Short essay on the novel as a form of art


“A novel”, James declared in his essay on The Art of Fiction, “is in its broadest definition a personal, a direct impression of life.” A novel is also to be conceived as an organic thing -“all one and continuous, like any other organism.”

A view of art so thoroughly organic as this implies as a corollary an impersonal art; that is, that the work grows in accordance with some inner principle of its own being, and is not merely the creature of the writer’s ego, either as an expression of his feelings as a man or as on assertion of his opinions.

Fiction is set off sharply enough from lyric poetry to preclude any serious danger of our ever confusing the two. Fiction, for example, has an appetite for richness of circumstances, for sheer concretion, that sets it well apart from any lyric.


Yet the lyric shares with the novel a common functionality. If “character” and “sequence of action” seem to be especially the problems for the novelist, a little reflection will reveal that they confront the poet too.

A concern for “character” and “action” as they occur in poem or novel has not always, of course, been complemented by an adequate concern for craftsmanship.

Percy Lubbock, whose scholarly handbook The Craft of Fiction (1929) gives what may be regarded as the standard exposition of the tenets of the Flaubert-James School, distinguishes between panorama (the long-range view of the action) and scene (the close-up view), and describes the design of a novel in terms of the presentation of the action through scenes and panoramas, and the proper disposition of these in relation to each other.

It follows that two matters of special concern for critics of this school were those of the narrator and the point of view from which he “sees” the action. The narrator of the story is frequently a character, whose knowledge is limited to what he himself could have seen and heard, and this narrator may be either a major or a minor character.


The novelist has frequently found it desirable to alter the chronological arrangement of events, sometimes describing an earlier event after portraying a later event, and he has sometimes attempted to achieve an effect of simultaneity of events.

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