Go in!

Yesterday I finally mailed off the typescript (all 500+ pages) of the anthology of 19th-century novel criticism that I have been working on for…well, longer than I like to admit. In the end, will it be all it could have been, or should have been? Who can say? What would be the measure? Still, the experience of preparing it has been a learning experience and even, sometimes, a pleasurable one. In honour of its completion (to this stage, at least), here’s what has come to rest in my mind as my favourite excerpt from the 22 essays on the final list. There are many close seconds, including much of David Masson’s British Novelists and Their Styles, brilliant bits of Edward Dowden’s review essay on George Eliot’s novels, and, of course, many words of wisdom from George Eliot herself. But for sheer exuberance at, and generous appreciation of, the multitudinous possibilities of the genre, you can’t beat this conclusion to Henry James’s classic essay on “The Art of Fiction”:

But the only condition that I can think of attaching to the composition of the novel is, as I have already said, that it be interesting. This freedom is a splendid privilege, and the first lesson of the young novelist is to learn to be worthy of it. ‘Enjoy it as it deserves,’ I should say to him; ‘take possession of it, explore it to its utmost extent, reveal it, rejoice in it. All life belongs to you, and don’t listen either to those who would shut you up into corners of it and tell you that it is only here and there that art inhabits, or to those who would persuade you that this heavenly messenger wings her way outside of life altogether, breathing a superfine air and turning away her head from the truth of things. There is no impression of life, no manner of seeing it and feeling it, to which the plan of the novelist may not offer a place; you have only to remember that talents so dissimilar as those of Alexandre Dumas and Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Gustave Flaubert, have worked in this field with equal glory. Don’t think too much about optimism and pessimism; try and catch the colour of life itself. . . . If you must indulge in conclusions let them have the taste of a wide knowledge. Remember that your first duty is to be as complete as possible–to make as perfect a work. Be generous and delicate, and then, in the vulgar phrase, go in!’

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