Edith Wharton’s writing tips from “The Writing of Fiction”.

edith's wharton writing tips

Published in 1925, 4 years after Edith Wharton became the first woman writer to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize (1921, for “The Age of Innocence”), “The Writing of Fiction” is a very elegant and accurate non-fiction treatise on literature writing- not only for its well-documented points but also for its engaging prose. In this book, Wharton epitomizes her musings on the art of fiction, using examples from the masters of the craft, giving advice on how to build a novel, what makes real characters, the difference between short stories and novels and how to write a believable ghost story while giving a critical essay on Proust.

Wharton seems to have received more criticism on her class and upbringing rather than on her writing merits or faults. Jonathan Franzen went so far as to charge her with “a moral disadvantage”  because of her riches and privileges. Still, even if this signal image of her at work, supplied by her biographers as “writing in bed after breakfast and tossing the completed pages on the floor, to be sorted and typed up by her secretary” is true, we can picture so many privileged women of the sort that couldn’t have dreamt of writing one of her paragraphs. Having it easy in life -ok, more than easy- was undoubtedly a premise that formed the writer. How lucky for us she didn’t spend her time just eating breakfast in bed and dressing up for dinner parties!

Here are the handpicked extracts I found most interesting and less quoted in her “Writing of fiction” essays. Happy to share it with you!

Edith Wharton’s writing tips

1. «Another unsettling element in modern art is that common symptom of immaturity, the dread of doing what has been done before.»

2. «A good subject must contain in itself something that sheds a light on our moral experience.»

3. «Style is discipline.»

4. «One of the chief obligations, in a short story, is to give the reader an immediate sense of security. Every phrase should be a sign-post, and never (unless intentionally) a misleading one: the reader must feel that he can trust to their guidance. His confidence once gained, he may be lured on to the most incredible adventures—as the Arabian Nights are there to show. A wise critic once said: “You may ask your reader to believe anything you can make him believe.»

5. «True originality consists not in a new manner but in a new vision. That new, that personal, vision is attained only by looking long enough at the object represented to make it the writer’s own.»

6. «It is not enough to believe in ghosts, or even to have seen one, to be able to write a good ghost story. The greater the improbability to be overcome the more studied must be the approach, the more perfectly maintained the air of naturalness, the easy assumption that things are always likely to happen in that way.»

7. «No one with a spark of imagination ever objected to a good ghost story as “improbable”.»

8. «The short-story writer must not only know from what angle to present his anecdote if it is to give out all its fires, but must understand just why that particular angle and no other is the right one. He must therefore have turned his subject over and over, walked around it, so to speak, and applied to it those laws of perspective which Paolo Uccello called “so beautiful,” before it can be offered to the reader as a natural unembellished fragment of experience, detached like a ripe fruit from the tree.»

9. «Nothing but deep familiarity with his subject will protect the short-story writer from another danger: that of contenting himself with a mere sketch of the episode selected.»

10. «The rule that the first page of a novel ought to contain the germ of the whole is even more applicable to the short story, because in the latter case the trajectory is so short that flash and sound nearly coincide.»

11. «No subject in itself, however fruitful, appears to be able to keep a novel alive; only the characters in it can. Of the short story the same cannot be said. Some of the greatest short stories owe their vitality entirely to the dramatic rendering of a situation.»

12. «Nothing but deep familiarity with his subject will protect the short-story writer from another danger: that of contenting himself with a mere sketch of the episode selected.»

13. «The impression produced by a landscape, a street or a house should always, to the novelist, be an event in the history of a soul, and the use of the “descriptive passage,” and its style, should be determined by the fact that it must depict only what the intelligence concerned would have noticed, and always in terms within the register of that intelligence.»

14. «The other difficulty is that of communicating the effect of the gradual passage of time in such a way that the modifying and maturing of the characters shall seem not an arbitrary sleight-of-hand but the natural result of growth in age and experience. This is the great mystery of the art of fiction. The secret seems incommunicable; one can only conjecture that it has to do with the novelist’s own deep belief in his characters and what he is telling about them.»

15. «The evening party with which “War and Peace” begins is one of the most triumphant examples in fiction of the difficult art of “situating” the chief actors in the opening chapter of what is to be an exceptionally crowded novel. No reader is likely to forget, or to confuse the one with the other, the successive arrivals at that dull and trivial St. Petersburg reception;Tolstoy with one mighty sweep gathers up all his principal characters and sets them before us in action.»

16. «This power to seize his characters in their habit as they live is always the surest proof of a novelist’s mastery.»

