A great writer's abiding love for the art of fiction

The Art of Criticism: Henry James on the Theory and the Practice of Fiction, edited by William Veeder and Susan M. Griffin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 517 pp. $45, cloth; $14.95, paper. ``It was by loving them . . . that he knew them,'' Henry James wrote of Balzac and his characters, ``it was not by knowing them that he loved.''

James's insight into Balzac opens vistas on his own novels and short stories.

As a parent for his children, an author does not make things easy for his characters, does not give them moral formulas to fit every occasion, does allow experience to challenge them, sometimes tragically.

James was not a romantic, did not feel that adult men and women had their fates decided for them by forces beyond their control. James's characters in the end must choose their fate.

This moral concept of character forms the basis for James's literary criticism as well as his novels. Yet, reading ``The Art of Criticism'' makes one sharply aware that if Henry James loved his characters, he loved the idea of fiction more.

Recent editions of the criticism have suggested as much. Leon Edel has edited two volumes of it for the Library of America. And now William Veeder and Susan M. Griffin have made a selection of the criticism for a one-volume, annotated edition. Their compact, lucid, and remarkably readable commentaries and notes -- along with a highly differentiated index which includes concepts as well as persons -- provide the basis for a reading of the complete James.

In his earliest criticism, written in the first third of his career, James sounds a little like one of his minor American characters, reacting with moral squeamishness while pointing out want of taste in others, especially when ``the Gallic imagination'' is involved.

By the 1890s, however, his criticism had taken on some of the sonorous fluidity and dancer-like poise of his fiction. In an essay called simply ``Criticism'' (1891) he strikes out at the institution of ``book reviewing'' with the same energy and aplomb he brought to a satirical portrait in his novels -- or perhaps more: ``The vulgarity, the crudity, the stupidity which this cherished combination of off-hand review and of our wonderful system of publicity have put into circulation on so vast a scale may be represented, in such a mood, as an unprecedented invention for darkening counsel. The bewildered spirit may ask itself, without speedy answer, What is the function in the life of man of such a periodicity of platitude and irrelevance?''

In 1899, James wrote his most famous piece on the theory and practice of fiction. He called it, bravely, ``The Future of the Novel.'' His own novels were not selling well and his experiment in the theater had been a flop. It was a testing time for his love of the form. His love proved durable. ``The Future of the Novel'' eloquently hymns the vicarious ``extension of experience'' offered by the novel.

At the same time, James continued to dilate on the recent ``high prosperity of fiction,'' attributing it to ``the vulgarization of literature in general,'' and attacking the engines of publicity -- the periodicals that printed reviews in which, to him, the influence of ``the critical spirit'' never became an issue.

Fiction and criticism were two sides of the same coin for James, and the coin was consciousness.

Soon after James wrote ``The Future of the Novel,'' he looked back over his own works with a critical eye, and with an eye to preparing a definitive -- and expensive -- edition of his fiction. The result was the New York Edition, with the remarkable prefaces, nine of which Veeder and Griffin have included here.

The prefaces have, on occasion, been mistaken for James's finest criticism. Compared with his reviews of ``Middlemarch,'' of Balzac, of Maupassant, they lack objectivity. But the prefaces do bear witness to James's abiding love for the art of fiction.

``The deepest quality of a work of art will always be the quality of the mind of the producer,'' James wrote in 1888, and it is the mind of the producer that stands revealed in the prefaces. Rereading his own novels meant sometimes revising them substantially; the act was one of self-criticism. As in his novels, the questions raised in the prefaces bear on the aesthetics of refined morality, on problems of vision, unforeseen consequences, options, taste. At one point, the older and more experienced James speaks of his ``original imitative innocence.''

One of the most revealing prefaces is to ``The Ambassadors,'' James's favorite among his own novels. The prose of the preface swoons a little from the weight and heat of James's ardor. Of the way he has made the central characters see things, he writes, ``. . . the business of my tale and the march of my action, not to say the precious moral of everything, is just my demonstration of this process of vision.'' Of the ``story as such'': for the storyteller, ``. . . it is ever, obviously, overwhelmingly, the prime and precious thing. . . .''

James devoted his life to art. He discovered companionship there. For James, the difficulties that high ideals impose on the artist can help him fulfill those ideals. This experience kept him cheerful. James ``believed'' in fiction, the process and the product, the way some people believe in saints. The whole thing, at some point, comes alive. ``It then is, essentially . . . so that the point is not in the least what to make of it, but only, very delightfully and very damnably, where to put one's hand on it.''

As Veeder and Griffin's book shows, to read James's criticism in the context of his life and ideas is to see that both James's fiction and his criticism spring from the same source, a love that kept him not only vaguely hopeful that his novels would gain their proper public, but, more important, deeply aware of the abiding consolations of fiction.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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