Tuesday, September 6, 2016

the periodical prattle about the future of fiction - Henry James writes about writers

In the mid-1890s, Henry James was working out, publicly, through his fiction, his ideas about what it meant to be a writer.  He invented a series of writers, none really identifiable as existing writers, not one of his friends, not James, so more like experiments – what if there were a novelist like this? – allowing James to isolate some curious aspect of the trade.

The interest is a bit older – “The Aspern Papers” and “The Lesson of the Master” are from 1888 – but there is a run of stories from “The Real Thing” (1892) through “The Figure in the Carpet” (1896) that is remarkable.  Maybe I have it defined wrong, though, since I have hardly read all of the stories of the period.  I don’t know if it matters that these stories were written during what I think is the longest gap in James’s writing of novels, between The Tragic Muse (1890) and The Other House (1896), neither of which I have read.  It is also the period in which James spent a great deal of time, energy and apparently frustration writing for the stage.

The three examples I read recently have something else in common.  “The Death of the Lion” (1894), “The Coxon Fund” (1894), and “The Next Time” (1895) are the three stories James published in The Yellow Book, the short-lived magazine of London aestheticism and Decadence, a venue well-suited to comic stories about misunderstood and abused artists.

You know, The Yellow Book lasted a little over three years.  Maybe, for such a creature, I should say “unusually long-lived.”  Anyway, it is not one of those magazines, the ones that will waste the time and ruin the life of the novelist who for reasons of fashion more than art suddenly becomes famous, The Lion:

The people I was angriest with were the editors of magazines who had introduced what they called new features, so aware were they that the newest feature of all would be to make him [the poor Lion] grind their axes by contributing his views on vital topics and taking part in the periodical prattle about the future of fiction.  (“The Death of the Lion”)

These Henry James stories say plenty about the future of fiction, but only in that they do such a good job of identifying types that are still with us – the artist whose success removes his time to write (“The Death of the Lion”), the troubled talent who for whom conditions are never quite right to actually write a book (“The Coxon Fund”), and the writer whose next book will be the big one, always (“The Next Time”).

None of the three stories were as ingenious as “The Figure in the Carpet,” which I rank as high as anything I have read by James.  In retrospect, they all appear to be steps towards “Figure,” but that is perhaps an illusion created by James’s method.  All three are identifiably written in James’s “middle style.”  I once doubted the existence of such a thing, but it is clear enough here.  In none of the stories does James supple the slightest hint, aside from some titles, what the prose of any of these artists might look like.  “The Next Time” is either the worst of the three, or trickier than I first realized.  I am leaning more to the latter view.

All right, there is something to writer about for a few more days.


  1. "The Coxon Fund" is uproariously funny. The dazzling rhetorician who sponges off the wealthy families of England; the families expect him to enlighten them but he turns out to be mostly just a parasitic gasbag with finely-honed verbal skills, and an appetite for fine food and drink. "How can we get someone else to take him?" I love that book. I am not sure if James intended a critique of public intellectuals in general, but it really is funny.

    I haven't read "Lion" or "Next Time."

    1. I love stories of rhetorical scoundrels using their powers for evil! I have to read "The Coxon Fund."

    2. I actually don't think the fellow is a scoundrel, nor evil. I think he's meant to be something real. We've lost this idea of the great talker as a kind of artist.

  2. The other two are comparably funny. They are all narrated by variations of the same character.

  3. Borges and Co. particularly liked The Coxon Fund.

  4. This little chain of stories, through the puzzle story of "The Figure in the Carpet," has an unusually Borges-like tang underneath the strong flavor of James.