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.

Handy advice for social climbers by Undine Spragg (The Custom of the Country).


Undine Spragg, together with Madame Bovary are definetely two of literature’s most self-absorbed and self-righteous -and thus, despicable- female characters. Edith Wharton’s craftmanship, though, has made “The Custom of the Country” such a pleasure to read and Undine Spragg a vivid character that stays with you long after you’ ve finished the book. The novel’s up-to-datedness is impressive and for that, credit is due to Wharton’s sharp eye for detail and social observance. At the dawn of the twentieth century, where the new comers aka the invaders aka the new money struggle with the initiated of old New York and Washington Street to take the lead, the Custom of the Country chronicles the human greed to climb to the top and stay there. A greed that has stayed with us ever since.


Handy advice for social climbers by Undine Spragg- to follow at your own risk.

  1. Marry either to wealth or to social title. Divorce to obtain the other half.
  2. Skip the opera boxes. But if you do hire an opera box, don’t do it on the wrong night.
  3. Don’t be ashamed to sell what you can’t afford to keep. Yes, even your husband’s historical estate tapestries Louis the Fifteenth had given to his great-great grandfather. Declutter.
  4. Live up to your opportunities and divorce.
  5. There is a lot to learn from your manicurist & masseuse. Hire one with the natural  talent of having manicured some really high-class nails.
  6. Change continents with the ease of changing dresses.
  7. Give your marriage a chance before you reach any conclusions or take any action. Go as far as to use honey moon as a trial period.
  8. When everybody around you is saying that this is the end of the world as we know it, just go out and buy another pair of shoes.
  9. A divorce is always a good thing to have: you never can tell when you may want it.” Still: “Divorce without a lover? Why, it’s as unnatural as getting drunk on lemonade.” So, think big and proactively. Get a lover before the divorce. It speeds up the process.
  10. You’ll need your parents on board in this. You must be on the same page here. Rather they must be on the same page with you. No need to be overtly hostile or intimidating to them, a passive-aggressive behavior will do.
  11. Make sure a fashionable artist does your portrait. Pick the one who knows how to “do pearls” and who “keeps his studio tidy enough for a lady to sit to him in a new dress”.
  12. If a very wealthy man offers you a ride with his car on the day of your son’s birthday, trust your instinct to choose- not the maternal the other one, the raw, that of social survival. And if you feel “that rush of physical joy that draws scruples and silences memory”, then you know you’ve made the right decision.
  13. Of course you can miss out on your kid’s birthday. There is always next year. Kids forget.
  14. Don’t settle. Divorce.
  15. Invest in your looks. Not your books.
  16. When your mother says “How could you?” it’s not that she didn’t expect it from you. It’s that she can’t help feeling stupefied every time it happens.
  17. Don’t think low of marriage. One couldn’t be divorced without it.
  18. Talk nonsense as long as you look nice on your new dress.
  19. Discard whatever smells of history. Old Newyorkers, European titles, whole Italy.
  20. Live beyond your means and divorce.