Are you an Edith Wharton’s fan? You’ll probably find “Handy advice for social climbers by Undine Spragg (The Custom of the Country)” interesting…

Book guilt and the classics: how to get rid of that feeling.

book guilt

You must be familiar with that feeling that haunts you every time you’re thinking of starting a new book. The feeling that your choice means some other book will have to remain unread… The doubt whether you have made the right decision on how to spend reading time. It is pure book guilt and is paralyzing enough to make you give up reading altogether. The “so little time so many books” syndrome can either turn you to a compulsive reader or a non-reader at all.

How can we beat that fear of missing out and indulge in the reading process per se which is immune to what you’ ve read so far and what will follow? How about enjoying some book pride for a change and every time the toxic thought tries to settle we focus on the book we are reading and not on the others who line up and crave our attention?

It won’t happen overnight, if it is to happen at all. A true literature lover will always struggle between book choices and not-enough time, so, what I suggest is to be pragmatic, accept the fact as a… fatal condition and adopt an irreverent attitude even to the masters -and monsters- of literature.

What follows is a list of my alibis for not having read some 19th & early 20th century classics, for having read others instead and how I suggest we should cope with book guilt. The list is partial and conceals my true embarassment in not having read some important french classic literature (Zola, Stendhal, Balzac, De Maupassant) to the extent i would like. Any advice on that?

11 classics and how to deal with book guilt

Charles Dickens

You know the opening lines of “A tale of two cities” (1859) by heart “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”, but this is as far you’ ve got. You’ ve read Oliver Twist  as a junior but then again you were only reading for plot. And you tried “Great Expectations” after you had seen the movie but Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke kept messing in the pages and you couldn’t feel the original characters. You can always discard him as too Victorian or too Dickens to buy you some time but your chances are you will read “Bleak House” to find its two volumes actually poor for its… 157 characters.

Jane Austen

“Pride and Prejudice” (1813), “Sense and Sensibility”, “Emma”, “Mansfield Park” are such household names you can’t even remember if you’ ve read them as a child or seen them in film or have “met” them in every other genre they inspired. You can discard Jane Austen as too Georgian, too marriage-obsessed (although single herself); but can you really? Can you resist reading a novel which begins “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” and hosts the character of Mr. Benett, the father of the four daughters who, when his wife reprimands him “you have not compassion for my poor nerves” he answers  “you mistake me my dear, I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends”. So if you must settle with one of her books, go for “Pride and Prejudice”. But, chances are you’ll look for the rest.

George Eliot

It’s not that you didn’t try “Middlemarch” (1871). You did but reading Middlemarch is rereading some sentences for three times to grasp the meaning- and still having doubts. A book even Henry James who worshipped George Eliot called obscure and philosophical: “The author wishes to say too many things and to say them too well”. Of course, he loved it. But he didn’t have to wake up at 7.00 o’clock in the morning to go to work.

Mark Twain

You’ ve devoured his writing tips and witticisms but not much of his fiction. And then you have Ernest Hemingway naming “The adventures of Huckleberry Fin” (1884) as the definitive American masterpiece:“All modern American literature comes from that book. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” Mark Twain was discarded as a humorist and definitely not a literary product by his peer critics but was soon  to be considered the ultimate American novelist. So not to have read Huckleberry Fin is one thing. But how can you defy Papa Hemingway ?

Henry James

I am afraid there is little one can say in your defense for not having read anything Henry James. “The Portrait of a lady” (1881) is unparalleled in making Isabel Archer such a vivid and three-dimensional character facing her destiny and James’s prose and rendering of detail, both scenic and emotional, is unique. And then, there’s the short novella “Daisy Miller” and the innocently sinister “The turn of the screw”, you shouldn’t really miss.

Edith Wharton

If you’ ve read Henry James then you can skip Edith Wharton, aka… masculine Henry James. Or is it that Henry James is a… feminine Edith Wharton? Still, how can you really miss “The Custom of the Country” (1913) and Undine Spragg, one of fiction’s most uncharming female characters- which is such a delight to read-, Countess Elena Olenska and her dilemmas in “The Age of Innocence” or the stunning but impoverished Lily Bart in “House of Mirth” and her emotional struggles?

Kate Chopin

Critics speak of “The Awakening” (1899) as being one of the model books for women’s emancipation. A woman not finding the purpose of her life in raising her children, -a taboo even today- in searching for other ways to find happiness and stimuli in her life… If you haven’t tried it, well, it’s a very easy book to read, you can do it overnight– but, no, it won’t spare you from reading “Madame Bovary” (1856), the… original first “desperate housewife”, written 50 years before.

