Sunday, October 30, 2011

The art of fiction

I tracked down a copy of Ashenden by W. Somerset Maugham, in the UK, because this novel I'd never heard of before is one of the first early spy thrillers to add to my prewar thriller list. To my surprise, Maugham had a pleasant little preface with some wisdom about writing fiction.

"Fact is a poor story-teller," he says, and life needs the creative artifice of the writer to become interesting:
For it is quite unnecessary to treat as axiomatic the assertion that fiction should imitate life. It is merely a literary theory like another. There is in fact a second theory that is just as plausible, and this is that fiction should use life merely as raw material which it arranges in ingenious patterns....The method of which I speak is that which chooses from life what is curious, telling and dramatic; it does not seek to copy life, but keeps to it closely enough not to shock the reader into disbelief; it leaves out this and changes that; it makes a formal decoration out of such of the facts as it has found convenient to deal with and presents a picture, the result of artifice, which, because it represents the author's temperament, is to a certain extent a portrait of himself, but which is designed to excite, interest and absorb the reader.
Maugham pokes fun at those writers who simply want to slavishly imitate life and present it as a whole to the reader. "They give you the materials for a dish and expect you to do the cooking yourself," he says. This may work for a Chekov short story, but longer pieces need the supporting "skeleton" of plot. Fiction as art needs a beginning, middle, and end. A story needs a climax.
There is nothing wrong in a climax, it is a very natural demand of a reader; it is only wrong if it does not follow naturally from the circumstances that have gone before. It is purely an affectation to elude it because in life as a general rule things tail off quite ineffectively.
For this reason, Maugham believes the artful short stories of Guy de Maupassant will outlast those of Chekov, and in any case longer stories need more structure.

This aesthetic battle has mostly been won, and certainly in genre fiction no one would dispute what Maugham is saying. His remarks are by way of introduction to a novel based on his own work in intelligence, which he confesses "is on the whole extremely monotonous." Most of it, he says, "is uncommonly useless." It is up to the writer to make a story out of this raw material. And that is a useful reminder for all of us.

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