The Talk About Technique
May 13, 1925 — “An Institute of Modern Literature,” conference commemorating the centennial year of a class that included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorn, Bowdoin College, Brunswick ME
I want to confirm the saying of Professor Brown as to my purpose in coming here. Longfellow and Hawthorne, whose commencement anniversaries you celebrate, did not bring me here. After all, Longfellow and Hawthorne both undoubtedly had good credits, and, therefore, they had to graduate from Bowdoin College. But this institution did not have to confer a degree upon Sarah Orne Jewett, so fine an artist, among the foremost in this country. And by conferring the degree Bowdoin College placed itself irrevocably on the side of the highest tradition in American letters. I have come, therefore, to express my gratitude to Bowdoin College.
The subject [modern literature] is so big that the best thing to do would be to wish you good-night and not speak at all. On the novel in general I have rather pessimistic views, I think. I sometimes think the modern novel, the cinema, and the radio form an equal menace to human culture. The novel has resolved into a human convenience to be bought and thrown away at the end of a journey. The cinema has had an almost devastating effect on the theater. Playwriting goes on about as well as usual, but the cheap and easy substitutes for art are the enemies of art. Illiteracy was never an enemy of art. In the old days all forms of literature appealed to the small select audiences. I tried to get Longfellow’s Golden Legend in Portland this afternoon to send away to my niece. The bookseller said he didn’t have it and would not sell it if he did. He said he was cutting out all his two dollar books because people wanted Zane Grey and such. . .
At its best the novel has warmth and nearness to us all. Perhaps the novel has become too democratic, too easy to write. The language of the novel is a common language, known to everyone. Among fifty friends there may be many who know they have not much culture in music or art, but if your friends are like mine every one of such a number believes himself a final authority on the novel and quite capable, if he had a minute, to sit down and write one.
Back in the beginning of art, when art was intertwined inseparable with religion, there had to be great preparation for its ceremonials. The creature who hoped for an uplifted moment often endured privation in preparation for that moment. I do not think we should sit at home, in the clothes in which we have been working all day, and turn on the radio to hear the Boston Symphony. I think something more than passivity should be expected of the recipient of any such bounty of Brahms.
There is much talk in the critical magazines and in colleges about the technique of the novel. I never hear the talk among writers. Sometimes I think it is something the critics invented for the sake of argument. Of course there are several things that do make up what people mean by “technique,” this thing about which young professors talk so much.
I suppose plot is a part of technique. There are two kinds of novel writing. One affects the plot a lot, the other not at all. Critics and teachers, I think, do not realize that they often pull one kind over into the other. Shakespeare thought so little of plot that he never made one, but even in him there is always a spiritual plot inside the crude, coarse, often violent plot he borrowed from Plutarch or someone else. He never cared where he got his plots. Sometimes the spiritual and crude plots fuse beautifully, as in Othello. All the lovely writing in A Winter’s Tale, on the contrary, is in the pastoral places. It is manifestly wrong to consider plot as an essential part of the novel, when the writer has obviously not considered it.
Then there is characterization. I have found chapters and chapters on characterization in text books intended to be read by young people who did not know how to discriminate between the uses of “which and “that,” iniquitous chapters certain to destroy true skill. Characterization is not an adroit process. It is difficult because it is so simple. The characters we want most to present are the characters whose charm we have felt most strongly.
Hate is a fruitful emotion, but it has not produced great literature. Dante’s Inferno and the whole Commedia is inverted evil, hatred of evil because of the love of good. The great characters in literature are born out of love, often out of some beautiful experience of the writer. There is clumsiness and adroitness in everything. But when I hear speakers telling how characterization was done I feel they are going afar.
Atmosphere was invaluable to the novel before it was called that or had a name. Atmosphere should be felt and not heard. It has been overdone by the method of exploitation. Thomas Hardy understood atmosphere as perhaps few writers have, but Hardy’s atmosphere is never obtrusive. It is like the sea on your Maine shore — always there.
Another thing we do not hear as much about, but which is very important, is the writer’s relation to his material. Not only his emotional, moral, and spiritual relation, but his physical relation to it. The writer of a novel must decide at the outset upon his viewpoint. It is as important as the engineer’s deciding on the strain of a bridge. And his relation to it may not constantly change without serious faults of form and coherency. I think there is frequently a too facetious relationship to material. Almost no writer dares write except as if he had something to sell.
Ah, if only there were such a thing as technique. The violinist makes his language by his technique. The actor by his. Pavlowa practices technique each day when she is at sea. I have watched her. . . . But what can the writer do? Pot hooks? Hangers? There is nothing so valueless as good writing. If he wrote a good book two years ago he cannot go back and write it over. The novel must vary between excitement, which has its value, and that purer beauty which satisfies us like an old Grecian urn. But let us not talk overly about technique which will divest the novel of its best quality. The author who writes to please, not his publisher or critics, but himself, first comes close, I believe, to what the novel should be. It is not a perfect way, but it is good.
The novel, as we know it today, is the child of democracy, and is not a high form of art. A novel today partakes of all of our infirmities. The novel is too easy to write and too easy to read. You join a group of a dozen friends and you will find some one who cannot pass on music or a painting, but who does not hesitate to criticize a novel, and most of the group feel that they could write one.
In critical magazines, at dinners, and at women’s colleges one hears much talk about technique, but you never hear it mentioned or talked of by writers. Young critics and young professors usually have much to say about it to their classes.
Technique, as it applies to a novel, is full of faults, as nearly all great novels have great blemishes from the standpoint of technique. Novels live by their plusses, not by their minuses. They live because of what they have, not because of what they lack. You cannot improve on the technique of a great writer, because his faults are necessary. Laboratory methods are best in science, but have not place in art.
Source: Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters, ed. L. Brent Bohlke (Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press), 1986.
Also: Christian Science Monitor, 14 May 1925.
Also: Boston Evening Globe, 14 May 1925.