Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 11/30/2023

Episode 39: By Way of Introduction

note: This is the first chapter of "Fundamentals of Fiction Writing" by Arthur Sullivant Hoffman. it was originally published in 1922, and is now in the public domain. I'll be posting several chapters from this book over the next few weeks.

Living in so complex a civilization, we generally fail to realize how complex have become our mental habits. We have come more and more to think upon complexities until, for the most part, the more elementary facts, processes and approaches are slighted or omitted as beneath the high development of our minds. However learned our thinking may be, its foundation must be elementary thinking, and, if elementary thinking is neglected because it seems too elementary for attention, the result is likely to be unsoundness of the whole structure because it has been erected on unsound foundation.

Add to faulty thinking habit the human tendency to accept as established what has been handed down to us by our thought predecessors, dead or contemporaneous. Progress can be made only to the extent this tendency is overcome by chance or guarded against. Guarding against it requires particularly the close scrutiny of elementals.

It is particularly unfortunate that, the specialists of course being the most complex thinkers of us all, we have allowed our habit of specialization to leave to them more and more the guidance of general thought, thus drifting further and further from elementary methods of thinking.

The more thoroughly you analyze modern thinking methods and their results, the more evident becomes the damage done.

Simplicity is the key, but, being rather proud of our complexity and advancement, we have become such strangers to simplicity that we even distrust it when we meet it. It is most pitiful of all that a mere outward show of complexity gains more respect than does a simple essential unadorned. Yet it is true. Almost automatically simplicity produces in us a reaction of contempt, a feeling that our highly developed minds have long ago passed on beyond such childish matters. We are too advanced to bother over the elementals and the result too often is much frantic "progress" along wrong paths.

In the course of my editorial work it impressed itself on me more and more that there was somewhere unsoundness in both the editorial basis of criticism and the writers' basis of creation. Being afflicted with the prevalent complex method of thought, it was only gradually that I came to suspect that the unsoundness traced back to some of the elementals all of us seemed to be taking for granted. My suspicions have grown the stronger during the years of "laboratory" work, at some points ripening into convictions, so that in this book intended to be of practical service to writers of magazine fiction they will inevitably show. They must, therefore, be labeled in advance as departures from the usual dicta laid down, so that the reader can make allowance accordingly.

While my personal history is unimportant, some of the details that may indicate, or that seem to have influenced, the theories developed have place in this book as guide-posts in valuing or discounting it.

It is, for example, only fair to make plain in advance that I am probably far less familiar with books on how to write fiction than are most beginners who may read this book, and probably know—or remember—less concerning the dicta of critics and other authorities on literature in general. On the other hand, in view of the probable reaction to some of my unacademic views, I claim the right to state that these views do not result from lack of academic training. Also a brief statement of my experience as editor and writer seems called for by way of warrant for my venturing to advance any theories at all.

I have been an editor more than twenty years, a magazine editor for nearly twenty, serving on seven widely different periodicals —general, specialized and fiction— Chautauquan, Smart Set, Watson's, Transatlantic Tales, Delineator, Romance, Adventure. At intervals during that time I have contributed fiction and articles to Everybody's, McClure's, Bookman, Country Life, Delineator, Smart Set and half a dozen others. Previous to this there were nearly three years as editor of a country weekly and two years of teaching English and literature in high school. I specialized in English at one university and added some graduate work in fiction writing at another.

As a child my home influence was decidedly literary, even to a point that might be designated "highbrow," with the natural flavoring of science rather to be expected in a house largely occupied by my grandfather's microscopes and shelves of specimens. In a word, my early training was decidedly academic, and as a "cub" I came to the magazine "game" spelling "literature" with a very large capital "L" and with more than the usual cub reverence for books and magazines and ail that pertains thereto.

Like the majority of magazine editors, I found that my first task was to shove most of my academic training and point of view into the background, making of them an accessory rather than a guide, and adopting an altogether new scale of relative values. A few months accomplished the greater part of the change, but it required years to develop suspicion of that new and commonly accepted scale, to ripen the suspicion to conviction and to build up a third scale to take its place in my work.

