Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Reading Group Report: ‘The Self-Conscious Artist: Debating Literature at the Fin-de-Siècle’

19 April 2012

                                            Led by Naomi Carle, Durham University

Texts Discussed:

Henry James, 'The Art of Fiction' (1884)
Robert Louis Stevenson, 'A Gossip on Romance' (1882); 'A Humble Remonstrance' (1884)
Andrew Lang, 'Realism and Romance’ (1886)  


For the first time, NENC was delighted to hold its reading group session at Durham University.  This session focused upon the last decades of the nineteenth century, and the rise of literature as a critical discipline.  In this respect, it can be viewed as one of the first reading groups to concentrate upon the history of literary theory, as well as thematic and social issues.

We opened the session by thinking about the outlook of each of the authors.  Whilst Henry James was a novelist, he also came from a more critical background, and this is reflected in both the tone and structure of ‘The Art of Fiction’.  This essay is concerned with defining the formal rules of literature, and is suspicious towards its more leisurely and imaginative attributes.  In contrast, both Andrew Lang as a poet and Robert Louis Stevenson as a self-confessed Romantic, believed that there is value in every form of literature.  They thus found James’s preoccupation with systematizing genre to be restrictive.  Nevertheless, both James and Stevenson can be seen as adopting different critical approaches to their own work.  Whilst James asserted the necessity of a theory of literature, Stevenson contemplated the possibility of ‘art for art’s sake’.

James’s literary theory was then analysed in detail.  We were particularly interested in how his essay addressed realism as both a genre and theme, in terms of his belief that the novel was a ‘trivial’ form of literature.  The biting satirical wit of ‘The Art of Fiction’ becomes especially evident in James’s criticism of writers that focussed upon provincial themes.  Notwithstanding the comedic effect of his derisive attitude towards Trollope’s novels, we identified his underlying concern as the way that such literature compelled the reader to ‘believe’ in such trivialities.  An interesting point was made about the way James considers art and history in relation to the novel.  He views the ‘story’ as paramount to the success of a novel, and criticises the view of Walter Besant, that great literature seeks to encompass an enlightening whole, rather than a series of chronological events.  We considered how Besant’s position can be seen as both anticipating, and undermining aspects of postmodern literary theory.

Extending this consideration of literary ‘types’, we turned our attention to Stevenson’s essays.  Like James, Stevenson seeks to construct specific categories of literature, although he is much more accommodating in terms of the merits of different forms.  James views the novel as containing the potential to document the universality of experience, and engages with the idea that such an all-encompassing narrative was possible.  In contrast, Stevenson argued that art should not attempt to compete with life itself, and the ‘impressions’ it conveyed to individuals.  It was suggested that Stevenson may have gained his views on the importance of experience and impressions from a receptiveness to the Scottish Enlightenment.  In this tradition, all knowledge of reality is subjective and depends upon the strength of ideas upon the individual.  However, we agreed that Stevenson situates such views firmly within a literary, rather than philosophical context. 

Stevenson regards characterisation in a novel as different to the ‘incidents’ it describes, a trait he shares with James, but not with Lang.  In ‘Realism and Romance’, we observed how Lang regards the two as interchangeable, another example of how these texts can be seen as anticipating modernism.  However, part of the reason why Stevenson seeks to define character and incident relates to his understanding that he is consciously writing romance, a genre that we felt to impact upon his identity as a writer of children’s literature.

We then thought about how our discussion of literary criticism related to Stevenson’s novels, Treasure Island (1883) and Kidnapped (1893).  Stevenson associates immersive reading with childhood, and refers to this frequently in ‘A Gossip on Romance’.  We considered how the value Stevenson places upon the imaginative child, could be contradicted by the reliance upon archetypes in his novels.  It is interesting that he presents such literature as evoking the memory of childhood in the reader, yet this is a carefully constructed illusion that compels him to believe it.  We found his comme
nts on James in this regard quite comedic, in wondering whether James was ever a child, since he did not recall hunting for treasure.  Stevenson  criticises his lack of imagination and accuses him of being a deficient reader.

Stevenson’s comments on the literary canon are interesting.  It was remarked that his criticism is infused with the same scientific and exploratory methodology that characterises his novels.  For example, Stevenson stresses the importance of temporality and space within literature and its construction, and incorporates this into his discussion of the epic poem and contemporary drama.  We found this to be a distinctive approach.  Although we were familiar with Romantic theories of poetry and autobiography, such as in Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (1817) or Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry (1821), we regarded Stevenson’s critical view of the novel to be ahead of its time.

We concluded the session by returning to the importance that James and Stevenson place upon impressions.  For both, true art relates to the whole of experience, and false art depicts only a section of experience.  We were especially drawn to how Stevenson believed that only one creative thought could determine the entire structure of the novel.  In this respect, he can be viewed as defying concepts of genre for all he creates them.  This led us to consider how genre itself could be defined in the twenty-first century.  Are Stevenson’s views on the inspired artist more compatible with our contemporary outlook, or is James’s idea of the novel’s didactic purpose more viable? The general consensus was that both have merits, and attest to developments in, and anxieties about literary criticism at the fin de siècle.

 - Leanne Stokoe, Newcastle University.         


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