Our book today is something of a prissy little doozy: Percy Lubbock’s 1921 well-mannered bombshell, The Craft of Fiction, which started causing heated coffee-house arguments practically before its ink was dry. Lubbock relished the conception of himself as the last of a vanishing breed of well-educated literary men of leisure (he took paid writing work from time to time, but there was never a point in his life when he wasn’t buttressed by generous parents and ample personal investments – he was free to live, eat, and breathe literature in a way not generally given to the less solvent). He had most of the accoutrements: the slippers, the hesitant drawl, the intermittent fondness for calfskin binding. But unlike the handful of his contemporaries (he was born in 1879 and attended King’s College in full regalia), he had credentials to back up his literary loafing: he did serious work – during the Edwardian years, he wrote a very insightful biography of Samuel Pepys, and turned out a good many strong, inquiring book reviews (both anonymously for the TLS and – gasp! – pseudonymously for various other literary journals of the day) – and he had serious friends (including, at one point or another, Edith Wharton and Henry James). His friends loved him for his vaguely Gussie Fink-Nottle air of thorough-going bookishness, and his readers (and he always had more readers than he thought he did) loved him because he took seriously every work of literature that crossed his path, at a time when many of the great experiments in new styles of fiction were being met mainly be scorn from the critical establishment.
He attempts in The Craft of Fiction to anatomize a profession and its priorities – the book takes readers on a nuts-and-bolts tour of a small handful of literary classics (Clarissa, Madame Bovary, Anna KareninWings of the Dove), all the while attempting to pontificate on what they do right, what they do wrong, and, almost fatally, what they should be doing even when they, poor things, wander off-path. He comes at his work almost entirely from the proving-ground of those early TLS reviews, in which he tested his critical patience and adaptability against dozens of books a year, always trying to ‘clear his springs’ and take each one one as a world unto itself. Trying maybe a little too hard, as his repeated nonsense about ‘cooperative agency’ hints:
The reader of a novel – by which I mean the critical reader – is himself a novelist; he is the maker of a book which may or may not please his taste when it is finished, but of a book for which he must take his own share of the responsibility. The author does his part, but he cannot transfer his book like a bubble into the brain of the critic; he cannot make sure that the critic will possess his work … the writer of the novel works in a manner that would be utterly impossible to the critic, no doubt, and with a liberty and with a range that would disconcert him entirely. But in one quarter their work coincides: both of them make the novel.
Others took issue with The Craft of Fiction for other reasons, but for me, the sticking point has always been this absurd relativism, this air of slightly humble exasperation that overtook many professional book-critics in his day and continues to be their preferred tone in print even in the 21st Century. With some of his more plaintive outbursts, Lubbock could be speaking for half the current critical establishment:
And after all it is impossible – that is certain; the book vanishes as we lay hands on it. Every word we say of it, every phrase I have used about a novel in these pages, is loose, approximate, a little more or a little less than the truth. We cannot exactly hit the mark; or if we do, we cannot be sure of it. I do not speak of the just judgement of quality; as for that, any critic of any art is in the same predicament; the value of a picture or a statue is as bodiless as that of a book. But there are times when a critic of literature feels that if only there were one single tangible and measurable fact about a book – if it could be weighed like a statue, say, or measured like a picture – it would be a support in a world of shadows. Such an ingenious confession, I think it must be admitted, goes to the root of the matter – could be utter our sense of helplessness more candidly?
Fortunately, those book-critics who feel no such helplessness, those critics who relish the endless oncoming tide new matter, who never find themselves groping for one thing, just one tangible and measurable thing, about all those new and forthcoming books that pile up on their tables and floors, those critics who feel no ‘predicament’ in putting forward their own judgement of a work as a battle-cry rather than a tentative guess, still have plenty of good stuff before them in The Craft of Fiction, because the book’s strongest element is, overwhelmingly, the actual point-by-point discussions of the books Lubbock takes up to discuss. Although he loved it dearly, theorizing was never really his strength (hence the arguments this slim book sparked, once upon a time) – but to read him on Richardson or Flaubert or especially his good friend Henry James is to learn something every single time about the mechanics of how fiction works. Plenty of readers (back then, that is – nobody reads Percy Lubbock now) came to The Craft of Fiction for the controversy – but the stuck around for the invigorating discussion of writers who were still alive and working. Then as now, really good critics on such writers are tough to find.