Confessions of a Novelist

“What I mean to try for is the observation of that strange moment when the vaguely adumbrated characters whose adventures one is preparing to record are suddenly there, themselves, in the flesh, in possession of one, and in command of one’s voice and hand.”

A circular black-and-white portrait of Edith Wharton
New York Public Library / Emily Jan / The Atlantic

I have hesitated for some time before beginning this article, since any attempt to analyze work of one’s own doing seems to imply that one regards it as likely to be of lasting interest, and I wish at the outset to repudiate any such assumption. Every artist works, like the Gobelins weavers, on the wrong side of the tapestry, and if now and then he comes around to the right side, and catches what seems a happy glow of color, or a firm sweep of design, he must instantly retreat again, if encouraged yet still uncertain; and once the work is done, and he hopes to contemplate it dispassionately, the result of his toil too often presses on his tired eyes with the nightmare weight of a cinema ‘close-up.’

Nevertheless, no picture of myself would be more than a profile if it failed to give some account of the teeming visions which, ever since my small childhood, and even at the busiest and most agitated periods of my outward life, have incessantly peopled my inner world. I have decided, therefore, to try to describe, as simply as I can, what seems to have gone to the making of my books; and there is the more reason for doing this because so few writers seem to have watched themselves while they wrote, or, if they did, to have set down their observations. Not a few painters have painted themselves at their easels, but I can think of nothing corresponding to these self confessions in the world of letters, or at any rate of fiction, except the prefaces of Henry James. These, however, in the main are analyses of the way in which he focused a given subject and of the technical procedure employed, once he had determined his angle of vision. Even that beautiful and deeply moving fragment, the appeal to his genius, the knowledge of which we owe to Mr. Percy Lubbock’s vigilance, is an invocation to the goddess and not a detached objective notation of her descent into his soul.

What I mean to try for is the observation of that strange moment when the vaguely adumbrated characters whose adventures one is preparing to record are suddenly there, themselves, in the flesh, in possession of one, and in command of one’s voice and hand. It is there that the central mystery lies, and perhaps it is as impossible to fix in words as that other mystery of what happens in the brain at the precise moment when one falls over the edge of consciousness into sleep.

As for the rest of my colleagues, especially among English and American novelists, my impression is that the deeper processes of their art do not greatly interest them, or even arrest their attention; their conscious investigations of method seldom seem to go deeper than syntax, and it is immeasurably deeper that the vital interest begins. Therefore I shall try to say something of the growth and unfolding of the plants in my secret garden, from the seed to the shrub-top—for heaven forbid that I should try to magnify my vegetation into trees!


When I first began to talk with novelists about the art of fiction I was amazed at the frequently repeated phrase, ‘I’ve been hunting about for months for a good subject.’ Hunting about for a subject! Good heavens! I remember once, when an old friend of the pen made this rather wistful complaint, carelessly rejoining: ‘Subjects? But they swarm about me like mosquitoes! I’m sick of them: they stifle me. I wish I could get rid of them!’ And only years afterward, when I had learned more from both life and letters, did I understand how presumptuous such an answer must have sounded. The truth is that I have never attached much importance to subject, partly because every incident, every situation, about me is perpetually presenting itself to me in the light of story-telling material, and partly from the conviction that the possibilities of a given subject are—whatever a given imagination can make of them. But by the time I had written three or four novels I had learned to keep silence on this point.

The examination of the story-telling process may be divided into two parts: that which concerns the technique of fiction (in the widest sense), and that which tries to investigate what, for want of a simpler term, one must call by the old bardic name of inspiration. On the subject of technique I have found only two novelists explicitly and deeply interested—Henry James and Paul Bourget. I have talked long and frequently with both of them, and profitably also, I hope, though on certain points we always disagreed. I have also, to the best of my ability, analyzed this process, as I understood it, in my book, The Writing of Fiction; and therefore I shall deal here, not with any general theory of technique, but simply with the question of how some of my own novels happened to me, how each little volcanic island shot up from the unknown depths, or each coral atoll slowly built itself out of them. But first I will try to capture the elusive moment of the arrival of the characters.

