Thursday, September 20, 2012

Theory of the Novel by Novelists: Henry James' What is character but the determination of incident?




Henry James says that the categories of fiction such as character vs incident, novel vs romance--are irrelevant. The only distinction that counts is 'interesting' vs 'uninteresting.' 


There is an old-fashioned distinction between the novel of character and the novel of incident, which must have cost many a smile to the intending romancer who was keen about his work.
It appears to me as little to the point as the equally celebrated distinction between the novel and the romance—to answer as little to any reality.

There are bad novels and good novels, as there are bad pictures and good pictures; but that is the only distinction in which I see any meaning, and I can as little imagine speaking of a picture of character. When one says picture, one says of character, when one says novel, one says of incident, and the terms may be transposed.

What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustra­tion of character? What is a picture or a novel that is not of character? What else do we seek in it and find in it?

It is an incident for a woman to stand up with her hand resting on a table and look out at you in a certain way; or if it be not an incident, I think it will be hard to say what it is. At the same time it is an expression of char­acter. If you say you don't see it (character in that-allons done!) this is exactly what the artist who has reasons of his own for thinking he does see it undertakes to show you.

When a young man makes up his mind that he has not faith enough to enter the Church, as he intended, that is an incident, though you may not hurry to the end of the chapter to see whether perhaps he doesn't change once more. I do not say that these are extraordinary or startling incidents. I do not pretend to estimate the degree of interest proceeding from them, for this will depend upon the skill of the painter. It sounds almost puerile to say that some incidents are intrinsically much more important than others, and I need not take this precaution after having professed my sympathy for the major ones in remarking that the only classification of the novel that I can understand is into the interesting and the uninteresting.

The novel and the romance, the novel of incident and that of character—these separations appear to me to have been made by critics and readers for their own convenience, and to help them out of some of their difficulties, but to have little reality or interest for the producer, from whose point of view it is, of course, that we are attempting to consider the art of fiction.


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