Gustave Flaubert

It’s not only the subject, it is also Flaubert’s elaborate prose which made him a master among his peer novelists and his successors. His visual style, his fixation on style and the material world, the cadence of his sentences and the study of the human subject make it an essential read. If there is only one you had to pick from the French novelists of the 19th, make it his “Madame Bovary”. And, for a closer and more thorough look on the inexhaustible subject, go for “Anna Karenina” (1873).

Leo Tolstoi

You probably know that Anna Karenina committed suicide in a railway station, you must have quoted several times its opening line “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, but still haven’t read the novel. Do, please. It’s a masterpiece. And don’t stop there. If “War and Peace” seems long enough (even Ernest Hemingway would argue: “I can write it like Tolstoi and make the book seem larger, wiser, and all the rest of it. But then I remember that was what I always skipped in Tolstoi”, don’t miss out on the novellas “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and “The Kreutzer Sonatas”, outstanding tokens of what literature can do to describe the human predicament in death and love.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

When it comes to the Russians, it’s difficult to lure the true lover of fiction out of their spell. Because the thing that best describes the relationship of an adequate reader  to them is… binge reading. Fyodor’s Dostoyevsky “Crime and Punishment” (1866), “The Idiot”, “The Brothers Karamazov”, “Demons” , “The Gambler”, “Notes form the Underground” are reference books on life and death dilemmas and moral issues written on paper and treated as literature for the first time. When you make the acquaintance with Dostoyevsky’s universe there is no coming back.

Anton Chekhov

And then again there is Anton Chekhov (1860-1904). The master of theatrical plays and short stories that has probably influenced every short story writer ever since. Binge reading is a common practice with Chekhov too. The struggle of his characters to come to terms with their incongruous desires and the mundane life that weighs on them are apparent even in his shortest stories. The doctor with a genuine passion for stories and talent for humanity is difficult to put down, so read at your own pace and risk.

20 reasons I love “The Portrait of a Lady” by Henry James.


It’s 1880. Henry James publishes ‘The Portrait of a lady” as a serial in a magazine to portray Isabel Archer, an American lady travelling in Europe to affront her destiny. The book has been considered a masterpiece ever since. Here are my top 20 reasons why this novel will always stay with me as a book of reference for outstanding fiction.

1. Its opening line:Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” Sets the tone. Englishness, aristocracy, leisure: a comedy of manners. Between the lines, though, you can’t fail to notice an implied sinister touch -or, is it just me?- putting “agreeable” into question.

2. The visual clarity of the description of a “splendid summer afternoon” in its “perfect middle”: “Part of the afternoon had waned but much of it was left and what was left was of the finest and rarest quality.” Henry James’s prose makes sure from the first sentences you know what you are about to experience: literary language of the rarest quality, just like his splendid summer afternoon.

3. The exchange of pleasantries between the characters. Witty, literary crafted, not minimal neither redundant, natural enough but not prosaic, lively indicators of the characters’ rank and complexity.

4. Isabel Archer’s description of happiness as “a swift carriage of a dark night, rattling with four horses over roads that one can’t see-that’s my idea of happiness.”

5. The description of Madame Merle being “a woman of strong impulses kept in admirable order.”

6. The portraiture of Americans in Europe as free agents. Uninhibited, self-reliant and adventurous spirits, the new world in contrast to the old-established world, a cast of people their European peers feel inclined to look up to and shame at the same time.

7. Mrs. Touchett, being a “person of many oddities”, “a woman with an extreme respect for her own motives”, as Henry James would inform us early on. For having a way of her own “of which she was so fond, a way not intrinsically offensive- just unmistakably distinguished from the way of the others.And as Henry James would have Madame Merle describe her to her niece: “Having no faults for your aunt means that one’s never late for dinner-that is for her dinner. It means that one answers a letter the day one gets it and that when one comes to stay with her one doesn’t bring too much luggage and is careful not to be taken ill. For Mrs Touchett those things constitute virtue.”

8. THE kiss between Gaspar Goodwood and Isabel Archer. It had to be given some two pages before the end of the novel. And it had to be as passionately hopeless and helpless as ever. This is as overtly carnal as Henry James’s literary and puritan conscience and his restraints of prudery would let him go, concerning the depiction of love scenes in the book. “His kiss was like white lightning, a flash that spread and spread again, and stayed; and it was extraordinarily as if, while she took it, she felt each thing in his hard manhood that had least pleased her, each aggressive fact of his face, his figure, his presence, justified of its intense identity and made one with this act of possession. So had she heard of those wrecked and under water following a train of images before they sink. But when darkness returned, she was free.” An eloquent scene of cinematic precision from the master of psychological realism.

