The Craftsmanship of Writing/The Power Of Self-Criticism

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The Craftsmanship of Writing by Frederic Taber Cooper
The Power Of Self-Criticism



Let us assume, from this point onward, that any would-be writer, whose eye happens to fall upon these pages, possesses in some degree that quality which is inborn and not made—the potential force of authorship. The next all-important question is, how is this inborn talent to be best developed? What is the first faculty for a young author to cultivate? The answer may be given with emphatic assurance: The faculty of self-criticism. Yet a good many teachers will answer differently; they will tell you that in writing, as in everything else that is worth doing well, the one indispensable factor is perseverance, industry, the tenacity that sticks to a task until that task is mastered. In a certain sense the teachers who say this are right. There is just one way of learning to do a thing, and that is by doing it—doing it over and over, until the trick of it is mastered—and this holds just as true of the trick of constructing a short story as of that of kneading bread. But all the industry in the world will not take you far if it Is misdirected. No amount of wasted flour and wasted energy will make a baker of you, if you cannot tell good bread from bad—and no amount of straining thought and patient twisting and untwisting of the threads of a plot will make a good short story if you do not know the right twist from the wrong.

For this reason, a young author who has developed the power of self-criticism enjoys a distinct advantage. He has within him the ability to help himself as no one else can help him. Others may tell him whether his work is good or bad; but only the author himself is in a position to know just what he was trying to do and how far or short he has fallen of doing it. It is easy for a critic of broad sympathies and keen discernment to point out a writer's faults and to show how a specific piece of bad writing may be worked over and improved. But in a big, general way it may be said boldly that no one can teach a writer how to remedy his faults, no one can provide a golden rule for his future avoidance of them. Suppose, for instance, that an author's trouble is in plot construction. It may be easy to tell him where his plot is wrong and explain to him the principle that he has violated. But if he is to obtain any real and lasting profit he must find out for himself how to set the trouble right. Of course, you might construct the plot for him—but then it would be your plot and not his; you would be, not his teacher, but his collaborator; and his working out of your plot would almost surely result in bad work. Or suppose again that his fault is one of style. You may point out that his prose lacks rhythm, that his language is pompous, or high-coloured, or vulgar. You may remedy specific paragraphs with a rigorous blue pencil; but the writer must learn for himself how to acquire an ear for rhythm or a sense of good taste in word and phrase.

Unfortunately the power to judge one's own work with the detachment and impartiality of an outsider is so rare a quality that we may seriously question whether any author ever acquires it in an absolute sense. Many writers of distinction have been to the end of their lives notoriously unable to discriminate between their good work and their bad. Wordsworth is a flagrant case in point.[1] Mark Twain, in our own generation, is another—or else the genius that produced Tom Sawyer and Innocents Abroad would never have allowed such sorry stuff as Adam's Diary to don the dignity of print. Other writers, even some of the greatest, can get the proper outside perspective of their work only by some systematic method, some mechanical device. Balzac, for instance, needed the impersonality of the printed page before he could judge the value of his writings or do any effective revision; it was only through repeated sets of proof sheets that much of his work slowly grew into final shape.[2]

Now this vital power of self-criticism, which even great writers have, many of them, developed slowly and painfully, is at best rudimentary in the average beginner. Every writer, whether he will or not, puts a good deal of himself into his work; and every amateur writer is inordinately pleased with that part of his work which he feels to be distinctive, that quality which stamps it as his own. It may bristle with mannerisms, as a hedgehog bristles with spines—nevertheless it is the part dearest to him, the part that he is slowest to recognise as wrong. He cannot see himself as others see him. How is this rudimentary sense to be developed? First of all, it would seem, by learning to criticise others. Writing in this respect does not differ from shoeing a horse or making a pair of trousers. If you have not learned to judge whether a horse is well shod or a pair of trousers well cut, then you may go through life without knowing the quality of your own work as blacksmith or tailor. What you must do is to go to blacksmiths and to tailors of recognised skill and patiently study their methods and their results until you make yourself an expert on these subjects—perhaps, even, until you discover ways in which their work may be improved. And the same rule holds good, if instead of horseshoes and trousers you wish to learn the craftsmanship of essay and sonnet.

