Writer’s Corner: Instruct or Amuse

Henry James, c.1882 (Library of Congress)

You could do much worse than get writing advice from the late and very great Henry James. Sure, you wouldn’t listen to what the old man had to say (nothing, most likely, on structuring a chase scene). But in almost any other instance, the man who could write both a masterful drawing-room melodrama like The Portrait of a Lady and a cracking good ghost story like The Turn of the Screw deserves to be heeded.

To that end, consider this imprecation from his 1884 essay calling for realism above all in literature, “The Art of Fiction“:

Literature should be either instructive or amusing…

Well put, and curiously succinct for James (well, he does go on).

Also interesting from the same essay is James’ take on “good” literature versus “bad” and how the former will inevitably triumph:

It must be admitted that good novels are somewhat compromised by bad ones, and that the field at large suffers discredit from overcrowding … [The novel] has been vulgarized, like all other kinds of literature, like everything else to-day, and it has proved more than some kinds accessible to vulgarization. But there is as much difference as there ever was between a good novel and a bad one … the good subsists and emits its light and stimulates our desire for perfection.

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