In the birth of fiction, it is sometimes the situation, the ‘case,’ which first presents itself to the mind, and sometimes the characters who first appear, asking to be fitted into a situation. I have often speculated on the conditions likely to give the priority to one or the other, but I doubt if fiction can be usefully divided into novels of situation and of character, since a novel, if worth anything at all, is always both at once, in inextricable combination. I can only say that in my own case a situation sometimes occurs to me first, and in others a single figure suddenly walks into my mind. If the situation takes the lead, I leave it lying about, as it were, in a quiet place, and just wait till the characters creep stealthily up and wriggle themselves into it. All I seem to have done is to say, at the outset: ‘This thing happened—but to whom?’ Then I wait, holding my breath, and one by one they appear and take possession of the case. When it befalls in the other way, I may be strolling about casually in my mind, and suddenly a character will start up before me, coming seemingly from nowhere; and again, but more breathlessly, I watch; and presently the character draws nearer, and seems to become aware of me, and to feel the shy but desperate need to unfold his or her tale. I cannot say in which way my subject will probably present itself—though perhaps in short stories the situation, in novels one of the characters, is most likely to appear first.

This, however, is not the most interesting point of the adventure. Compared with what follows it is not interesting at all, though it has, in my case, one odd feature I have not heard of elsewhere—that is, that my characters always appear with their names. Sometimes these names seem to me affected, sometimes almost ridiculous; but I am obliged to own that they are never fundamentally unsuitable. And the proof that they are not, that they really belong to the people, is the difficulty which arises when I try to substitute other names. For many years the attempt always ended fatally; any character I unchristened instantly died on my hands, as if it were some kind of sensitive crustacean, and the name it bore were its shell. Only very gradually, and in very few cases, have I gained enough mastery over them to be able to effect the change, and even now, when I do, I have to resort to piqûres and oxygen, and not always successfully.

These names are hardly ever what I call ‘real names ’—that is, the current patronymics one would find in an address book or a telephone directory; and often it is their excessive oddness which makes me try to change them. When in a book by someone else I meet people called by current names I always say to myself, ‘Ah, those names were tied on afterward’; and I often find that the characters thus labeled are less living than the others. Yet there seems to be no general rule, for, in the case of certain famous novelists whose characters have out-of-the-way names, many are tied on too. Balzac had to hunt the streets of Paris for names on shop signs; and Thackeray and Trollope bent their genius to the invention of the most labored and dreary pleasantries in the pointless attempt to characterize their people in advance. Yet Captain Deuceace and the Rev. Mr. Quiverful are alive enough, and I can only suppose that the oddity of the prenamed characters is a peculiarity of my own mental make-up. But I often wonder how the novelist whose people arrive without names manages to establish relations with them!


A still more spectral element in my creative life is the sudden appearance of names without characters. Several times, in this way, a name to which I can attach no known association of ideas has forced itself upon me in a furtive shadowy way, not succeeding in making its bearer visible, yet hanging about obstinately for years in the background of my thoughts. The Princess Estradina was such a name. I knew nothing of its origin, and still less of the invisible character to whom it presumably belonged. Who was she, what were her nationality, her history, her claims upon my attention? She must have been there, lurking and haunting me, for years before she suddenly walked into The Custom of the Country, in high-colored flesh and blood, cool, dominant, and thoroughly at home.

Another such character haunts me to-day. Her name is still odder—Laura Testvalley. How I should like to change that name! But it has been attached for some time now to a strongly outlined material form, the form of a character figuring largely in an adventure I know all about, and have long wanted to relate. Several times I have tried to give my character another name, since the one she bears, should it ever appear in print, will be even more troublesome to my readers than to me; but Miss Testvalley is strong-willed, and even obstinate, and turns sulky and unmanageable whenever I try to hint at the advantages of a change; so it is more than likely that she will one day force her way into my tale burdened with her impossible patronymic.

