Tag Archives: james

Art versus reality

“Art is our spirited protest, our gallant attempt to teach Nature her proper place. As for the infinite variety of Nature, that is a pure myth. It is not to be found in Nature herself. It resides in the imagination, or fancy, or cultivated blindness of the man who looks at her.” (p. 4)

– Wilde, Oscar. The Decay of Lying. New York: Brentano’s, 1905.

Notes: imagination over reality, fiction as art, why “cultivated blindness”?


“Art, breaking from the prison-house of realism, will run to greet him, and will kiss his false, beautiful lips, knowing that he alone is in possession of the great secret of all her manifestations, the secret that Truth is entirely and absolutely a matter of style; while Life — poor, probably, uninteresting human life — tired of repeating herself for the benefit of Mr. Herbert Spenser, scientific historians, and compilers of statistics in general, will follow meekly after him, and try to reproduce, in her own simple and untutored way, some of the marvels of which he talks.” (p. 29)

– On the “cultured liar”, Wilde, The Decay of Lying

Notes:  life imitating art, union of art and lying, reality as a prison


“The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does compete with life. When it ceases to compete as the canvas of the painter competes, it will have arrived at a very strange pass.” (p. 64)

– James, Henry. The Art of Fiction. Upham, Crupples. 1885.

Notes: competition, novel versus life, representation versus competition

Does the novel strive to be life-like, or does it strive to be better than reality?

Wilde n’ Crazy

People tell us that Art makes us love Nature more than we loved her before; that it reveals secrets to us; and that after a careful study of Corot and Constable we see things in her that had escaped our observation. My own experience is that the more we study art, the less we care for Nature. What art really reveals to us is Nature’s lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition.

Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying,” in Intentions (Cambridge: Chadwyck-Healey, 1999), 258.

Notes: personification, nature vs. art, contradiction


It is as difficult to suppose a person intending to write a modern English, as to suppose him writing an ancient English, novel; that is a label which begs the question. One writes the novel, one paints the picture, of one’s language and of one’s time, and calling it modern English will not, alas! make the difficult task any easier. No more, unfortunately, will calling this or that work of one’s fellow artist a romance—unless it be, of course, simply for the pleasantness of the thing, as, for instance, when Hawthorne gave this heading to his story of Blithedale.

Henry James, “The Art of Fiction,” (http://virgil.org/dswo/courses/novel/james-fiction.pdf), 7.

Notes: ambiguity in art; “alas!” in the middle of a sentence; “romance” defined differently; Hawethorne/Blithedale?


Notes (overall): The title of my post isn’t meant to tag James or his ideas as crazy; I actually find his ideas profound. Crazy profound.


Only a short time ago it might have been supposed that the
English novel was not what the French call discutable. It had no
air of having a theory, a conviction, a consciousness of itself
behind it—of being the expression of an artistic faith, the result
of choice and comparison. I do not say it was necessarily the
worse for that; it would take much more courage than I possess
to intimate that the form of the novel, as Dickens and Thackeray
(for instance) saw it had any taint of incompleteness. (pg 1

Henry James, The Art of Fiction

Notes- Criticizing, lack of,foreign terminology

Fatal to the Imagination

“Many a young man starts in life with a natural gift for exaggeration which, if nurtured in congenial and sympathetic surroundings, or by the imitation of the best models, might grow into something really great and wonderful. But, as a rule, he comes to nothing. He either falls into careless habits of accuracy, or takes to frequenting the society of the aged and the well-informed. Both things are equally fatal to his imagination, as indeed they would be fatal to the imagination of anybody, and in a short time he develops a morbid and unhealthy faculty of truth-telling, begins to verify all statements made in his presence, has no hesitation contradicting people who are much younger than himself, and often ends by writing novels which are so like life that no one can possibly believe in their probability. ”

-Wilde, Oscar. The Decay of Lying. New York: Bertano’s, 1905. 9-10. Web. <http://archive.org/details/partialportraits00jameiala>.

Notes: Extreme truth, full circle, oh the irony.

“It is still expected, though perhaps people are ashamed to say it, that a production which is after all only a ‘make-believe’ (for what else is a ‘story’?) shall be in some degree apologetic -shall renounce the pretension of attempting really to represent life. This, of course, any sensible, wide-awake story declines to do, for it quickly perceives that the tolerance granted to it on such a condition is only an attempt to stifle it disguised in the form of generosity.”