Now, it is far easier to say, Learn to criticise others, than it is to tell how to go to work to learn. But the first and weightiest rule is this: begin by reading the best models in whatever line of work you are desirous of taking up. Go to the fountain-head, read the books themselves, don't read what someone else has written about them—or if you do, at least make such reading a secondary matter. If your chosen field is the short story, spend your time in reading the recognised masterpieces of Poe and Maupassant, Kipling and O. Henry, in preference to the best text-book ever written on short-story structure. If your life work is lyric poetry, then by all means read lyrics, memorise lyrics, the best you can find and the more the better. You may get some help from critical studies, but you will get vastly more from the knowledge which you slowly and laboriously dig out for yourself. When someone once wrote to Matthew Arnold on behalf of a young woman who thought that she possessed the poetic gift and wished to know if there was such a thing as a dictionary of rhymes, he replied: "There is a Rhyming Dictionary and there is a book called a Guide to English Verse Composition. But all this is sad lumber, and the young lady had much better content herself with imitating the metres she finds most attract her in the poetry she reads. Nobody, I imagine, ever began to good purpose in any other way."

It is rather surprising and extremely suggestive to find how many of the world's great writers were insatiable and omnivorous readers in early youth. Pope records that as a boy "I took to reading by myself, for which I had a very great eagerness and enthusiasm.… I followed everywhere as my fancy led me, and was like a boy gathering flowers in the fields and woods just as they fell his way." Moore, in his Life of Byron, gives a list which the author of Childe Harold jotted down from memory, of books read before he was twenty[3]—a list so varied and extensive as to make many a mature man of letters of his day feel sadly delinquent. George Eliot, at about the same age, writes to a friend as follows: "My mind is an assemblage of disjointed specimens of history, ancient and modern, scraps of poetry picked up from Shakespeare, William Cowper, Wordsworth and John Milton; newspaper topics; morsels of Joseph Addison and Francis Bacon, Latin verbs, geometry, entomology and chemistry; reviews and metaphysics." Théophile Gautier is perhaps, the most extreme instance that can be cited. He learned to read at the age of five. "And since that time," he adds, "I may say, like Apelles, Nulla dies sine linea." And his biographer, Maxime du Camp, says further:

This is literally true; I do not think there ever existed a more indefatigable reader than Gautier. Any book was good enough to satisfy this tyrannical taste, that at times seemed to degenerate into a mania.… He took pleasure in the most mediocre novels, equally with books of high philosophic conceptions, and with works of pure science. He was devoured with the thirst for learning, and he used to say, "There is no conception so poor, no trash so detestable, that it does not teach something from which one may profit." He would read dictionaries, grammars, prospectuses, cook-books, almanacs.… He had no sort of system about his reading; whatever book came under his hand he would open with a sort of mechanical movement, nor lay it down again until he had turned the closing page.

Now there may be some disadvantages in this sort of voracious and undisciplined reading, in which many a famous author has confessedly indulged. But at least it tends toward forming an independent taste and avoiding the slavish echoing of cut-and-dried academic judgments. In an essay entitled "Is it Possible to Tell a Good Book from a Bad One?" Mr. Augustine Birrell remarks pertinently: "To admire by tradition is a poor thing. Far better really to admire Miss Gabblegoose's novels than to pretend to admire Miss Austen's." There is nothing so deadening to the critical faculty as the blind acceptance of text-book and encyclopedic verdicts. No critical estimate of any author, living or dead, is ever quite final. As Anatole France is fond of reminding us, even Homer has not been admired for precisely the same reasons during any two consecutive centuries. "The works that everyone admires are those that no one examines.

We receive them as a precious burden, which we pass on to others without having looked at them." And in much the same vein, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote: "Nothing is interesting to all the world. An author who is spoken of as universally admired will find, if he is foolish enough to inquire, that there are not wanting intelligent persons who are indifferent to him, nor yet those who have a special emphatic dislike to him." Unless you are devoid of literary taste, you must find pleasure in a certain number of the recognised masters; but you are under no obligation to admire them all.[4] The ability to give an intelligent reason for differing from the accepted estimate of Milton, or Fielding, or Dickens, is not a bad test of the possession of the critical gift. "A man," says George Eliot, "who dares to say that he finds an eminent classic feeble here, extravagant there, and in general overrated, may chance to give an opinion which has some genuine discrimination in it concerning a new worker or a living thinker."

