9/2/15

Fiction as Food

I HAVE been asked to explain what I meant by saying that "Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity." I have no notion when I said it or where I said it, or even whether I said it; in the sense that I do not now remember ever saying it at all. But I do know why I said it; if I ever said it at all. That is the advantage of believing in what some call dogma and others call logic. Some people seem to imagine that a man being sceptical and changing his beliefs, or even a man being cynical and disregarding his beliefs, is a sort of advantage to him in liberality and flexibility of mind. The truth is exactly the other way. By the very laws of the mind, it is more difficult to remember disconnected things than connected things; and a man is much more in control of a whole range of controversy if he has connected beliefs than if he had never had anything but disconnected doubts. Therefore I can immediately understand the sentence submitted to me, as if it were a sentence made up by somebody else; as perhaps it was.

Literature is a luxury, because it is part of what is popularly called "having the best of everything". Matthew Arnold would have been pained to be called popular; but he said what is really the same thing as the popular saying; that Culture is knowing the best that has been said and thought. Literature is indeed one of those nobler luxuries which a wellgoverned state would extend to all, and even regard as necessities in that nobler sense. But it is a luxury in the plain sense that human beings can do without it and still be tolerably human, or even tolerably happy. But human beings cannot be human without some field of fancy or imagination; some vague idea of the romance of life; and even some holiday of the mind in a romance that is a refuge from life.

Every healthy person at some period must feed on fiction as well as fact; because fact is a thing which the world gives to him, whereas fiction is a thing which he gives to the world. It has nothing to do with a man being able to write; or even with his being able to read. Perhaps its best period is that of childhood, and what is called playing or pretending. But it is still true when the child begins to read or sometimes (heaven help him) to write. Anybody who remembers a favourite fairy-story will have a strong sense of its original solidity and richness and even definite detail; and will be surprised, if he re-reads it in later life, to find how few and bald were the words which his own imagination made not only vivid but varied. And even the errand-boy who reads hundreds of penny-dreadfuls, or the lady who read hundreds of novels from the circulating library, were living an imaginative life which did not come wholly from without.

Now nobody supposes that all those things which feed the hunger for fiction would commend themselves to the palate of literature. Literature is only that rare sort of fiction which rises to a certain standard of objective beauty and truth. When a child, almost as soon as he can speak, has invented the imaginary family of Pubbles, with father and mother and naughty child all complete, nobody supposes that the psychology of the house of Pubbles is differentiated as delicately as that of the family of Poynton, in a story by Henry James. When the lady has followed and forgotten a hundred heroines in their wanderings through mysterious suburban flats or murderous country rectories, nobody supposes that each of them remains even for her a portrait, as vivid as Elizabeth Bennet or Becky Sharp. It is not a thing like having an appreciation of a good wine; it is a thing like having an appetite for a square meal; it is not a vintage but a viand.

Now this general need is connected with the deepest things in man; and the strangest thing about him, which is being a man. As a large mirror will make one room look like two rooms, so the mind of man is from the first a double mind; a thing of reflection and living in two worlds at once. The caveman who was not content that reindeers should be real — did something that no other animal ever has done or apparently ever will do. Of course, we cannot prove that the animal has not imagination in the inferior sense. For all we can prove, the rhinoceros may have an Invisible Playmate; and yet realize with his reason that "it is but a rhinoceros of air; that lingers in the garden there."

Scientifically speaking, we cannot demonstrate that the rabbit has not an imaginary family of rabbits, on the lines of Brer Rabbit, as well as the somewhat large and increasing family which the rabbit produces in the ordinary way of business. But there is such a thing as common sense; and I think our common sense inclines us to suppose that any such artistic daydream, if it exists in beasts and birds, is much more rudimentary and stationary; and has certainly never advanced to the point of expression, even in fairy-tales or penny-dreadfuls. But for man some form of this fanciful experience is essential as a mere fact of experience. If he has not that daydream all his day, he is not man; and if he is not man, there is nobody to write about and nobody to write about him.

I was a great reader of novels until I began to review them. when I naturally left off reading them. I do not mean to admit that I did them any injustice; I studied and sampled them with the purpose of being strictly fair; but I do not call that 'novel reading' in the old enchanting sense. If I read them thoroughly I still read them rapidly; which is quite against my instincts for the mere luxury of reading. When I was a boy and really had a new adventure story, when I was a young man and read my first few detective stories, I did not enjoy precipitation, but actually enjoyed delay. The pleasure was so intense that I was always putting it off. For it is one of the two or three big blunders in modern morality to suppose that the strongest eagerness expresses itself in extravagance. The strongest eagerness always expresses itself in thrift. That is why the French Revolution was French and not English; why the careful peasants have turned the world upside-down, while the careless labourers have cheerfully left it as it was. When a child's soul is in the most starry ecstasy of greed he desires to have his cake, not to eat it. I am English myself, and I have never managed to be thrifty about anything else.