9. Pansy. That “diminutive”, fragile girl- one of the most gracefully passive and subdued literature’s female characters.

10. Chapter 42, Isabel Archer’s vigil. “Sitting by the fire in the soundless saloon and long after the fire had gone out, hearing the small hours strike but with no danger of her feeling the cold because she was in a fever”, Isabel Archer catalogues her unhappiness, thinking and rethinking her marriage and everything that led to it. During that thought and revelation process, she sees clearly for the first time, she reaches conclusions, reading all this “as she would have read the hour on the clock-face.”

Chapter 42 would serve as a template for the narrative technique known as stream of consciousness, a term coined by the philosopher and Henry James’s brother William James and would be pushed to its limits by Marcel Proust, Virgina Wolf, James Joyce and other essentially modern writers. Of course here we don’t have the sometimes incoherent line of thought, both in content and in form, of those writers but an intelligible mental process of bringing consciousness alive to take over all other forces in its presence and not stop until it has reached a sense of complacency. Or just because “the clock struck four; she got up she was going to bed at last for the lamp had long since gone out and the candles burned down to their sockets.”

11. Its engaging outdatedness, an implicitness that speaks louder than modern blunt descriptions. The creation of a universe where two persons can be “unconsciously and familiarly associated” just because they are seated in a way no one would even bother to take notice of today. “What struck Isabel first was that he was sitting while Madame Merle stood; there was an anomaly in this that arrested her.” And, indeed, her instinct was not to blame.

12. Poor Ralph Touchett, the hands constantly fixed in his pockets. Isabels’ cousin whose “state of health had seemed not a limitation but a kind of intellectual advantage; it absolved him from all professional and official emotions and left him the luxury of being exclusively personal” is a key character of the novel the reader both admires and feels sorry for.

13. The old English country mansions and castles and Italian palazzos highlighting the characters’ inner lives. Gardencourt’s, Lockleigh’s, Palazzo Roccanera’s and Palazzo Crescentini’s facades and interiors are not only the settings where the action takes place but they are also values in themselves, standing for the characters choices and motives.

14. Ralph’s death-bed scene and his wise words to his cousin Isabel: “There’s nothing makes us feel so much alive as to see other die. That’s the sensation of life- the sense that we remain.” Ralph and Isabel are never closer, never more sincere and open to each other than during his last hours. The words and passions they exchange have the rare and violent quality of confession, the riot of expression, that took too long to materialize. Hence, their last-resort tone.

15. Gilbert Osmond, both a palpable character and a concept. Isabel Archer admits during her stream-of-consciousness revelation that “she had mistaken a part for the whole”, a part being Osmond’s charming elements and the whole being its egotistical nature. One of literature’s most captivating villains, no wonder why Isabel Archer succumbed to that “nonentity” deliberately and against all advice only to find out that deep inside that person was full of hatred and contempt for her and her “too many ideas”.

16. The comic relief characters of Henrietta Stackpole, of whom Henry James himself in the preface of the novel admits we have indubitably so much of- and Countess Gemini. Both are given key roles in the book apart from their unique presence per se. Comic, absurd, even hysterical (more in the case of the Countess), they are nonetheless full characters and not caricatures-that’s why we really indulge in their company.

17. Isabel’s assertion “I don’t wish to marry till I’ve seen Europe”. Innocent, child-like, american, modern, spirited at the same time.

18. Isabel Archer’s modernism. A lot has been written about Nora’s being the first modern woman in literary history when she slams the door in her family’s face to start all over again or Madame Bovary’s trying to break free from domestic entrapment but isn’t Isabel essentially modern in the face of her choices? It’s not only her decision to marry the man she wants against the opinion of the others but her choice to… live up to the original choice she had made although she can have it otherwise. Isabel Archer’s standing up to the choices she once committed to is at once modern, mature, tragic and liberating.

19. The culture of suitors, answering to missives, dressing up for dinners, having over guests, welcoming guests, showing guests out, the “awkward” waiting for the carriage and all that 1880 period drama stuff of the high-class which can only but make our imagination run wild.

20. For the sake of lines as “An Englishman is never so natural as when he’s holding his tongue” and “There’s no more usual basis of union than a mutual misunderstanding”.