As a basis, then, for forming a sound critical estimate of books, one needs: first, a broad acquaintance with the best authors, the wider and more catholic the better; secondly, an open and independent mind. If, beyond this, your taste happens to run to a serious study of criticism, its history, its methods, its controversies, all this will tend to strengthen your self-confidence and sureness of touch. Yet, for the purpose of craftsmanship, the principles on which to judge a book are few and simple. You are not required to dogmatise about the ultimate value, in the universal scheme of things, of the newest novel or the youngest verse. As a craftsman you are interested primarily in its possible present value to you. Accordingly, there is just one way in which to judge the books you read, the new books equally with the old: and that is, to ask yourself what was the author's underlying purpose, what special means he took to accomplish it, and whether or not he attained his goal. The further question, whether the thing was worth doing at all, concerns the craftsman only indirectly—just as the question whether a cube and cone and pyramid are worth reproducing in black and white need never trouble the art student. If his purpose is to draw a cube or a cone, then his one concern is to find out how to do it in the best possible way. The moral or ethical value of a painting or a book is not a part of the craftsmanship of art or of literature. The one paramount question is always: What did the author try to do, and how near did he come to doing it? This form of criticism, which seeks to classify books according to the author's purpose, is very nearly what Mr. Howells had in mind when he wrote:

It is hard for the critic to understand that it is really his business to classify and analyse the fruits of the human mind very much as the naturalist classifies the objects of his study, rather than to praise or blame them; that there is a measure of the same absurdity in his trampling on a poem, a novel or an essay that does not please him as in a botanist grinding a plant underfoot because he does not find it pretty. He does not conceive that it is his business rather to identify the species, and then explain how and where the species is imperfect and irregular.

It has already been said that the young writer can get comparatively small aid from volumes of criticism and monographs on how to write; that he should go to the authors who have produced literature rather than to those who tell others how to produce it. There is, however, one class of critical essay, the importance of which, to the young writer, can hardly be overrated; and that is the criticism written by men who have proved themselves masters of the art they criticise. I have in mind such essays as that of Poe, in which he analyses the structure of The Raven; Maupassant's introduction to Pierre et Jean; and Valdès's introduction to La Hermana San Sulpicio; Trollope's chapter on the novel in his Autobiography; and in general the various critical writings of Zola and Anatole France, Henry James and William Dean Howells—the list could be amplified at pleasure—in which they allow themselves to theorise freely about their conception of the art they practise and the methods by which they strive to produce their results. Every page of such criticism is in the nature of a craftsman's confessions—they are full of priceless illumination.

Yet it cannot be too strongly insisted that, in writing far more than in painting, there is a great deal that cannot be taught and that you must think out for yourself. One reason, undoubtedly, is that the craftsmanship of letters is more elastic than that of the other arts—there is scope for a greater freedom and originality. Henry James, in The Art of Fiction, shrewdly says: "The painter is able to teach the rudiments of his practice, and it is possible, from the study of good work (granted the aptitude) both to learn how to paint and to learn how to write. Yet … the literary artist would be obliged to say to his pupil much more than the other, 'Oh, well, you must do it as you can.'" Again, there are some things which an author cannot teach because he does not quite know how or why he did a certain thing. Often-times a novelist achieves some of his happiest results unconsciously,[5] and by sheer instinct; and then, again, a carefully planned chapter or in some cases an entire volume fails of its effect, and the reason of the failure eludes him.[6] These are the sort of questions which a young writer should have constantly before him, in all his reading: Why is a certain chapter tedious and a certain other chapter tingling with an almost painful suspense? And did the author mean to achieve these results, or has he simply failed in what he tried to do? Take, for example, two passages from Kipling; not perhaps the best we might find for the purpose; but at least they are to the point—the one conveying the sense of dragging, monotonous hours, the other that of tremendous speed, the conquest of time and space. On the one hand we have in The Light that Failed the unforgettable picture of Dick sitting, day after day, in his unending darkness, dumbly turning over Maisie's letters, which he is never to read; on the other, in Captains Courageous, we see Harvey Cheyne's father speeding across the breadth of the American continent, goaded by an intolerable impatience to reach the son, whom by a miracle the waves have given back to him. Now, the first case is flawless. The second, much praised and often quoted, is off the key. That private care of the elder Cheyne, "humming like a giant bee" across the mountain and prairie, by the very sense of motion it conveys, robs us of a true perception of the way in which time seems to drag to the impatient man within it.

