Monday, July 13, 2015

H.G. Wells' "Digression on Novels"

H.G. Wells was quite frank about the fact that when writing he was more interested in the broader "scene" than in the figures within it, and in a "ventilation of the issue" at hand than Flaubertian technical niceties--in the wide world, and considerations of it, than the "turns and tricks" of character and form.

That he worked in this way as a writer got him attacked by, among others, Henry James (in "The New Novel"), by Virginia Woolf (in "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown"), by that key figure in the development of the "New Criticism" and wrecker of quite a few literary reputations, Mark Schorer (in his essay, "Technique as Discovery"), all of whom had quite different ideas about just what makes literature worthwhile.1

By and large, those who wish to appear reputable stand with James, Woolf and Schorer, on this and many another point, with the result that Wells is far less reputable than he used to be. Still, it seems to me that it was those writers most attentive to scene and issue who were the first to make strong impressions on me as a reader, and have continued to make the strongest impressions--be they nineteenth century Balzacs and Tolstoys, twentieth century Lewises, or writers in that scene-and-issue-oriented genre to which Wells contributed so much, science fiction (even after I have become more appreciative of the view of James and company). And much as Wells may have failed to win the critics over to his way of thinking, I can think of no other who has made as strong and clear a case as Wells did for it in "The Digression on Novels" in his Experiment in Autobiography.

1. Besides Wells, he did a good deal of damage to the standing of Sinclair Lewis with a notoriously unflattering biography.

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