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…

My 30 reasons for always returning to Chekhov’s stories.

ckekhov short stories

Lists may not be everyone’s favorite form of argumentative thought but sometimes thinking disconnectedly –but not incoherently- is the only way to think at all. My 30 reasons is an arbitrary number to signal my love for Chekhov. It could very well be 40, 60 or just one: his talent for humanity.

Why i love Chekhov

  1. For his clarity of description and the realism in depicting his characters’ inner thoughts, motives and sentiments. Should you try hard, you wouldn’t find a vague and redundant paragraph in his stories.
  2. For making page turners out of plotless stories.
  3. For the undercurrents that undermine even most of his straightforward narratives.
  4. For who else has so entertainingly minuted the lasting fragrances of a random kiss (The Kiss), the restlessness of insomnia (A dull story), the sinister weight of sleepiness (The darling), the longing of a person in love to write a letter and send it to the PO (Love), the unbearable loneliness of bereavement (The Misery, The Enemies), the banality of University life (A dull Story), the uninspiring promiscuity of prostitution (The Chorus Girl, A nervous Breakdown aka An attack of Nerves), the spiritual agony of a nervous breakdown (A nervous breakdown), the dreariness and ordinariness of mental illness (Ward No.6), the uselessness of rank and wealth (A lady’s story)…
  5. For his trademark non-endings. An inconclusiveness ascribed to his desire to make a new era for the story (and the play). One to break free from the unrealistic fixed endings of the past which by giving  answers to the readers, were sparing them the need to think for themselves. No comfort zones here. Just awkward helplessness facing the human predicament.
  6. For his testing of our own fitness as readers. (Virgina Wolf on “The Russian point of view”.)
  7. Especially for the unlikely ending of “The Lady with the dog”: And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and splendid life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they had still a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning. For the familiarity of those unfamiliar long roads we all eventually take in our lives. And the relief to find other people there.
  8. For being moral without raising a finger. Predisposed to try to understand his characters rather than judge them. For his stories being a masterclass on empathy.
  9. For his rendering dull characters interesting through evoking a special characteristic that makes them unique. (One of his liveliest dull characters is Ippolit Ippolititch, in the “Teacher of literature”: “He considered that the most important and necessary part of the study of geography was the drawing of maps, and of the study of history the learning of dates: he would sit for nights together correcting in blue pencil the maps {…} not a talkative person; he either remained silent or talked of things which everybody knew already.”) For his supporting characters playing a key role in the story. That of blowing an air of physical reality to it.
  10. For his characters struggling with life. Even in the “Dreary Story” (aka A dull or A Boring Story) the teacher who has only 6 months to live, facing his death, it is with life he is struggling. Trying to come in terms with what he has lived and not with the fact that he is dying.
  11. For his sharp anatomy of marriage. Marriages rarely “work” in his stories. Either doomed to failure from their very start due to incompatibility of the spouses or insincerity of their motives (bail out marriages) or starting with the best of intentions (love, admiration), they often lead to the estrangement -even hatred- of the couple.  (A wife, The teacher of literature). Unhappily married wives and wasted husbands constantly draw our attention to the voracious nature of marriage- one of the major subjects of modern theater (Ibsen, Strindberg, Albee).
  12. For his quote “Any idiot can face a crisis; it’s this day-to-day living that wears you out.” More or less the bottom line of all his short stories: a plan for surviving the day.
  13. Long before Eudora Welty’s “listening for stories” (“Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on), Chekhov had been programmed to listen for people and unearth characters. For he knew they could be found everywhere.
  14. For the ambiguity of evil and good in his characters. The impossibility for the modern man to be an either/or character. And its soothing effect on our conscience.
  15. For his democratization of suffering. The universality of the human condition that knows no classes, ranks, genders and other borderlines. Everybody hurts and Chekhov made that vividly clear.
  16. For his being existential before it was cool.
  17. For giving  boredom, this intrinsically modern emotional, mental and for Chekhov physical state, its literary expression. Many chekhovian characters are paralysed by ennui that renders them apathetic or prone to evil thoughts and deeds.
  18. For the character of urgency even in the most uneventful of his stories that compels us to follow them to the last -but not final- word.
  19. For the mockery of rank positions and lebels. For his debunking hypocrisy, uncovering shallowness, exposing the pettiness of status stemming only form wealth when not followed by education and humane values.
  20. For his being the russian equivalent of Henry James’ and Edith Wharton’s critique on pretentiousness on people becoming the brand of their status.
  21. For his characters being resilient enough to persevere. Even with broken wings, they fly. If the can’t fly, they walk. But still, they go on- a beckettian mindset here: You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.  (The Unnamable)
  22. For his being essentially modern. A timelessness pertaining to the Greek tragedy or Shakespeare in their treatment of free will struggling with fate.
  23. For his content dictating the form and not the other way around. For being essentially anti-postmodern.
  24. For providing you with the words and the sentiments to channel you raw emotional material.
  25. For dismissing the creative courses’ guidelines that for a short story to matter there must be a conflict and a change of its character. Chekhovian characters ponder for a while only to recoil to their familiarly vulgar self.
  26. For reminding us what foolish lives we live. The predecessor of Kafka, Camus, Beckett and Ionesco in framing the absurdity of human existence, before the two world wars  would make it one of the most resonant literary movements of the last century.
  27. For his characters not getting what they were after, or getting what they were after, outliving their happiness (“The teacher of literature”).
  28. For blurring the line between the story and the treatise on the elusive nature of happiness (“The Gooseberries”). For being an essayist through his characters’ lives, suggesting that the condition for one to be happy is for the unhappy to remain silent: “It’s obvious that the happy man feels contented only because the unhappy ones bear their burden without saying a word: if it weren’t for their silence, happiness would be quite impossible. It’s a kind of mass hypnosis. Someone ought to stand with a hammer at the door of every contented man, continually banging on it to remind him that there are unhappy people around and that however happy he may be at that time, sooner or later life will show him its claws and disaster will overtake him in the form of illness, poverty, bereavement and there will be no one to hear or see him.”
  29. For resorting to weather to mirror moods, with almost chemical precision and accuracy. The descriptions of weather conditions are never redundant in his stories with snow and rain being organic characters.
  30.  For his talent for humanity. (An expression he uses to describe the main character of his short story “A nervous breakdown”. A perfect fit for the writer.) Because just his unparalleled gift for writing stories would have only gotten him so far.