But this is a mere parenthesis; what I want to try to hint at is the elusive moment when these people who haunt my brain actually begin to speak within me with their own voices. The situating of my tale, and its descriptive and narrative portions, I am conscious of conducting, though often unaware of how the story first came to me, pleading to be told; but when the dialogue begins, then I become merely a recording instrument, and my hand never hesitates because my mind has not to choose, but only to set down what these stupid or intelligent, lethargic or passionate, people say to each other in a language, and with arguments, that appear to be all their own. It is for this reason that I attach such importance to dialogue, and yet regard it as an effect to be so sparingly used. For by dialogue I do not mean the pages of ‘Yes’ and ‘No,’ of platitudes and repetitions, of which most actual talk is composed, and which any writer with a photographic mind and a good memory can set down by the yard. The vital dialogue is that exchanged by characters whom their creator has really vitalized, and only the significant passages of their talk should be recorded, in high relief against the narrative, and not uselessly embedded in it.

In my case these moments of high tension, when the creature lives and its creator listens to it, have nothing to do with the ‘walking away with the subject,’ the ‘settling it in their own way,’ with which some novelists so oddly charge their characters. It is a necessity to me that the note of inevitableness should be sounded at the very opening of my tale, and that my characters should go forward to their ineluctable doom like the ‘murdered man’ in The Pot of Basil. From the first I know exactly what is going to happen to every one of them; their fate is settled beyond rescue, and I have but to watch and record. When I read that great geniuses like Dickens and Trollope ‘killed off’ a character, or changed the conclusion of a tale, in response to the request or the criticism of a reader, I am dumbfounded. What then was their own relation to their subject? But to show how mysterious and incalculable the whole business is, one has only to remember that Trollope ‘went home and killed’ Mrs. Proudie because he had overheard some fool at his club complaining that she had lived long enough; and yet that the death scene thus arbitrarily brought about is one of the greatest pages he ever wrote, and places him momentarily on a level with Balzac and Tolstoy!

But these people of mine, whose ultimate destiny I know, walk to it by ways unrevealed to me beforehand. Not only their speech, but what I might call their subsidiary action, seems to be their very own, and I am sometimes startled at the dramatic effect of a word or gesture which would never have occurred to me if I had been pondering over an abstract ‘situation,’ as yet uninhabited by its ‘characters.’

I do not think I can get any nearer than this to the source of my storytelling faculty; I can only say that the process, though it takes place in some secret region on the sheer edge of consciousness, is yet always illuminated by the clear light of my critical attention. What happens there is as real and as tangible as my encounters with my friends and neighbors, often more so, though it is entirely different in quality. It produces in me a great emotional excitement, quite unrelated to the joy or sorrow caused by real happenings, but as intense, and with as great an appearance of reality; and my two lives, divided between these equally real yet totally unrelated worlds, have gone on thus, side by side, equally absorbing, but wholly isolated from each other, ever since in my infancy I ‘read stories’ aloud to myself out of Washington Irving’s Alhambra, which I generally held upside down.


After writing The Valley of Decision, and my book on Italian villas, I felt that I had said my say about Italy, and the idea of attempting a novel of contemporary life in New York began to fascinate me. Still I hesitated. The Valley of Decision was not (in my sense of the term) a novel at all, but only a romantic chronicle, unrolling its episodes like the frescoed legends on the palace walls of its background; my idea of a novel was something very different, something far more compact and centripetal, and I doubted whether I should ever acquire enough constructive power to achieve anything beyond isolated character studies, or the stringing together of picturesque episodes. But my mind was full of my new subject, and, whatever else I was about, I went on, in Tyndall’s brooding phrase, trying to ‘look into it till it became luminous.’

Fate had planted me in New York, and it was always my instinct as a story-teller to use the material nearest to hand, and most familiarly my own. Novelists of my generation must have noticed, in recent years, as one of the unforeseen results of ‘crowd-mentality’ and the general habit of standardizing, that the modern critic requires every novelist to treat the same kind of subject, and relegates to insignificance the author who declines to conform. At present the demand is that only the man with the dinner pail shall be deemed worthy of attention, and fiction is classed according to its degree of conformity to this rule.

