honest, humorous, tender, just, merciful. He must be able to conceive the ideal without losing sight of the fact that it is a human world we live in. Above all, his mind must be permeated and controlled by common sense. His mind, in a word, must have the quality of being noble. Unless his mind is all this, he will never, at the ultimate bar, be reckoned supreme. That which counts, on every page, and all the time, is the very texture of his mind --- the glass through which he sees things."
- "First-class fiction is, and must be, in the final resort autobiographical. ... When the real intimate work of creation has to be done --- and it has to be done on every page --- the novelist can only look within for effective aid. Almost solely by arranging and modifying what he has felt and seen, and scarcely at all by inventing, can he accomplish his end. ... In dealing with each character in each episode the novelist must for a thousand convincing details interrogate that part of his own individuality which corresponds to the particular character. The foundation of his equipment is universal sympathy. ... Good fiction is autobiography dressed in the colours of all mankind."
Arnold Bennett goes on to discuss the differences between plays and novels. He finds plays much easier to write than novels --- plays are shorter, more limited, less subtle vehicles. A dramatic production also has a unique advantage of immediacy: the audience sees events happen, and does not need to be persuaded that the improbable is probable. But the fundamental distinction between the novel and the play, Bennett contends, is the fact that the dramatist only "... begins the work of creation, which is finished either by creative interpreters on the stage, or by the creative imagination of the reader in the study. It is as if he carried an immense weight to the landing at the turn of a flight of stairs, and that then upward the lifting had to be done by other people." Bennett sketches out the collaborative process, involving theatrical manager, producer, director, actors, and audience. (Along the way, he notes that "... a rehearsal is like a battle --- certain persons are theoretically in control, but in fact the thing principally fights itself.")
Bennett continues his essay with a discussion of the tension between art and popularity. He counsels compromise: "The truth is that an artist who demands appreciation from the public on his own terms, and on none but his own terms, is either a god or a conceited and impractical fool. And he is somewhat more likely to be the latter than the former." Bennett feels that a real artist, in order to succeed in creating, communicating, and making a living, must respect the limitations and prejudices of the audience. "You can only go a very little further than is quite safe. You can only do one man's modest share in the education of the public." Quoting from Valery Larbaud's novel A. O. Barnabooth Bennett cites "... a phrase of deep wisdom about women: La femme est une grande r'alit', comme la guerre. It might be applied to the public. The public is a great actuality, like war. If you are a creative and creating artist, you cannot ignore it, though it can ignore you. There it is! You can do something with it, but not much. And what you do not do with it, it must do with you, if there is to be the contact which is essential to the artistic function." A successful artist with something important to say, in Bennett's judgment, will manage to get the message across even within the constraints of a "potboiler" novel written merely to pay the rent.
And speaking of which, Arnold Bennett (himself a financially successful author) argues next that a great writer must attend to the selling of a work once it is completed. "In other words, when he lays down the pen he ought to become a merchant, for the mere reason that he has an article to sell, and the more skilfully he sells it the better will be the result, not only for the public appreciation of his message, but for himself as a private individual and as an artist with further activities in front of him." Bennett tells horror stories of the exploitation of naïve authors by publishers: "The ordinary merchant deals with other merchants --- his equals in business skill. The publisher and the theatrical manager deal with what amounts to a race of children, of whom even archangels could not refrain from taking advantage." Hence, the need for literary agents.
Finally, Arnold Bennett concludes The Author's Craft with a call for the artist to live within the world --- not to repudiate life or to have contempt for reality. "Nobody has any right to be ashamed of human nature. Is one ashamed of one's mother? Is one ashamed of the cosmic process of evolution? Human nature is. And the more deeply the creative artist, by frank contacts, absorbs that supreme fact into his brain, the better for his work."
"The Author's Craft" (1913) is reprinted in "The Author's Craft and Other Critical Writings of Arnold Bennett", edited by Samuel Hynes, University of Nebraska Press, 1968.
Tuesday, November 28, 2000 at 05:50:44 (EST) = Datetag20001128
TopicBennett - TopicWriting
(correlates: SelfAbsorption, EmersonianTechnoOptimism, CardThatPoet, ...)