Thursday, December 11, 2014

Advice to Novelists (circa 1916)

Who said that death of the hero has to be gloomy?
I never liked that Huck Finn guy anyway.
I’m working on a novel. Every once in a while, someone will tell me that she or he (more often she) wishes she (we’ll stick with that) were working on a novel. But it’s the easiest thing in the world! I always tell them to take a sheet a paper and write “Chapter One” at the top of the page. You are now officially working on a novel (you just haven’t gone very far).[1]

Like many an aspiring novelist, I am (generally) happy to get advice from anywhere.[2] I was happy to see that a letter in the Sun of December 11, 1916 offered some advice for novelists. I don’t know if Charles Hooper, of Seattle, Washington, had any particular expertise in the matter. There were several men named Charles Hooper in Seattle at the time, but none of them show any indication of being a reliable critic of novels, a streetcar conductor, a machinist, a tailor, although it’s not impossible that one of those was an astute critic of fiction.

I only saw the piece because there it was, adjacent to a letter about Esperanto by Joseph Silbernik, who I’ve recently determined was L. L. Zamenhof’s brother-in-law. I’m not going to quote Mr. Hooper’s[3] letter in full. It’s not like his sister married Dr. Zamenhof. The opening of his letter shows that he’s certainly familiar with some prominent writers.
To the Editor of The SunSir: What evil genius prompts novelists to end their tales with the death or discomfiture of one or other of the principal characters (exclusive of the villain, of course)? Rider Haggard, Thomas Hardy and some others are guilty of this sin against the canon of art ; no small sin, either. I suppose their idea is to write stories that are true to the facts of life, but they treat of only one side of life, seeming to forget that life has its bright side as well as its dark.

Why write stories full of pictures of death and gloom, sorrow, despair, hopeless longing, frustrated ambition? That is not the function of the novel, but of the essay, the treatise, the poem and certain other species of writing. On such matters we seek instruction and counsel, not entertainment.
First, I happen to be among those who are perfectly fine reading the occasional novel of "death and gloom, sorrow, despair, hopeless longing, frustrated ambition.” I like books like that. It actually sounds very much like the last novel I finished reading, A Curable Romantic, in which “hopeless longing” was something of a default state for the protagonist. And while there was death, gloom, sorrow, and despair in the novel, there were also wonderful comic scenes. I don’t think Mr. Hooper would have cared for it.[4]

But it’s clear that it’s okay for a poem to be about death and gloom. I suspect Mr. Hooper liked his poems good and gloomy with a clear Moral Lesson. He doesn’t make it clear (as good criticism would) why these subjects are fine for every except prose fiction, but not for prose fiction itself (here I assume he would have similar feelings about short stories). His message seems to be that if you have a depressing story, please write an epic poem instead. E. M. Forster[5] might disagree with his claim that
The function of the novel is to divert, entertain, amuse. Surely there is enough death and sorrow in life without having these solemn forms confront us from the pages of a novel! We do not pick up a story book to meet these grim realities, but to get away from them.
Hooper also paints a picture of the “typical” novel reader, and we can hope that he puts himself in with the “professional classes,” since he says that
Novel reading (of course I refer to standard novels, not “best sellers”) is for children, for certain of the professional classes, for people who are living a more or less crippled life, and for the old who have finished most of their life work and have some time on their hands. These people, leaving out of consideration those of the professional classes I have mentioned, are like the undernourished and sick.
So, you see, most novels are read by the weak, not strong, virile, moral souls like our Mr. Hooper.
A story full of death and gloomy forebodings, omens and oaths, and every aspect of sorrow and despair, acts like poison upon the minds, hearts and spirits of those who read it.
There is a long tradition of claiming that novels will harm the minds of the weak. This is probably the ancestor of the idea that television will rot your mind, which even now sounds quaint, as the Internet has taken over the function of rotting brains. Many of the novels that were once considered damaging to weak minds are now considered great classics of literature, while others have faded from scandal to obscurity. Whose works should we read, sir?
Captain Marryat[6] was the man who understood how to write a story.
Who? Happily we live in the era of Wikipedia. I think otherwise, Frederick Marryat would be the sort of person left out of the encyclopedia, although he is in my 1965 edition of The Reader’s Encylopedia, which does say that “for many years Marryat’s books were the favorites of boys over the English-speaking world.” Oh, it’s that kind of novel. There’s a somewhat longer entry at Wikipedia, for those with some time and no copy of The Reader’s Encyclopedia.[7]
His captivating tales are full of humor, action and wise counsel. They end happily. The hero rises from poverty and obscurity to affluence and distinguished place and marries the girl of his heart.[8] This is as it should be, and as it happens, indeed, again and again in the life about us.[9] Budding novelists should take a leaf from the history of Captain Marryat.
Charles Hooper.
Seattle., December 5.
This is one “budding” novelist who will not be taking Mr. Hooper’s advice. As I write, if death, gloom, sorrow, despair, hopeless longing, or frustrated ambition crop up as themes, I will let them. I will not be hunting out the novels of Frederick Marryat. And yet, like any writer, I hope that my work (including this blog) will “divert, entertain, amuse.”

  1. “The” is a perfectly serviceable first word for a novel. Many a good novel begins with the word “The.” Very few novels, however, end with the word “the.” You might want to consider that to set yourself apart from the field.  ↩
  2. There’s one piece of advice I’ve been given repeatedly that I don’t like getting. In my novel, the protagonist is a gay man, as are many of the other characters. It’s been suggested to me on a number of occasions that I should revise the characters and make them all straight. Not gonna happen. I get to shiv the next person who says I should make a gay character straight.  ↩
  3. Not to be confused with the Sesame Street character, Harold Hooper.  ↩
  4. But you might. It’s A Curable Romantic, by Joseph Skibell.  ↩
  5. In Aspects of the Novel (1927), E. M. Forster summed up the function of the novel with “the novel tells a story.” But then he’s writing from the vantage point of eleven years in Mr. Hooper’s future.  ↩
  6. Hooper (or the Sun) consistently add an extra -t, and spell the name “Marryatt.”  ↩
  7. In the Era of Wikipedia, I should probably send The Reader’s Encyclopedia to the area where I store my books, and leave the shelf space for something not superseded by the Internet.  ↩
  8. Clearly exercises in stark naturalism, based on a keen observation of life as it is.  ↩
  9. Recent sociological and economic studies would tend to contradict Mr. Hooper.  ↩

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