There could be no greater critical ineptitude than to judge a novel according to what it ought to have been about. The bigger the imagination, the more powerful the intellectual equipment, the more different subjects will come within the novelist’s reach; and Balzac spread his net over nearly every class and situation in the French social system. As a matter of fact, there are only two essential rules: one, that the novelist should deal only with what is within his reach, literally or figuratively (in most cases the two are synonymous), and the other that the value of a subject depends almost wholly on what the author sees in it, and how deeply he is able to see into it. Almost but not quite; for there are certain subjects too shallow to yield anything to the most searching gaze. I had always felt this, and now my problem was how to make use of a subject—fashionable New York—which, of all others, seemed most completely to fall within the condemned category. There it was before me, in all its flatness and futility, asking to be dealt with as the theme most available to my hand, since I had been steeped in it from infancy, and should not have to get it up out of notebooks and encyclopædias—and yet!

The problem, of course, was how to extract from such a subject the typical human significance which is the story-teller’s excuse for telling one story rather than another. In what aspect could a society of irresponsible pleasure seekers be said to have, on the ‘old woe of the world,’ any deeper bearing than the people composing such a society could guess? The answer to my musings was that a frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implication lies in its power of debasing people and ideals. The answer, in short, was my heroine, Lily Bart.

Once I had understood that, the tale rushed on toward its climax. I already had definite ideas as to how any given subject should be viewed, and from what angle approached; my trouble was that the story kept drawing into its web so many subordinate themes that to show their organic connection with the main issue, yet keep them from crowding to the front, was a staggering task for a beginner.


The novel was already promised to Scribner’s Magazine, but no date had been fixed for its delivery, and between my critical dissatisfaction with the work, and the distractions of a busy and hospitable life, full of friends and travel, reading and gardening, I had let the months drift by without really tackling my subject. And then, suddenly, my friend Mr. Burlingame, then the editor of Scribner’s, came to my rescue by asking me to come to his. It was found that a novel which was to have preceded mine would not be ready in time, and I was asked to replace it. The first chapters of my tale would have to appear almost at once, and it must be completed within four or five months! I have always been a slow worker, and was then a very inexperienced one, and I was to be put to the severest test to which a novelist can be subjected: my novel was to appear in print, and be exposed to public comment, before I had worked it out to its climax. What that climax was to be I had known before I began; nor have I ever understood the mental state of the novelist who starts out without knowing where or how he will end. To me the last page is always latent in the first, but the intervening windings of the way become clear only as I write; and now I was asked to gallop over them before I had even traced them out! I had expected to take at least another year or eighteen months to complete my tale, instead of which I was asked to have it ready within six months, and nothing short of ‘the hand of God’ must be suffered to interrupt my labors, since my first chapters would already be in print!

I hesitated for a day, and then accepted, and buckled down to my task; and I can only say that, of all the friendly turns that Mr. Burlingame ever did me, his exacting this effort was the most helpful. Not only did it give me what I most lacked,—self confidence,—but it bent me to the discipline of the daily task, that inscrutable ‘inspiration of the writing table’ which Baudelaire, most wayward and nerve-racked of geniuses, proclaimed as insistently as Trollope. When the first chapters began to appear, I had written hardly fifty thousand words; but I kept at it, and finished and delivered my novel at the date appointed.

To be turned from a drifting amateur into a professional was a great advance; but it was as nothing compared to the effect on my imagination of a systematic daily effort. I was really like the servant who went out to find an ass, and came back with a kingdom—the kingdom of mastery over my tools. I remember saying to myself, when the book was done: ‘I don’t yet know how to write a novel; but I know how to find out how to.’

From that day I went on trying systematically to exercise this faculty of ‘finding out how to’; but I wrote two or three novels without feeling that I had made much progress. It was not until I wrote Ethan Frome that I suddenly felt in full control of my métier, as an artisan should be of his tools. I mention this because, when Ethan Frome first appeared, I was severely criticized by the reviewers for what was considered the clumsy structure of the tale. I had pondered long on this structure, had felt its peculiar difficulties, and possible awkwardness, but could think of no alternative which would serve as well in the given case; and though I am far from thinking Ethan Frome my best novel, and am bored and even exasperated when I am told that it is, I am still sure that its structure is not its weak point.