But above all, in your reading, do not be content with studying the so-called masterpieces of literature. It is wise to know the Decameron and Don Quixote, Richardson, and Smollett, and Sterne; but the modern writer can do no more depend on them as models than the modern painter can depend on Botticelli and Ghirlandajo. A knowledge of Elisabethan footgear, or of the relative artisitc value of the moccasin and the sabot, is of little value to a modern shoemaker. What he wants to know is how shoes, the best sort of shoes, are made to-day, by the latest methods. And it is precisely the same with literature. There is no demand to-day for a new Hamlet, a second Paradise Lost, another Sir Roger de Coverly, or even a Tom Jones, David Copperfield or Vanity Fair. The technique of writing is constantly in a state of transition; and however much we may delight in the methods of a generation or a century ago, we do not tolerate them at the hands of modern writers. Take for instance the modern novel; its form and structure—one might almost say its spirit, too—have been radically changed from that of Thackeray and Dickens. And it does not help us nearly so much, as writers, to know which of the two is the greater novelist, as to understand in what respects Henry James and Maupassant are better craftsmen than either of them. Professor Woodberry, in The Appreciation of Literature, insists that, even for the general reader, "the serious study of one's own literature is most fruitfully begun by acquaintance with those authors who are in vogue and nearly contemporary." In the case of the would be writer it is not merely most fruitful, but absolutely imperative, to keep abreast of the best contemporary work that is done in the field of his own labours. And by "best work" I do not mean only such books as seem likely to stand the test of time, books that are unmistakably big in theme, in purpose and in technical skill: contemporary works of this class are so few that the apprentice's lesson would be soon ended. No, I go much further than that and include all the new books which exhibit even in some single direction, an encouraging tendency, the evidence of some problem faced and solved, some interesting innovation attempted. Above all, in your reading, avoid that narrow provincial spirit that limits your range to the works of your own countrymen. The American writer cannot afford to ignore what is being done in his own field by Englishmen. And if he has the time and the gift of languages he will be the broader and better artist for keeping abreast of the best thought and best work of France and Germany and Italy.

And in all your studies let the two great essentials, reading and writing, go hand in hand. Clarify your impressions by transferring them to paper. They may never be of value to anyone else, but they will be of inestimable service to you, as milestones of your own progress. "Of late years," wrote Trollope at the close of his Autobiography, "I have found my greatest pleasure in our old English dramatists, not from excessive love of their work, but from curiosity in searching their plots and examining their character. If I live a few years longer, I shall, I think, leave in my copies of these dramatists, down to the close of James I., written criticisms on every play." In Zola's published Lettres de Jeunesse, letters written between the ages of twenty and twenty-two, the chief interest centres in their testimony of the eagerness with which he devoured books, the earnestness with which he thought about them, and the enthusiasm with which he poured out his opinions upon paper. Through those rapid, immature and often turgid pages one sees already the germs of ideas that later came to fruition, the origin of many of his articles of literary faith. And not so far removed was the method by which an author of widely different quality and creed learned his craftsmanship. This paragraph from Stevenson's letters, though often quoted, will hurt no one to read once again:

All through my boyhood and youth I was known and pointed out for the pattern of an idler; and yet I was always busy on my private end, which was to learn to write. I always kept two books in my pocket, one to read, the other to write in. As I walked, my mind was busy fitting what I saw with appropriate words; when I sat by the roadside, I would either read, or a pencil and a penny version-book would be in my hand, to note down the features of the scene or commemorate some halting stanzas.… And what I wrote was for no ulterior use; it was written consciously for practice.… I had vowed that I would learn to write. That was a proficiency that tempted me, and I practiced, to acquire it, as a man learns to whittle, in a wager with myself.