-James, Henry. Major Stories and Essays. New York: Library of America College Edition, 1999. 573. Print.

Notes: Book snobs, destruction of fiction, real literature, real life.


Art lives upon discussion, upon experiment, upon curiosity, upon variety of attempt, upon exchange of views and the comparison of standpoints; and there is a presumption that those times when no one has anything particular to say about it, and has no reason to give for practice or preference, though they may be times of honour, are not times of development are times, possibly even of dulness.

Henry James. “The Art of Fiction.” In Partial Portraits. New York: Macmillan, 1894. Internet Archive. (http://archive.org/details/partialportraitsoojameiala.) 376

Notes: art, creativity, curiosity, willingness, artists, writers, media, life of art, life of an artist

Impression of Life

A novel is in its broadest definition a personal, a direct impression of life : that, to begin with, constitutes its value, which is greater or less according to the intensity of the impression. But there will be no intensity at all, and therefore no value, unless there is freedom to feel and say.


Henry James, “The Art of Fiction”, in Major Stories & Essays, Library of America College Editions, p578

Portrayal of Life

The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent life. When it relinquishes this attempt, the same attempt that we see on the canvas of the painter, it will have arrived at a very strange pass.

Henry James. “The Art of Fiction.” In Partial Portraits. New York: Macmillan,1894 Internet Archive http://archive.org/details/partialportraits00jameiala) 378.

Notes: Novels rooted in real life,  novels have a purpose, writer and painter are comparable

Even Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson, that delightful master of delicate and fanciful prose, is tainted with this modern vice, for we know positively no other name for it.There is such a thing as robbing a story of its reality by trying to make it too true, and The Black Arrow is so inartistic as not to contain a single anachronism to boast of, while the transformation of Dr. Jekyll reads dangerously like an experiment out of the Lancet.

Oscar Wilde. “The Decay of Lying.” In Intentions. New York: Brentano’s, 1905 (Internet Archive. http://archive.org/details/intentionsdecayo00wild) 10-11.

Notes: Fine line in stories, too realistic, imagination needed.


For what is Nature? Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life. Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us.

Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying,” in Intentions (New York: Brentano’s, 1905), 41.

Notes: perception – what is real? objective vs. subjective;  life without art = reality?


We must grant the artist his subject, his ideas, his donée : our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it.

Henry James, “The Art of Fiction,” in Partial Portraits (New York: Macmillan, 1894), 394-395.

Notes: style, subjective criticism, freedom of speech

Fertilizing Frankness

“It is a proof of life and curiosity—curiosity on the part of the brotherhood of novelists, as well as on the part of their readers.”

Henry James, “The Art of Fiction,” in Longman’s Magazine 4 (September 1884), 1.

Notes: novels/art imitating life. fiction-induced curiosity. learning through fiction. communal learning.


Art lives upon discussion, upon experiment, upon curiosity, upon variety of attempt, upon the exchange of views and the comparison of standpoints; and there is a presumption that those times when no one has anything particular to say about it, and has no reason to give for practice or preference, though they may be times of genius, are not times of development, are times possibly even, a little, of dulness.

Henry James, “The Art of Fiction,” 1.

Notes: art = changing perspectives. art not changing perspectives = brilliant yet boring.

“a novel is a novel, as a pudding is a pudding”

The Art of Fiction by Henry James

“…and there is a presumption that those times when no one has anything particular to say about it, and has no reason to give for practice or preference, though they may be times of genius, are not times of development, are times possibly even, a little, of dulness.”

(Henry James, The Art of Fiction, Longman’s Magazine 4, September 1884, 1)

presumption, assumption, hindrance of genius, timing, what is “good,” judgement, scrutiny, development, growth


The Decay of Lying by Oscar Wilde

“Paradox though it may seem – and paradoxes are always dangerous things – it is none the less true that Life imitates art far more than Art imitates life.”

(Wilde, Oscar, The Decay of Lying, The Complete Writings of Oscar Wilde, The Nottingham Society, 1909, 7)

paradox, danger, seeming, appearance, always, never, sometimes, truth, imitation, inverse