From that day until now I have always felt that I had my material fairly well in hand, though so often, alas, I am conscious that the strange beings who have commissioned me to tell their story are not satisfied with the portraits I have drawn of them. I think it was Sargent who said that, when a portrait was submitted to the sitter’s family, the comment of the latter was always: ‘There ’s something wrong about the mouth.’

It is the same with my sitters; though they are free to talk and even to behave in their own way, the image of them reflected in my pages is often, I fear, wavering, or at least blurred. ‘There is something wrong about the mouth’—and the great masters of portraiture, Balzac, Tolstoy, Thackeray, Trollope, have neglected to tell us how they not only ‘caught the likeness,’ but carried it on, in all its flesh-and-blood actuality and changefulness, to the very last page.


All novelists who describe (whether from without or within) what is called ‘society life’ are pursued by the idiotic accusation of putting ‘real people’ (that is, persons actually known to the author) into their books. Anyone gifted with the least creative faculty knows how utterly beside the mark such an accusation is. ‘Real people’ transported into a work of the imagination would instantly cease to be real; only those born of the creator’s brain can give the least illusion of reality. But it is hopeless to persuade the unimaginative—who make up the bulk of novel readers—that to introduce real people into a novel would be exactly like gumming their snapshots into the vibrating human throng in a Guardi picture. If one did, they would be the only dead and unreal objects in a scene quivering with life. The low order, in fiction, of the genuine roman à clef (which is never written by a born novelist) naturally makes any serious writer of fiction indignant at being suspected of such methods. Nothing can be more exasperating to the creative writer than to have a clumsy finger point at one of the beings born in that mysterious other-world of invention, with the arch accusation, ‘Of course we all recognize your Aunt Eliza!’ or to be told (and this has more than once happened to me), ‘We all thought your heroine must be meant for Mrs. X, because their hair is exactly the same color.’

Of what, then, are the mysterious creatures compounded who come to life (sometimes) under the novelist’s pen? Well, it would be insincere to deny that there are bits of Aunt Eliza in this one, of Mrs. X in that—though in the case of Mrs. X it is hardly likely that the psychological novelist would use the color of her hair as a mark of identity, and more than probable that the bits of Mrs. X which have actually served him are embedded in some personage where the reader alive only to outward signs would never think of seeking them. The process is, in fact, inexplicable enough to the author, and doubly so to his readers. No ‘character’ can be made out of nothing, still less can it be successfully pieced together out of heterogeneous scraps of the ‘real,’ like dismembered statues of which the fragments have been hopelessly mixed up by the restorer.

The process is more like that by which sham Tanagra statuettes used, I am told, to be manufactured for the unsuspecting collector. The experts having discovered that ancient terra cotta acquires, through long burial, a peculiar flavor, were in the habit of a testing the genuineness of the piece by tasting it; and the forgers, discovering this, ground fragments of old Tanagras into powder, ran the powder into one of the old moulds, and fearlessly presented the result as an antique. Experience, observation, the looks and ways and words of ‘real people,’ all melted and fused in the white heat of the creative fires—such is the mingled stuff which the novelist pours into the firm mould of his narrative. And yet it must be owned that this does not wholly solve the problem either; in reality, it is only a step or two nearer the truth than the exasperating attributions of the simple-minded….

These attributions are exasperating, no doubt; but they are less so because of the accidental annoyance that may result in a given case than because they bring home to the creator, each time with a fresh shock, the general lack of imaginative response to his effort. It is discouraging to know that the books into the making of which so much of one’s soul has entered will be snatched at by readers curious only to discover which of the heroes and heroines of the ‘society column’ are to be found in it. But I long ago made up my mind that it is foolish and illogical to resent even such a puerile form of criticism. If one has sought the publicity of print, and sold one’s wares in the open market, one has sold to the purchasers of one’s books the right to think what they choose about them; and the novelist’s best safeguard is to try to put out of his mind the quality of the praise or blame likely to be meted out to him by reviewers and readers, and to write only for that dispassionate and ironic critic who dwells within the breast.