Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Henry James on Crafting a Novel

I'm reading Henry James' The Ambassadors right now. I'm a long-time fan of old Hank, and this novel has been on my to-be-read shelf for some time. It was published in 1903 with a preface by the author, and I am a sucker for front matter so naturally I read James' prefatory remarks before diving in to Chapter One. I'm glad I did, too. The preface is nothing short of a crash course in how to build a novel from the ground up, starting with the initial spark of an idea and taking that to a completed narrative. Henry hides nothing and admits, for example, that he invented a couple of foil characters for the protagonist because he discovered that in rejecting the first-person point of view he lost the easiest way of getting to the protagonist's thoughts so it was necessary to invent friends so that the narrator could talk about himself. I like that admission; it's honest and helpful. I also admire the straightforward way James tells us how the idea came to him and how he made it into a better idea for a novel by putting an unexpected twist on the meaning of that original idea, which was, he admits at some length, more than a little cliche. Henry James would've been fun to drink with, I think.

I don't have a real point here, aside from exhorting you to find and read the preface to The Ambassadors so you can see how one master worked. If you think that what James had to say is outdated and useless, I tell you that you are wrong. He was dealing with the same problems in 1903 that we deal with in 2011. Here, for example, is James drolly talking about how you can't dump in big blocks of exposition any more(the despised "info dump"):

...wave away with energy the custom of the seated mass of explanation after the fact, the inserted block of merely referential narrative, which flourishes so, to the shame of the modern impatience, on the serried page of Balzac, but which seems simply to appal our actual, our general weaker, digestion. "Harking back to make up" took at any rate more doing, as the phrase is, not only than the reader of to-day demands, but than he will tolerate at any price any call upon him either to understand or remotely to measure; and for the beauty of the thing when done the current editorial mind in particular appears wholly without sense.

Neither "the reader of today" nor "the current editorial mind" like your clumsy blocks of exposition, Mr Modern Writer. Readers and editors have weaker stomachs and shorter attention spans than they used to do. It's been that way for over a century.

I also like this an extraordinary amount:

One would like, at such an hour as this, for critical licence, to go into the matter of the noted inevitable deviation (from too fond an original vision) that the exquisite treachery even of the straightest execution may ever be trusted to inflict even on the most mature plan.

Yes, by God, he's right. The actual writing of the book is an "exquisite treachery" perpetrated against the outline of the novel you've lovingly created. Henry goes on to say that when he looks over his finished narrative, he sees the seams and patches created by trying to adjust his narrative and outline to each other during the writing process. He knows the book has its flaws, but he thinks that the compromises necessitated by the "treachery" of penning the narrative are acceptable, and he tells us with some humility that The Ambassadors is some of his finest work ever. Me, I'd agree.

Also, in Chapter One, there's this:

"I like," she observed, "your name."

"Oh," he answered, "you won't have heard of it!" Yet he had his reasons for not being sure but that she perhaps might.

Ah it was but too visible! She read it over again as one who had never seen it. "'Mr. Lewis Lambert Strether'"--she sounded it almost as freely as for any stranger. She repeated however that she liked it--"particularly the Lewis Lambert. It's the name of a novel of Balzac's."

"Oh I know that!" said Strether.

"But the novel's an awfully bad one."

"I know that too," Strether smiled.


  1. I will go hunt down a copy of The Ambassador just to read the preface.

    And I'd very much like to sit at the next table when you and ol' Hank have your drink.

  2. I don't think I've ever heard of a writer giving away so much technique information beforehand like that. It's very cool. I have heard about some techniques Tolstoy used, but I think you have to read a lot of his biographical stuff to get a little bit of technical info, something I haven't managed to do yet.

  3. Dostoyevski's notebooks are worth a look, and the correspondence and essays of Flannery O'Connor are great, too. Nabokov liked to talk about himself in prefaces too, but half the time he was just pointing out how his readers didn't get his clever jokes. Nabokov would've been fun to drink with, too, but only if you always agreed with him.

    Yat-Yee, I think the only time Hank and I will have to drink will be in the afterlife. So I'm in no hurry for that cocktail.