Monday, July 17, 2006

Different literary camps

A conversation between H.G. Wells and Rebecca West, the week after she has their child Anthony, as imagined by Fay Weldon and put into a letter she writes to the young Rebecca:

'My spirit is always with you,' he says. 'And my feelings. You know that. So don't be frightened. Focus all these wayward emotions, to good purpose. Make the plan for the novel you mean to write.'

'A plan!' you cry, astounded. 'A novel should not have a plan. It grows, like a plant, like a tree. A nub of an idea: an acorn: you plant it, feed it, and suddenly it doesn't need you any more--'

'Rebecca!' he chides you. 'Be practical. A novel is a thing of reason: it is the means by which a writer correlates what he comprehends--'

It is what he believes, Rebecca. You are in different literary camps. Better accept it. Those in one camp give very little credit to those in the other. Crudely, you have this notion of art for art's sake: you believe, in an almost platonic sense, in Art, Beauty, Form, Literature--the novel which exists almost before it is written, an animation, a vision, taking not flesh but print. Wells sees the novel as a reforming agent: literature must, should, have a social purpose. The only excuse for fiction is that through it the world can be changed. If only there is enough information, Wells holds, there will be reformation.

It is too early in the world's history to tell which of you is right. Dickens, Tolstoy, Zola, Wells--those who write out of indignation, compassion, a sense of the fearfulness of physical existence--or those who are content to marvel at it, and rejoice in it, seeing sorrow rather than agony, beauty where others only see ugliness: Hardy, Henry James, Colette, yourself--you have no particular reforming zeal. You remain the property, the pleasure, of the educated classes. You are elitists, unpleasing to Marxists. There is too deep a division here, between yourself and Wells, for healing.

'What a bad and wilful Panther it sometimes is,' he says, 'for all its booful wild eyes. How will Panther bring a book to an end if it has no plan? It will go on forever. No reader will put up with it.'

'Panthers will just go on until they run out of steam,' you say, darkly, 'and readers will put up with what they have to.'

'Panthers are absurd,' he says. 'You must take readers more seriously. And what about my Outline of History? Is that supposed to manage without a plan?'

'You're not still meaning to write that!' you shriek at him.

In the next room Nurse wakes up: she and Anthony have been slumbering; he in his crib, she drooped over it. She thinks you are having a row. Well, so you are, but not of the kind she imagines.

'Of course I amn,' he says, hurt. 'No one has written such a book before. It's what the world needs. We have exercises in national wishful thinking which pass as history, but no one yet has looked at the world as a whole, no one has pictured the developing communication of ideas, between nations.'

'I hate it,' you shriek. 'You are trying to put the world into a teaspoon and dose us with it, as if it were castor oil. You write such wonderful novels and here you are wasting your time--'

'Cold white sauce,' he interrupts. 'Old maid's view of sex--I know what you think of my novels--it's there in print for all the world to see.'

--Fay Weldon, Rebecca West


  1. Fantastic "letter." Thanks for sharing it!

  2. Oh, this is good. Turns out I'm a Marxist when I always thought I was an elitist.


A bang, not a whimper

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