Before entering the magazine field, I remember only one questioning of precepts and tenets. About 1900 I refused to read any more authors "for style," realizing I was against my will absorbing too many of their individualities, Stevenson's sentence-rhythm in particular imposing itself on my literary efforts to a decided degree. "Style is the man" seems to have been one of the textbook statements that sank in deepest, and it gave me courage to rebel against another of its kind.

In my college course three things stand out as strong in influence. All were encountered in work of the thesis class conducted by Professor Joseph Villiers Denney with a sound judgment and breadth of view that were bound to be stimulative and give permanent value. First, laboratory experiments upon the class itself showed us, to our great surprise, the tremendous degree of variation in individuals as to the quality and degree of their imagination-response to the printed or spoken word. I have met few writers or editors who had any conception of this variation or who had even given the matter a thought, yet it is of basic importance to both.

The second idea outstanding from my college course is the explanation of the psychological appeal of fiction given by George Henry Lewes to the effect that man finds enjoyment in fiction because by following the fortunes of the hero or identifying himself with him he can attain vicariously the perfections and successes he can not attain in real life. I have not seen it for twenty-four years and may have distorted it, but the idea as stated has been the one acted upon.

Third, there was Spencer's economy as a basis of rhetorical theory. I remember nothing whatever about it except that he included economy of the reader's attention. To what extent this phase of his idea is responsible for my own theories I do not know. Memory tells me I recalled it only after working out my own, but it is reasonable to hold it a cause though an unrealized one.

Analytics of Literature, by L. A. Sherman, made a decided impression on me during college or in the years immediately following. Undoubtedly I gained much from it, but at present I am unable to state its content in any but the most vague way and can not detect any but academic influences from it, though in this I may be doing it serious injustice. De Quincey's On the Knocking at the Gate in "Macbeth" made vivid the use of relief scenes. From some book by Brander Matthews I learned that the short story should have only one point.

Five years after college I read Tolstoy's What Is Art? Read it with interest, resentment, bewilderment and enthusiasm. It was the first real blow to my unquestioning acceptance of all the usual canons of art. The impress was tremendous, but, quite in keeping with my miserable memory, the only definite, abiding impression I can identify is the emphasis laid on simplicity, with the corollary that creative work must reach peasant appreciation if it is to be classed as art. Years later I came to attach more and more importance to simplicity, arriving at that attitude by paths leading from practical experience-laboratory work, as it were, paths that to my vague recollection seem not at all those of his approach, but I can make no exact measure of the extent to which. Tolstoy may have done my thinking for me or at least influenced it Probably the influence is far greater than I realize.

In any case, the above are the total of the outside influences. It is, of course, impossible for any one to live in contact with his fellows in a world filled with type and opinions without absorbing ideas from others, but in the sense of influences sufficiently definite to make conscious impress I can add nothing to the above list. In nearly twenty years, if I have read any book or article dealing with the philosophy of literature I do not recall the title or the occasion. Five or six years ago I read a third or half of a book that taught the writing of fiction, but laid it down because it was too difficult for me to understand and seemed not in accordance with my own ideas. I have never read any other text on fiction writing, though I have spun the pages of a number of them to gain a general idea of methods and theories, finding only the usual ones.

This lack of reading authorities was at first due to lack of time, but for years I have carefully avoided the influence of others' theories to the best of my ability so that I should not be diverted or forestalled in an effort to work out my own. Naturally, most of the accepted theories and methods are current because they are sound, but there is a minority of cases in which a dissenting view seems warranted.

My warrant for dissent is that to a very great extent the main faults (other than those due to lack of natural ability) in the fiction submitted to magazines seem directly due to faults in accepted theories and methods. These faults in theory and teaching may be roughly summarized under two heads:

(1) Assigning to readers theoretical reactions based on traditional editorial and critical precepts instead of basing editorial precepts on actual reactions of readers. In particular, lack of emphasis upon preserving the illusion.

(2) Overwhelming writers with demands of technique and academics and thereby doing all possible to ruin individuality and real ability.

For getting data on the first of these points I have been exceptionally well situated. More than any other magazine on which I have served, more than the half dozen others under the same roofs, more, so far as I can judge, than any other magazine I know.

