Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child - Stevenson's "A Gossip on Romance"

I seem to keep using Robert Louis Stevenson to bang on Zola.  I don’t really mean to – but it’s Stevenson who keeps looking at Zola as the anti-Stevenson.  He does it again in “A Gossip on Romance” (1882), a full-throated defense of the Art of the Novel (as written by R. L. Stevenson).  So forget Zola.

Stevenson’s art is based on scenes. On “incident,” he says, in a term I find misleading. He means not the one-thing-after-another, but scenes, the scenes that crystallize the book (I’m borrowing from Stendhal), the scenes that stay with the reader as if he saw them:

The words, if the book be eloquent, should run thenceforward in our ears like the noise of breakers, and the story, if it be a story, repeat itself in a thousand coloured pictures to the eye. It was for this last pleasure that we read so closely, and loved our books so dearly, in the bright, troubled period of boyhood. (52)

One example, among many supplied by Stevenson, is Robinson Crusoe finding the footprint, a fine scene considered every which way. A scene is built of nothing but language, so the writer’s control over his words is essential, yet Stevenson’s ideal reader is then meant to forget the words and retain only the image they created.

How, then, do scenes work? Scenes are composed of details:

True romantic art, again, makes a romance of all things. It reaches into the highest abstraction of the ideal; it does not refuse the most pedestrian realism. 'Robinson Crusoe' is as realistic as it is romantic; both qualities are pushed to an extreme, and neither suffers. (60)

Emphasis on things. Robinson Crusoe again: Stevenson is thinking of that mound of stuff Crusoe rescues from the wreck:

Every single article the castaway recovers from the hulk is 'a joy for ever' to the man who reads of them. They are the things that should be found, and the bare enumeration stirs the blood. (60)

When Stevenson refers to his “bright, troubled childhood,” I am pretty sure he is veiling his early ill health, the real possibility that he could die that young. Stevenson’s childhood reading might have possessed an intensity I’m glad I don’t share. Still, I think any childhood reader knows this feeling:

Eloquence and thought, character and conversation, were but obstacles to brush aside as we dug blithely after a certain sort of incident, like a pig for truffles. For my part, I liked a story to begin with an old wayside inn where, 'towards the close of the year 17-,' several gentlemen in three-cocked hats were playing bowls. A friend of mine preferred the Malabar coast in a storm, with a ship beating to windward, and a scowling fellow of Herculean proportions striding along the beach; he, to be sure, was a pirate. (52-3)

It was hard to know when to stop quoting. Readers of Harry Potter or The Wizard of Oz are similar pigs nosing after similar truffles. Stevenson wanted to recapture these moments, or, really, to create his own new ones. It’s what he thought great fiction did. “Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child” (61).


  1. Zola: the anti-Stevenson. I can picture the two engaged in an epic battle for the hearts and minds of readers :)

  2. Fortunately, I don't have to choose. Zola was a good foil for Stevenson, though, useful for picking out Stevenson's methods. Stevenson was not a conceptual writer. He had to try and try again.