Edith Wharton Eviscerates Modern Publishing Models: Fun Facts from "The Writing of Fiction"

Edith Wharton, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel "The Age of Innocence", seated at her desk in her library at The Mount, circa 1905

Edith Wharton, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel "The Age of Innocence", seated at her desk in her library at The Mount, circa 1905

"...the seemingly simplest sauces are those that have been most cunningly combined and then most completely blent, the simplest-looking dresses those that require most study to design." - Edith Wharton, "The Writing of Fiction" 


Attention, men, yes you, you singular, literary man multiplied multiple times over, sitting there in your literary world, attempting to tell literary women how to write like "real" artists, how to define for women what "serious" (read: tragic, boring and angry) stories women writers should write if they are to be taken seriously, guess what? 

You're doing it wrong.

You've been doing it so wrong for so long that you don't even recognize what it is that you're doing, you haven't taken an historical step back to look at the hundreds of years of your male ancestors committing this crime of letters against women of letters, of creating the conditions where women wrote (and continue to write) their romances under male pen names, of telling important women writers the impropriety of writing on subjects like sex, like slavery, like anything having to do with that third rail of when and how potential procreation happens unless it happens in literature on your terms, and, when it doesn't, of denigrating same as "chick lit," or "romance," or any other number of eye-rolling euphemisms to say what you really mean: this book isn't for me, and I'm a guy, therefore it isn't "serious," and therefore, it isn't "art." 

Did you know, for instance, that there's a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist who would take issue with your denigration of "romance" as "not serious" by pointing out to you that most novels are grouped under three types, manners, character (or psychology) and adventure, and that these types include the subdivisions of "the farcical novel of manners, the romance and the philosophical romance?" That yes, what this means is that, by definition, most of the serious novels of classical literature are ones that tread in those fearful waters of romance, that ones that you, yourself, are so seemingly fearful of women using as the basis for their own, serious writing?   

That is exactly who Edith Wharton was, and what Edith Wharton does, in her book, "The Writing of Fiction," published in 1924, published consecutively and still available at your local bookstore, published with a life longer in years than the one most of you have lived. Wharton writes other myth-busting truths about writing and writers in this book, and to list all of them would be a Herculean task far too taxing for the time and attention of riveting blog writing. To that end, I'll elucidate some of her most important points, the ones that will open your eyes and hopefully your ears, and encourage you to go and source the book yourself (ISBN: 978-0-6848-4531-9). It is an important book, and your soul is, indeed, impoverished if you haven't read it. 

1. Racial difference makes the writer see life at its most universal.  

This is Wharton's exact quote, and I'll add that she's using an early 20th century social construct of "race" to mean non-English, continental novelists, but I think the wider point is clear: "The artist of other races has always been not only permitted but enjoined to see life whole; and it is this, far more than any superiority of genius, that lifts Balzac, Stendhal and Tolstoy so high above even Thackeray when the universal values are to be appreciated." What she means here is that Thackeray, and many English novelists of his time, were "cramped by the hazard of a social convention," one which contained a "sudden fear of touching on any of the real issues of the human comedy and tragedy," and that the works of the great, non-English novelists were that much more transcendent and universal because they weren't constrained by these literary rules. 

Note to contemporary publishers: perhaps, instead of viewing African American literature, and Latino literature, and Asian American literature, and "chick lit" as separate, small genres that speak to separate, small groups, perhaps you might consider that these are the works that contain the seeds of that money-laden "mainstream" that is constantly being pursued. Perhaps these works are, actually, far more "mainstream," far more universal, than the ones currently given that moniker.

Just a thought. 

2. Galloping plot points just makes bad art. 

In the age of the largest praise of a book being that you "just couldn't put it down," creating the impression that a book must be read at a frenetic pace, must then be written as frenetically as that reader drummed up into a frenzy will read it, Wharton's praise of the art of the novel conveying the effect of the gradual passage of time is a comforting reminder of how good, long form writing actually happens: "To its making go patience, meditation, concentration, all the quiet habits of mind now so little practised, so seldom inculcated; and to these must be added the final, imponderable, genius, without which the rest is useless, and which, conversely, would be unusable without the rest."

3. Each subject has its own length.

Yes, this is a radical. Wharton might as well be burning her literary bra whilst writing it. Too often in the world of "what people want to read" and "what will sell" and "what books will start a conversation," subject is seen as paramount to a novel. The business reason for this is clear: novels have their own oompf, their own kinetic energy of book tours and book shows, of spin-offs, and serials, and movie deals, and this multi-layered licensing and distribution treasure trove just isn't as rich for the short story, because the commercial world has put more emphasis on marketing long-form books than short stories. Therefore, the temptation for writers and publishers is to think first of the topic that will look good on the sell sheet, that will buzz well over radio airwaves, and then sit down and try to think of the art around that, develop the characters around that, and around that presto, boom, shazzam, out pops a novel. Wharton douses cold water on all of this, proclaiming that, "The novelist should not concern himself beforehand with the abstract question of length, should not decide in advance whether he is going to write a long or a short novel," that a successful writer has, "an unerring sense for the amount of sail his subjects could carry," that the writer, "should always be able to say of a novel: "It might have been longer," never: "It need not have been so long."  

Good novel writing starts with well-developed characters, has as its own energy the need to entertain (both one's self and others). As Wharton notes, "...its modern tellers have introduced few innovations in what was already a perfect formula, created in the dawn of time by the world-old appeal: "Tell us another story."

That wish, expressed so young and expressed throughout one's life, of wanting another story, is universal, and the best stories, the best and most "serious" writing, is the writing that answers that request, simply and honestly, keeping the reader so entertained that he forgets he is reading a book classified as "chick lit," or "romance," or "gay and lesbian," or "African American," or any other demographic category a book marketer labels it, he forgets all of the radio shows, and book shows, and book blurbs about the "important conversation" the book has started; to the reader, in the act of reading, it is a story, the merits of which are judged by his allegiance to it, to her remembrance of its scenes and its moments, the ones that stay with him, and help her realize, again, what it is to be human.