Wednesday, July 17, 2013
The Responsibilities of the Novelist, and Other Literary Essays by Frank Norris
Literary criticism from a great American novelist
This collection of essays by Frank Norris, best know as the author of the novels McTeague and The Octopus, was originally published in 1903, a year after his death, having been compiled under the guidance of his widow, Jeanette Black Norris. These 25 essays on literature and the art of writing were originally published in various American literary journals. In these writings Norris pontificates on the state of American literature and his hopes for the future development of the art form of the novel. As a novelist, Norris was a disciple of Emile Zola, and an ardent proponent of the school of Naturalism. Among American writers, he praises few but singles out William Dean Howells and Bret Harte as his favorites.
About half of these essays are included in the Library of America’s volume on Frank Norris, simply entitled Novels and Essays, which is what directed me toward this book. That volume from the LOA contains the best of these pieces, and by best I mean the ones that have aged well over the past century and are still relevant to the literary issues of today. A few of the essays included in this volume are not so timeless, for example one piece advises the aspiring novelist of the early twentieth century on how to submit a manuscript, while another asserts that women make great novelists because they are born with sensitive natures, and their occupation as housewives leaves them hours of free time in which to practice their craft.
Despite those few antiquated exceptions, overall these are still excellent, thought-provoking essays. Norris’s voice is crystal clear and his arguments immediately engaging. Amid all the intellectual discourse he frequently displays an amusing acerbic wit. The primary thrust of these writings is to call for higher standards in literature and to impel American novelists to infuse their works with the “ring of truth” so fundamental to the doctrine of Naturalism. Norris was no elitist of the literary aristocracy, however. He calls for the democratization of literature, and asserts that if a novel doesn’t appeal to the common man it is worthless. The points he makes reflect current debates over the merits of “literary” fiction versus “popular” fiction—while one side questions whether Harry Potter is great literature, the other side counters by saying any book that gets people to read is a great book. Norris’s theory was that an increase in American literacy, by any means, would eventually elevate the quality of the nation’s literature.
At the end of this volume there is an extensive bibliography of Norris’s work. Although it’s not complete, it does bring one’s attention to a lot of stories and essays that have slipped through the cracks over the past century. Game for future hunting, perhaps. If you are a fan of Norris’s writing, or have an enthusiasm for American literature of the early twentieth century, you will enjoy this book. If you already have the Library of America volume on Norris, this may be overkill for you, but if you just can’t get enough of Norris’s nonfiction, then by all means track this book down.
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