English and American Literature
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Chair and Committee
The Craft of Fiction, 1850-1930
This dissertation considers two models of authorship active in the British nineteenth century: one that viewed the writing of fiction as the province of genius unconnected with the world of work, and another that saw it as a practice requiring a set of learned skills. This distinction carried implications of class, since writing that was understood to be work could be a product subject to marketplace exchange, and also gender, since the "hack-writing" so despised by mid-century periodical writers was often discursively feminized. Though the model that privileged genius and disregarded the labor involved in writing lost currency as the century progressed, it never disappeared. The five writers I examine in depth--Charles Dickens, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Henry James, and Arnold Bennett--each expressed an active interest in the technical elements of fiction, and each addressed the assumption that writers who were truly talented didn't need technique. In viewing these writers' respective technical discourses as historical phenomena, I am following recent scholarship, like Mark McGurl's The Program Era, that examines how writing has been taught and learned. Extending this perspective to the nineteenth century, I have been aided by criticism on British literature that view the craft of fiction discursively, like Deidre Lynch's The Economy of Character, and by studies, like Kate Flint's The Woman Reader and Suzy Anger's Victorian Interpretation, that focus on what it meant to be a critical reader before the institutionalized study of literature and creative writing. In this dissertation, I demonstrate that the phrase "the craft of fiction" is not anachronistic to the nineteenth century, but central to a contentious contemporary debate about the role of the author.
Considering recent critical interest in the history of creative practice, there has been remarkably little scholarship on fictional technique in nineteenth century England since Richard Stang's 1959 The Theory of the Novel in England. Stang offers a useful distinction between two different ways of viewing the creative process, which he names the Neoclassical and the Romantic. The Neoclassical perspective involved fidelity to Greek standards and their followers in the world of visual art; emphasis on the novel's relation to the epic; and a belief in the importance of unity and design as technical principles, with Tom Jones as the preeminent example. The Romantic prescribed the conviction that genius and labor were irreconcilable; when writers were touched by inspiration, they were enabled to "writ[e] as the birds sing, without effort." This distinction has much utility, particularly in the 1830's and 40's, but even then it is limited in its application. George Henry Lewes, who Stang names one of the champions of classicism, disliked Tom Jones and believed, in contrast to the Neoclassicists, in the importance of "particularity" in fiction. Like Anthony Trollope, who I also examine in the introduction, Lewes was interested above all in defining what it meant to be a professional author, a question that gained urgency during the mid-century copyright debates. Scholars including Martha Woodmansee have shown that in order for the conception of the professional author to take shape, some compromise between the Neoclassical and the Romantic was necessary. The authors who sought copyright reform were often interested in discussing the general principles underlying good fiction, but they also knew that copyright depended on the concept of original genius, which stipulated that art was the product of a single creative mind.
The first chapter of my dissertation examines the various efforts at professionalization among fiction writers active at mid-century, focusing particularly on Dickens. Dickens promoted the model of the independent and respected professional author in a number of ways, including through his involvement with the Royal Literary Fund and his co-founding, with Bulwer-Lytton, of the Guild of Literature and Art. At his journals, Household Words and All the Year Round, Dickens dictated technical standards to the writers on his payroll in a manner that has commonly been read as the exploitation of alienated labor, but can also be seen as part of a process of professionalization benefiting many writers other than Dickens himself. To embody the figure of the author that copyright reform had made possible, Dickens needed to produce a reliable product, and the craft principles he promoted helped make that product consistently appealing. Still mindful, however, of the importance of the idea of original genius, he never expressed his technical principles to the public at large. Through a reading of David Copperfield, I show that, on the contrary, he tried to make the work of writing invisible to his readers.
Chapter Two focuses on the correspondence between Dickens's friend Bulwer-Lytton and his "pupil," Mary Elizabeth Braddon. The foregrounding of the specificities of technique their letters and in Braddon's novel The Doctor's Wife demonstrates that the erasure of the work of writing in David Copperfield was not the only option. Each of these writers established a professional identity that was deeply and publicly engaged with questions of how writing should be written and how it should be sold. However, although Bulwer-Lytton can seem surprisingly modern in his willingness to address his ideas on technique to "future students," the principles he promulgated were not transparent, nor were they universally applicable. They were formulated in a way that promised to enhance his status as one of the masters, and in so doing enforce familiar distinctions between the respectable professional novelist and the hack writer.
The debate between Henry James and Walter Besant in their respective versions of "The Art of Fiction" is the centerpiece of Chapter Three. In his reply to Besant, James tried to show that Besant's attempt to determine principles that would aid the aspiring writer was futile, since only a true literary artist could comprehend the intricacies of the art of fiction. In The Novel Art, McGurl argues that James was establishing a way of talking about what McGurl calls the "art-novel," a novel with a concern for aesthetics new to the English literary scene. However, the art-novel as practiced by James does not, as McGurl claims, facilitate professionalism and "brotherhood" among writers. In fact, its aim is very much in opposition to professional organizations like Besant's Society of Authors--not to democratize the practice and marketing of fiction writing, but to establish it as a fine art above the understanding of all but a select few. For James, who lived on the proceeds from his fiction his entire adult life, changing the conversation to aesthetics was a convenient way of obscuring the question of whether one wrote for money and separating himself from the middle-class writers who catered to novel-hungry masses. In this context, "art" becomes just another way of saying genius: that which is inaccessible to the public at large; that which cannot be acquired through effort and discipline, but only appreciated after the fact.
My concluding chapter is organized around two important guides to the craft of fiction published at the beginning of the twentieth century: James's prefaces to the New York Edition of his novels, and Arnold Bennett's How to Write a Novel. While Bennett sought to advance what he called "the democratisation of art" by promoting the craft of writing and encouraging better taste among readers, James continued to voice his skepticism about the possibility of a technical discourse that would be of use to people who weren't highly gifted by nature. The disdain for Bennett among writers like Ezra Pound and Virginia Woolf has obscured the fact that the twentieth-century approach to the teaching of the craft of fiction is derived from his approach, and the self-help tradition that inspired it, rather than from the modernists.
Atwell, Mary Stewart, "The Craft of Fiction: Teaching Technique, 1850-1930" (2013). All Theses and Dissertations (ETDs). 1087.