IN 1922, FIVE YEARS before E.M. Forster published his immortal Aspects of the Novel, the English critic and editor Percy Lubbock published The Craft of Fiction, a meticulous autopsy of Tolstoy, Flaubert, and James, among other titans, and probably the first book, according to Mark Schorer, “that tried to treat fiction as an art.” Lubbock’s treatment was decidedly different from Forster’s because its methods derived from a formal critical intelligence and not the lightning of creative acumen. You read Aspects of the Novel and are firmly ensconced within the mind of a supreme creator; you read The Craft of Fiction and are expertly chaperoned through the catacombs of literary creation.
If Lubbock’s book has been forgotten as Forster’s has not, it might have something to do with the pervasive suspicion that the best literary comment is always penned by those who are masters of the genre they comment on. (Lubbock published a single unsuccessful novel called The Region Cloud in 1925.) That suspicion was helped along in the first half of the twentieth century by the great poet-critics who tweaked the way the world looked at verse: Eliot and Auden, Yvor Winters and R.P. Blackmur, Conrad Aiken and Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, and perhaps, save Emerson, the most distinguished poetical-critical mind in American letters, Randall Jarrell. Their status as eminent poets allotted their criticism the stab of verity. Should you visit a priest for marital counsel? Probably not.
It hasn’t quite worked out that smoothly with the novel. There are the exceptions, of course — Forster and James, Trollope and D.H. Lawrence, Orwell and Pritchett, Mary McCarthy and Elizabeth Hardwick, Updike, Vidal, Martin Amis — but by and large our most necessary and sustained analyses of the novel, especially in the twentieth century, came from critics who were not themselves primarily novelists. Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling published a novel apiece — and Trilling’s racked ambition to be a novelist is well known — but a single novel among alps of the nation’s most persuasive criticism does not a novelist make. H.L. Mencken, Malcolm Cowley, Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe, Lewis Mumford, Dwight McDonald, Stanley Edgar Hyman, Wayne Booth, Frank Kermode, Jacques Barzun: no novels. Leslie Fiedler bled out two novels among his nearly forty books but you may without repentance forget them. Harold Bloom, too, might have a novel among his plangent catalog but he wishes you wouldn’t mention it. Cynthia Ozick has written beautiful fiction but her prime and indispensable worth is for the literary essay. Denis Donoghue, Andrew Delbanco, Leon Wieseltier, Morris Dickstein: no novels.
This is all to suggest that Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction is every bit as valuable as Forster’s Aspects of the Novel and has been unjustly interred in the bone yard of irrelevance. It’s especially vital now in our present climate of criticism — a climate in which the Net has spawned a cacophony of gabble impersonating literary comment, palaver and vulgate enough to warp you. Literature has always had its leeches, except now the Net has given every one of them a bog to wiggle around in. This wouldn’t be any more of an issue than it is to ignore the wastrel on the corner dispensing pamphlets on anarchy, but as respectable print publications either prune their space for book commentary or...read more