Is Fiction an Art?

By E. M. Forster
New York: Harcourt, Brace and
Company. $2.50

Reviewed by

THAT fiction is a lady, and a lady 
who has somehow got herself into 
trouble from which many gallant
gentlemen are ready to rescue her with-
out precisely knowing how, is a thought 
that must have struck her admirers. 
First, Sir Walter Raleigh plotted out her
pedigree and tidied up her family his-
tory with scrupulous skill; then Mr. Lub-
bock went most carefully into the nature
of her constitution;  now Mr. Forster, who 
has had the advantage of close intimacy
with her for many years, lets us into
a good many of her secrets and tells us
some unpleasant home truths. None of 
the three quite gets her out of her
scrape; but, as one might expect, Mr. 
Forster is far the most at his ease, and
if the atmosphere of the lecture room—
the book is a series of lectures delivered
at Cambridge—brews rather more hearti-
ness than seems necessary in daily life, 
few books about fiction have the wit
or the subtlety to get as far or go as
quickly as this one.

But before we begin to consider what
Mr. Forster has to tell us about fiction,
we must make sure where he stands. He
makes it plain from the start that his
is not the scholar’s attitude. He can-
not lecture chronologically on the word
because he has not read enough and
does not know enough. On the other
hand, he is resolved not to adopt the 
methods of the pseudo-scholar who will
relate a book to any fact or person or
tendency rather than read it. “Books
written before 1847, books written after 
it, books written after or before 1848.
The novel in the reign of Queen Anne,
the pre-novel, the ur-novel, the novel of
the future”—such books are the books
that the pseudo-scholar writes, and we
can do without them. But there is a
point of view which the unscholarly
lecturer can adopt usefully, if modestly.
He can, as Mr. Forster puts it, “visualize
the English novelists not as floating
down that stream which bears all its
sons away unless they are careful, but
as seated together in a room, a circular
room—a sort of British Museum, read-
ing room—all writing their novels simul-
taneously. They do not, as they sit there,
think ‘I live under Queen Victoria, 
under Anne’—the fact that their pens 
are in their hands is far more vivid to 
them. They are half mesmerized, their
sorrows and joys are pouring out
through the ink, they are approximated
by the act of creation”—so much so in-
deed that they forget all that the pro-
fessors have done for them and persist
in writing out of their turn. Richardson
insists that he is contemporary with
Henry James. Wells will write a passage 
which might have been written by 

Being a novelist himself, Mr. Forster
is not annoyed at this discovery. He
knows from experience what a muddled 
and illogical machine the brain of a 
writer is. He knows how little writers
*To be published October 20. Next week
Mrs. Woolf will discuss Walter E. Peck’s
“Shelley, His Life and Work.”

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think about methods; how completely
they forget their grandfathers; how
absorbed they tend to become in some
vision of their own. Thus, though the
scholars have all his respect, his sym-
pathies are with the untidy and
harassed people who are scribbling
away at their books. And looking down
on them, not from any great height,
but, as he says, over their shoulders, he
makes out, as he passes, that certain
shapes and ideas tend to recur in their
minds whatever their period. Since story
telling began, stories have always been
made out of much
the same elements; 
and these which he
calls The Story,
People, Plot, Fan-
tasy, Prophecy, Pat-
tern and Rhythm 
he now proceeds to

But the word “ex-
amine” is unfor-
tunate. It suggests
a professor, a corps
and pupils. Mr.
Forster is never
professorial, and
his subject, far
from being extend-
ed on a board, is a 
lady of charm and
variety who lets
Mr. Forster come 
close up to her and
engages in animat-
ed conversation
with him. As for
the pupils, they are
certainly attentive,

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but they do not hesitate to disagree.
They exercise this right, indeed, at the 
earliest opportunity, in the first chapter,
about the art of story-telling and Sir
Walter Scott.

According to Mr. Forster’s arrange-
ment the story is the first element in 
the novel. It runs “like a backbone, or,
may I say, a tapeworm, for its begin-
ning and end are arbitrary” through all
fiction. It is a “low atavistic form” which
one could well wish different. How much
better, for example, if melody or per-
ception of truth had been the highest
factor common to
all novels and not
the story! The ex-
emplar of story-
telling whom Mr.
Forster chooses is
Scott. Scott, he
says, owes his fame,
such of it as is gen-
uine and not due to
the fact people con-
nect him senti-
mentally with youth
or gastronomically
with oatcakes, to
the fact that he can
tell a story. “He
cannot construct. 
He has neither ar-
tistic detachment
nor passion, and
how can a writer
who is devoid of 
both create charac-
ters who will move
us deeply?” There


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