But about my early novel reading I was as thrifty as a French peasant — and as greedy. I loved to look at the mere solid bulk of a sensational novel as one looks at the solid bulk of a cheese; to open the first page, dally with the first paragraph, and then shut it again, feeling how little pleasure I had lost as yet. And my favourite novelists are still those great nineteenth-century novelists who give an impression of bewildering bulk and variety, Scott or Dickens or Thackeray. I have artistic pleasure as keen or keener, I have moral sympathy as intense or more intense with many latex writers; with the hard-hitting mot juste of Stevenson's stories or the insurgent irony of Mr. Belloc's. But Stevenson has one fault as a novelist, that he must be read quickly. Novels like Belloc's Mr. Burden must not only be read quickly but fiercely; they describe a short, sharp struggle; the mood both of writer and reader is heroic and abnormal, like that of two men fighting a duel. But Scott, Thackeray, and Dickens had the mysterious trick or talent of the inexhaustible novel.

Even when we have come to the end of the story we somehow feel that it is endless. People say they have read Pickwick five times or fifty times or five hundred times. For my part I have only read Pickwick once. Since then I have lived in Pickwick; walked into it when and where I chose, as a man walks into his club. But whenever I have walked in, it seemed to me that I found something new. I am not sure that stringent modern artists like Stevenson or Mr. Belloc do not actually suffer from the strictness and swiftness of their art. If a book is a book to be lived in, it should be (like a house to be lived in) a little untidy.

Apart from such chaotic classics as these, my own taste in novel reading is one which I am prepared in a rather especial manner, not only to declare, but to defend. My taste is for the sensational novel, the detective story, the story about death, robbery and secret societies; a taste which I share in common with the bulk at least of the male population of this world. There was a time in my own melodramatic boyhood when I became quite fastidious in this respect. I would look at the first chapter of any new novel as a final test of its merits. If there was a murdered man under the sofa in the first chapter, I read the story. If there was no murdered man under the sofa in the first chapter, I dismissed the story as tea-table twaddle, which it often really was. But we all lose a little of that fine edge of austerity and idealism which sharpened our spiritual standard in our youth. I have come to compromise with the tea-table and to be less insistent about the sofa. As long as a corpse or two turns up in the second, the third, nay even the fourth or fifth chapter, I make allowance for human weakness, and I ask no more. But a novel without any death in it is still to me a novel without any life in it. I admit that the very best of the tea-table novels are great art — for instance, Emma or Northanger Abbey. Sheer elemental genius can make a work of art out of anything. Michelangelo might make a statue out of mud, and Jane Austen could make a novel out of tea — that much more contemptible substance. But on the whole I think that a tale about one man killing another man is more likely to have something in it than a tale in which, all the characters are talking trivialities without any of that instant and silent presence of death which is one of the strong spiritual bonds of all mankind. I still prefer the novel in which one person does another person to death to the novel in which all the persons are feebly (and vainly) trying to get the others to come to life.

But I have another and more important quarrel about the sensational novel. There seems to be a very general idea that the romance of the tomahawk will be (or will run the risk of being) more immoral than the romance of the teapot. This I violently deny. And in this I have the support of practically all the old moral traditions of our civilization and of every civilization. High or low, good or bad, clever or stupid, a moral story almost always meant a murderous story. For the old Greeks a moral play was one full of madness and slaying. For the great medievals a moral play was one which exhibited the dancing of the devil and the open jaws of hell. For the great Protestant moralists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a moral story meant a story in which a parricide was struck by lightning or a boy was drowned for fishing on a Sunday. For the more rationalistic moralists of the eighteenth century, such as Hogarth, Richardson, and the author of Sandford and Merton, all agreed that shocking calamities could properly be indicated as the result of evil doing; that the more shocking those calamities were the more moral they were. It is only in our exhausted and agnostic age that the idea has been started that if one is moral one must not be melodramatic.

But I believe that sensational novels are the most moral part of modern fiction, and I believe it upon two converging lines, such as make all real conviction. It is, I think, the fact that melodramatic fiction is moral and not immoral. And it is, I think, the abstract truth that any literature that represents our life as dangerous and startling is truer than any literature that represents it as dubious and languid. For life is a fight and is not a conversation.

~G.K. Chesterton: collected in The Spice of Life and Other Essays. 

2 comments:

  1. FWIW, he did write "Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity," earlier in "A Defense of Penny Dreadfuls"

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  2. The part where he describes how one savors what one loves most is the highlight for me. I know I'm not the only other one out there who saves the last chapter of a grand book for the perfect moment. Sometimes I've had to wait a week, and my excitement heightened to the point that I was fearful of an anti-climax. But with a truly great book, it doesn't happen, and often, my whetted appetite is not disappointed, even with a bitter ending.

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