But in all your studies of other writers, the living and the dead, cultivate independence. Never slavishly imitate. Take what you find best from the technique of each book you read and reject the rest. Notice what qualities and what defects the authors you read have in common and what are their individual sins and virtues. In learning your lesson from them, do not be afraid of independence, so long as you know the reason why. But as Miss Ellen Terry remarks aptly, in her volume of autobiography, before you are allowed to be eccentric you must have learned where the centre is. Mistrust the extravagant individualism of youth; realise that there is no virtue in being different, unless the difference produces some deliberately sought result. To come down from your apartment by the fire-escape will no doubt make you conspicuous—but there is really no point in doing so unless the elevator has stopped running and the stairs are on fire. In writing we want some better and more logical reason for eccentricity than a mere peacock vanity, a desire to attract attention. Where a literary form is well established, do your share in maintaining it, excepting when you have some excellent reason for making a change. The chances are that in doing a thing differently from the established formula you will not do it half so well. Only a madman would try to write a sonnet in fifteen lines, just for the sake of being different from others. Yet George Meredith made use of a sixteen-line form of verse in his Modern Love, which is often loosely spoken of as a sonnet sequence—and he was justified in doing so because he knew exactly why he did it. The poem is not merely a series of separate and complete thoughts, connected by a single thread, like pearls strung on the same string, after the fashion of Shakespeare's sonnets, or the Sonnets from the Portuguese. They form a continuous piece of narrative, and for that reason the extra two lines help the forward movement, where the formal sestet of the sonnet would have continually broken in with a misplaced sense of finality. Many a rule of rhetoric and prosody and technique may be broken—provided always that you have a reason that justifies you. The early stories of Kipling fairly bristled with strange phrases, words forced into new partnerships, and what Mr. Gosse has called "the noisy, newspaper bustle of his little peremptory sentences." And yet, more often than not, he justified himself, because he knew so well what he was about—and knew also that he was succeeding in expressing his thoughts a little better than they could have been expressed in any other and more conventional way. So remember, in writing, to be independent; on occasion be even boldly innovative, so long as you can be so intelligently.

  1. Walter Pater, in Appreciations, says: "Nowhere is there so perplexed a mixture as in Wordsworth's own poetry, of work touched with intense and individual power, with work of almost no character at all.… Of all poets equally great he would gain most by a skilfully made anthology." And similarly Lowell, in his essay entitled "Shakespeare Once More:"

    "His (Wordsworth's) poems are Egyptian sand-wastes, with here and there an oasis of exquisite greenery, a grand image Sphynx-like, half buried in drifting commonplaces, or a solitary pillar of some towering thought."

  2. See page 163.
  3. In the list referred to, the books are grouped under the headings, History, Biography, Law, Philosophy, Geography, Poetry, Eloquence, Divinity, and Miscellaneous, concluding with the following paragraph: "All the books here enumerated I have taken down from memory. I recollect reading them and can quote passages from any mentioned. I have, of course, omitted several in my catalogue, but the greater part of the above I perused before before the age of fifteen.… I have also read (to my regret at present) about four thousand novels, including the works of Cervantes, Fielding, Smollett, Richardon, Mackenzie, Sterne, Rabelais, Rousseau, etc."
  4. This is practically the thought of Thoreau, when he wrote: "If the writers of the brazen age are most suggestive to thee, confine thyself to them and leave those of the Augustan age to dust and the bookworm."
  5. Thackeray, in Vanity Fair, writing the chapter describing how Rawdon Crawley, released from the sponging house, returns to his home to find Lord Steyne in Becky's company and hurls the noble black-guard to the ground, gives the final touch with "Becky admired her husband, strong, brave and victorious." After he had written these words the novelist dropped his pen and brought his fist down on the table. "By God! That's a stroke of genius!"
  6. Mr. Henry James's own confessions regarding The Awkward Age, contained in the preface to the "New York Edition," seems very much to the point: "That I did, positively and seriously—ah, so seriously!—emulate the levity of Gyp and by the same token, of that hardiest of flowers fostered in her school, M. Henri Lavedan, is a contribution to the history of The Awkward Age that I shall obviously have had to brace myself in order to make.… My private inspiration had been in the Gyp plan (artfully dissimulated, for dear life, and applied with the very subtlest consistency, but none the less kept in secret view); yet I was to fail to make out in the event that the book succeeded in producing the impression of any plan on any person. No hint of that sort of success, or of any critical perception at all in relation to the business, has ever come my way.… I had meanwhile been absent in England, and it was not until my return, some time later, that I had from my publisher any news of our venture. But the news then met at a stroke all my curiosity: 'I am sorry to say the book has done nothing to speak of; I've never in all my experience seen one treated with more general and complete disrespect.'"