The Craft of Fiction

by Percy Lubbock. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1921. 8vo, 277 pp. $3.00.
SOMEWHAT misleading is the title of this book; only remotely can it be classified with the numerous textbooks that undertake to tell the reader ‘how to write a story.’ And, no doubt, it would rather disdain to be thus classified, even remotely. Anyone who opens it with the expectation of obtaining formulas that will make easy the work of finding subjects for fiction, of constructing plots, of depicting characters, and inventing scenes, will be first bewildered and then disappointed. So far as Mr. Lubbock’s book is a textbook at all, it is a textbook only for extremely advanced students.
As an essay in criticism it is a masterly performance; it sheds new light upon the methods employed by some of the great novelists. Tolstoy, Flaubert, Thackeray, Meredith, Henry James, Dickens, and Balzac are the writers whose work Mr. Lubbock analyzes, and from whose methods, failures, and successes he draws certain conclusions. These are, briefly, that the subject of the novel should determine the method of treatment — whether it shall be panoramic or pictorial or dramatic; that ‘the easy way is no way at all; the only way is that by which the most is made of the story to be told; and the most was never made of any story except by a choice and disciplined method’; that, in detail, picture is subordinate, preliminary, and preparatory, whereas drama ‘gives the final stroke,’ clinches the matter already pending, and should not be squandered when there is nothing definitely to be gained by it.
Such conclusions, baldly stated, may not seem especially striking or significant, but the process by which Mr. Lubbock arrives at them is most interesting. One follows with fascination the course of the argument in which he presents his novelists in character: Tolstoy as the novelist who, not quite sure of his subject, vacillated in method, and, in spite of the profusion of life in his work, failed to achieve the utmost effect to which his material and his genius should have entitled him; Flaubert as the ‘scenic’ novelist, who, with a subject absolutely fixed, chose the pictorial method of treatment and made a drama for the sake of the picture in it; Thackeray as the ‘panoramic’ novelist, who avoided scenes when he could, and whose drama has a high-pitched, theatrical note; Meredith as the novelist who subordinates episodes of drama to the sweep of his picture; Henry James as the novelist who has carried the art of dramatization further than any other; Balzac and Dickens as the novelists who used the generalized picture as a propulsive force to drive the drama on its way.
Mr. Lubbock’s study of his authors is serious and profound. Not all readers will find all his comments just; Some will, perhaps, feel that he makes too much of his thesis on the importance of method, and that method is, after all, less a matter of deliberate choice than of instinct and genius—that it is inherent in the man rather than in the subject. But whether one agrees or disagrees with Mr. Lubbock in some of his principal arguments, one cannot fail to be enlightened by his book. If it does not enable the novelist who reads it to write a better novel than before, it should certainly make the layman who reads it. a more intelligent and discerning reader of novels than he was before.