It often comes up: What kind of fiction do you like to read? Do you like your stories as realistic as possible, or as fanciful as the author’s imagination can invent? And which type is better?

Brander MatthewsThe illusory notion that one type can be “better” than another is nothing new. Authors and critics have been arguing about it since the beginning of civilization. About a century ago, the esteemed American literary critic Brander Matthews (Munsey’s Magazine, August 1913) came down on the side of those who think the primary purpose of fiction is to illumine the human condition (“characterization”) even at the cost of story (“plot”). Matthews selected three then-new books to prove his point, but all of them have been completely forgotten today, perhaps unjustly. As for us, we just can’t bring ourselves to agree with those who insist that all art should hew to reality (to be, in Matthews’s words, “unmitigably veracious”) and that, in Taine’s prescription, “a writer should be a psychologist, not a painter or a musician; that he should be a transmitter of ideas and of feelings, not of sensations.”

A few excerpts:

AT the opposite poles of the art of fiction are the novels which are only stories and the novels which are only studies of character. Probably most of the permanent masterpieces of the art stand remote from either pole, although a little nearer to the latter. Certainly most of the “best-sellers” of any year stand closer to the former.

As readers are we as shallow as this?

It is the story itself, with the swift sequence of its situation, with the flash and glitter of its surprising episodes, and with the rush and rattle of its adventures, which is most likely to win immediate popularity with the main mass of readers. Of course, this popularity has little hope of long life; and when once the situations have unrolled themselves, there is slight temptation to return to them in the vain hope of reviving the glitter or of recalling an echo of the rattle.

Sic transit gloria mundi:

Few things fade away as irrevocably as the story which everybody is reading . . . .

“. . . only stories”? That’s like saying “only food”:

And why should any of us wish to recall these vanished tales which left no palpable deposit on our memories? They are dead stories of dead seasons; they served their purpose in their day, in that they enabled us to pass away our time. They were stories which were only stories, tales more or less stuffed with adventure, and more or less empty of character. They did not really aspire to survive; they were contentedly ephemeral. Sufficient unto the day is the novel thereof.

There is, however, some validity to this next complaint from Matthews:

These examples of story-telling for the sake of story have faded away because they lacked the sole mordant which would have fixed them in our minds; they lacked one or more recognizable and unforgettable characters. They have gone, one and all, out into the night of black oblivion, simply because they were not peopled by fellow human beings whom we could take to heart.

Certainly good characterization in storytelling is important, but there’s more to it than that:

The appeal of the mere story is exhausted absolutely with the single reading; we submit ourselves once to the shock of its situations, and there’s an end to its potency. It has no storage battery of interest to thrill us again and to signal an invitation to return. But the appeal of the story which is also a gallery of characters is inexhaustible.

There are overtones of the American democratic spirit when Matthews makes this concession to popular taste:

The kind of novel which can be described as “a rattling good yarn” is inferior to the narrative in which human conduct is soberly considered; but it is not easy to spin and it is not without merits of its own. It is often despised by superior persons. Literary mandarins, dwellers in ivory towers, secure in their sole possession of the only key to all the arts, cannot help despising that which the plain people are competent to enjoy. It is natural that the aristocrats of culture should recoil from that which has the power of pleasing the ordinary reader. They prefer pound-cake to good bread, white or brown. But man cannot live by cake alone; and the more delicate our taste, the quicker we are to appreciate good bread. The broader and the deeper our culture is, the more likely we are to relish a good story for its own sake, even if the persons who carry on the tale are only the traditional figures of fiction.

Many of us seek “escape” from the everyday world in our fiction, but Matthews is right when he says too much of a good thing is still too much:

The novels that “take us out of ourselves,” as the phrase is, are not wholesome as a steady diet; they do not invigorate our souls as do the novels that take us into ourselves, that make us think about ourselves and about our fellow men and our fellow women.

The fine art of being original—and it’s an art, not a science—is seldom achieved anywhere, fiction writing being no exception:

Whether or not the novelists of the present are as capable of originality as those of the past, they are at least better craftsmen, because the state of the art, to use the apt phrase of the engineers, has advanced; because fiction is to-day a finer art than it was a century ago [the early 1800s], even if we happen now not to have as many giants as may have existed once upon a time.

After reviewing several current books which, in William Dean Howells’s phrase, “shame you into at least wishing to be a helpfuller and more wholesome creature than you are,” Matthews wraps it up:

Here, then, are three serious studies of American character in the form of fiction; and in no one of these three books is there any plot, so called, or any exciting situation, or anything that could be put on the stage or that suggests the stage. If Robert Louis Stevenson was right in declaring that the serious drama must deal with the great passionate crises of existence, “when duty and inclination come nobly to the grapple,” then no one of these stories is really dramatic. Yet by one reader at least they have been found intensely interesting, because they are rich in human nature.

Anyone who demands that fiction must be “meaningful” should recognize that storytelling is a protean activity which can do many wonderful things at once, including entertaining us by helping us escape reality (for a while at least) while offering engrossing narratives that, at their best, can also be “rich in human nature.” To ask for more than that is to ask too much.

Brander Matthews - Quote about highbrows