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- Definitions - 5/38 -

recrosses the Goltva. Jerome is still on the ferry. He rests his dim, timid eyes upon them all, and then fixes his gaze on the rosy face of a merchant's wife. There is little of the man in that long gaze. He is seeking in the woman's face the sweet and gentle features of his lost friend.

The American editor refuses such a story. There is no plot here, he says, and no "punch." He is wrong, although an imperfect abstract like mine cannot convict him. For the narrative presents an unforgettable portrait of wistful hero-worship, set in the dim mists of a Russian river against the barbaric splendor of an Easter midnight mass. To force a climax upon this poignant story would be to spoil it. And when it appears, as it will, in reprint, in some periodical anthology of current fiction, it will not fail to impress American readers.

But the American editor must have a climax which drives home what he thinks the public wants. If it is not true, so much the worse for truth. If it falsifies the story, well, a lying story with a "punch" is better than a true one that lacks a fire-spitting climax. The audience which judge a play by the effect of its "curtain," will not complain of a trifling illogicality in narrative, or a little juggling with what might happen if the story were life. Of what the editor wants I find a typical example in a recent number of a popular magazine. The story is well written; it is interesting until it begins to lie; moreover it is "featured" as one of the best short stories of the year. An American girl, brought up in luxury, has fed her heart with romantic sentiment. The world is a Christmas tree. If you are good and pretty and "nice," you have only to wait until you get big enough to shake it, and then down will come some present--respect from one's friends and family, perhaps a lover. And then she wakes up. Her father points out that she is pinching him by her extravagance. Nobody seems to want her kind of "nice-ness"; which indeed does no one much good. There is nothing that she can do that is useful in the world, for she has never learned. She begins to doubt the Christmas tree. There enters a man--a young electrical engineer, highly trained, highly ambitious, but caught in the wheels of a great corporation where he is merely a cog; wanting to live, wanting to love, wanting to be married, yet condemned to labor for many years more upon a salary which perhaps would little more than pay for her clothes. By an ingenious device they are thrown together in a bit of wild country near town, and are made to exchange confidences. So far, no one can complain of the truth of this story; and furthermore it is well told. Here are two products of our social machine, both true to type. Suppose they want to marry? What can we do about it? The story-teller has posed his question with a force not to be denied.

But I wish we had had a Tchekoff to answer it. As for this author, he leads his characters to a conveniently deserted house, lights a fire on the hearth, sets water boiling for tea, and in a few pages of charming romance would persuade us that with a few economies in this rural residence, true love may have its course and a successful marriage crown the morning's adventure. Thus in one dazzling sweep, the greatest and most sugary plum of all drops from the very tip of the Christmas tree into the lap of the lady, who had just learned that happiness in the real world comes in no such haphazard and undeserved a fashion. Really! have we degenerated from Lincoln's day? Is it easy now to fool all of us all of the time, so that a tale-teller dares to expose silly romance at the beginning of his story, and yet dose us with it at the end? Not that one objects to romance. It is as necessary as food, and almost as valuable. But romance that pretends to be realism, realism that fizzles out into sentimental romance--is there any excuse for that? Even if it provides "heart interest" and an effective climax?

The truth is, of course, that the Russian stories are based upon life; the typical stories of the American magazines, for all their realistic details, are too often studied, not from American life but from literary convention. Even when their substance is fresh, their unfoldings and above all their solutions are second-hand. If the Russian authors could write American stories I believe that their work would be more truly popular than what we are now getting. They would be free to be interesting in any direction and by any method. The writer of the American short story is not free.

I should like to leave the subject here with a comparison that any reader can make for himself. But American pride recalls the past glory of our short story, and common knowledge indicates the present reality of a few authors--several of them women--who are writing fiction of which any race might be proud. The optimist cannot resist meditating on the way out for our enslaved short story.

The ultimate responsibility for its present position must fall, I suppose, upon our American taste, which, when taken by and large, is unquestionably crude, easily satisfied, and not sensitive to good things. American taste does not rebel against the "formula." If interest is pricked it does not inquire too curiously into the nature of the goad. American taste is partial to sentiment, and antagonistic to themes that fail to present the American in the light of optimistic romance. But our defects in taste are slowly but certainly being remedied. The schools are at work upon them; journalism, for all its noisy vulgarity, is at work upon them. Our taste in art, our taste in poetry, our taste in architecture, our taste in music go up, as our taste in magazine fiction seems to go down.