Adventure gets definite, concrete response and criticism from its readers. So far as the male sex is concerned, probably no other magazine has a more generally representative audience, ranging through all classes from the highest to the lowest brows. The great number of letters and talks resulting from this keen personal interest of its readers in the making of the magazine has been invaluable in giving its editor, for more than ten years, the actual, specific reactions of readers, as opposed to the theoretical reactions that accepted editorial theories assign to them.

The overemphasis on technique and academics I consider the most harmful factor at work in the field of American fiction, from both the literary and the magazine point of view. I can claim no special equipment for speaking on this point other than a decidedly academic training followed by over twenty years of practical laboratory work, and arrival at conclusions by abandoning all accepted precepts and going back to the simple elementals.

The object of this book is not exploitation of theories but practical service to writers and would-be writers. It is aimed directly at the faults that are the chief causes of rejection of manuscripts by magazines and book houses. General theories are used chiefly to give foundation and perspective, so that a writer, knowing the general ends in view, may be enabled to solve intelligently and consistently even those problems in his work that can not be covered specifically by any "book of rules." It is a crying need that writers should learn to work less by rule of thumb and more from a general understanding of what fiction really is and of what determines its success. For twenty years I have watched the flow of manuscripts—more tens of thousands than I like to remember—and am year by year more convinced that more embryo writers of appreciable ability are ruined by an overdose of technique at the hands of their literary doctors or by slavish copying of the work of some "successful" writer than by any three other causes you please to name.

Technique, naturally, should be a means, not an end. In most of the teaching of the day so much emphasis is placed on it and such large quantities of it arc shoved down the beginner's throat, before he has developed himself sufficiently to digest it instead of merely chew it, that in a majority of cases he loses himself and his talents in an empty struggle with formulas and formalities. He may learn to chew very well indeed, but the odds are that he isn't chewing anything and that he has starved himself to death. As a matter of fact, he has ceased to be himself.

Perhaps the reason for this overemphasis on technique is that those responsible for the books, classes and correspondence courses designed to help the budding fiction writers are, with very few exceptions, chiefly theorists with no great background of either actual editorial experience or an even fairly considerable accomplishment in writing fiction. Those who have both, even a moderate degree of both, are so very few that in number they constitute only a fraction of a percent, of those at work in this field. The teachers of fiction, a good many of them, give extremely valuable service, but the majority of them either approached their work from abstract and academic beginnings or, having sold fiction themselves, built too much from their own experiences, knowing too little of the many different paths by which others must progress. Both groups seem to have been too much influenced by technique and academics in general.

The editors, too, for the same and other reasons, have contributed toward making technique too great a factor. It is physically impossible to give individual criticism to every manuscript that comes in, or, when given at all, to give it fully in all cases. Almost never are the reasons for an acceptance given and only in a general way at best. As a result, writers in their early formative stages are left in the dark unless they turn to the other teachers. Much of the criticism given by editors, too, is academic and centers on technique—because that kind of criticism is easier for us to give. Still again, we often mislead a writer by failing to distinguish carefully between the needs and likes of the particular magazine as opposed to those of magazines in general.

Whatever the reasons for the exaggerated part technique plays in American fiction, it is the chief hope of this little book that it may to some degree counteract this curse of formula and encourage beginners to more direct effort for individuality and a more natural expression of it.

Perhaps this is not a book at all, but merely a collection of talks. Certainly there is little attempt at carefully unified structure. Its writing must be done at odd moments, for I am still in editorial harness. Also it will be done only in such moments and manner as make the writing of it a pleasure rather than a task.

I use the pronoun "I" without stint or apology, for that is the natural method to follow when one person speaks to another and, while I object strenuously to an author's obtrusion of himself into his fiction, the first personal pronoun in books of exposition is often of distinct advantage in precision as well as in case and clearness.

Finally, this book is not meant for geniuses. They should by all means march their own paths, finding or making their own methods, each to his taste. Though this is a book of suggestions, not of rules, the genius does not need it. But wait,—alas! half my possible readers are gone from me at the ending of that last sentence, self-dismissed as indubitable geniuses. I'd forgotten that the writing world is composed chiefly of geniuses, most of them indubitable and—self-dismissed.

But you —I think you'd better read on until you find stronger reason to turn away, for, to be friendly frank, the odds are so very heavily against your being a genius. As for me, I don't even know more than three or four geniuses at the very most and you can be entirely at your ease in my quite ordinary society.