But what are the writers of short stories and what are the editors and publishers doing to help taste improve itself until, as Henry James says, it acquires a keener relish than ever before?

It profits nothing to attack the American writer. He does, it may fairly be assumed, what he can, and I do not wish to discuss here the responsibility of the public for his deficiencies. The editor and the publisher, however, stand in a somewhat different relationship to the American short story. They may assert with much justice that they are public servants merely; nevertheless they _do_ control the organs of literary expression, and it is through them that any positive influence on the side of restriction or proscription must be exerted, whatever may be its ultimate source. If a lack of freedom in method and in choice of subject is one reason for the sophistication of our short story, then the editorial policy of American magazines is a legitimate field for speculation.

I can reason only from the evidence of the product and the testimony of authors, successful and unsuccessful. Yet one conclusion springs to the eye, and is enough in itself to justify investigation. The critical basis upon which the American editor professes to build his magazine is of doubtful validity. I believe that it is unsound. His policy, as stated in "editorial announcements" and confirmed by his advertisements of the material he selects, is first to find out what the public wants, and next to supply it. This is reasonable in appearance. It would seem to be good commercially, and, as a policy, I should consider it good for art, which must consult the popular taste or lose its vitality. But a pitfall lies between this theory of editorial selection and its successful practice. The editor must really know what the public wants. If he does not, he becomes a dogmatic critic of a very dangerous school.

Those who know the theater and its playwrights, are agreed that the dramatic manager, at least in America, is a very poor judge of what the public desires. The percentage of bad guesses in every metropolitan season is said to be very high. Is the editor more competent? It would seem that he is, to judge from the stability of our popular magazines. But that he follows the public taste with any certainty of judgment is rendered unlikely, not only by inherent improbability, but also by three specific facts: the tiresome succession of like stories which follow unendingly in the wake of every popular success; the palpable fear of the editor to attempt innovation, experiment, or leadership; and the general complaint against "magazine stories." In truth, the American editor plays safe, constantly and from conviction; and playing safe in the short story means the adoption of the "formula," which is sure to be somewhat successful; it means restriction to a few safe themes. He swings from the detective story to the tale of the alien, from the "heart-interest" story to the narrative of "big business." When, as has happened recently, a magazine experimented with eroticism, and found it successful, the initiative of itseditor was felt to be worthy of general remark.

If one reduces this imperfect sketch of existing conditions to terms of literary criticism, the result is interesting. There are two great schools of criticism: the judicial and the impressionistic. The judicial critic--a Boileau, a Matthew Arnold--bases his criticism upon fundamental principles. The impressionistic critic follows the now hackneyed advice of Anatole France, to let his soul adventure among masterpieces, and seeks the reaction for good or bad of a given work upon his own finely strung mind. The first group must be sure of the breadth, the soundness, and the just application of their principles. The second group must depend upon their own good taste.

The American editor has flung aside as archaic the fundamental principles of criticism upon which judicial critics have based their opinions. And yet he has chosen to be dogmatic. He has transformed his guess as to what the public wants into a fundamental principle, and acted upon it with the confidence of an Aristotle. He asserts freely and frankly that, in his private capacity, such and such a story pleases _him_, is _good_ (privately he is an impressionist and holds opinions far more valid than his editorial judgment, since they are founded upon taste and not upon intuition merely); but that "the public will not like it," or "in our rivalry with seventy other magazines we cannot afford to print this excellent work." He is frequently right. He is also frequently wrong.

I speak not from personal experience, since other reasons in my own case have usually, though not always, led me to agree with the editor's verdict, when it has been unfavorable; but from the broader testimony of many writers, the indisputable evidence of works thus rejected which have later attained success, and the failure of American short fiction to impress permanently the reading public. Based upon an intuition of the public mind, changing with the wind,--always after, never before it,--such editorial judgment, indeed, must be of doubtful validity; must lead in many instances to unwise and unprofitable restrictions upon originality in fiction.

I am well aware that it is useless to consider current American literature without regard to the multitude of readers who, being, like all multitude, mediocre, demand the mediocre in literature. And I know that it is equally foolish to neglect the popular elements in the developing American genius--that genius which is so colloquial now, and yet so inventive; so vulgar sometimes, and yet, when sophistication is not forced upon it, so fresh. I have no wish to evade the necessity for consulting the wishes and the taste of the public, which good sense and commercial necessity

Definitions - 5/38

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