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This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 236 pages of information about Adventures in Criticism.

The truth seems to be that the human brain abhors the complexity—­the apparently aimless complexity—­of nature and real life, and is for ever trying to get away from it by selecting this and ignoring that.  And it contrives so well that I suppose the average man is not consciously aware twice a year of that conglomerate of details which the critics call real life.  He holds one stout thread, at any rate, to guide him through the maze—­the thread of self-interest.

The justification of the poet or the novelist is that he discovers a better thread.  He follows up a universal where the average man follows only a particular.  But in following it, he does but use those processes by which the average man arrives, or attempts to arrive, at pleasure.


Nov. 18, 1893.  Story and Anecdote.

I suppose I am no more favored than most people who write stories in receiving from unknown correspondents a variety of suggestions, outlines of plots, sketches of situations, characters, and so forth.  One cannot but feel grateful for all this spontaneous beneficence.  The mischief is that in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred (the fraction is really much smaller) these suggestions are of no possible use.

Why should this be?  Put briefly, the reason is that a story differs from an anecdote.  I take the first two instances that come into my head:  but they happen to be striking ones, and, as they occur in a book of Mr. Kipling’s, are safe to be well known to all my correspondents.  In Mr. Kipling’s fascinating book, Life’s Handicap, On Greenhow Hill is a story; The Lang Men o’ Larut is an anecdote. On Greenhow Hill is founded on a study of the human heart, and it is upon the human heart that the tale constrains one’s interest. The Lang Men o’ Larut is just a yarn spun for the yarn’s sake:  it informs us of nothing, and is closely related (if I may use some of Mr. Howells’ expressive language for the occasion) to “the lies swapped between men after the ladies have left the table.”  And the reason why the story-teller, when (as will happen at times) his invention runs dry, can take no comfort in the generous outpourings of his unknown friends, is just this—­that the plots are merely plots, and the anecdotes merely anecdotes, and the difference between these and a story that shall reveal something concerning men and women is just the difference between bad and good art.

Let us go a step further.  At first sight it seems a superfluous contention that a novelist’s rank depends upon what he can see and what he can tell us of the human heart.  But, as a matter of fact, you will find that four-fifths at least of contemporary criticism is devoted to matters quite different—­to what I will call Externals, or the Accidents of Story-telling:  and that, as a consequence, our novelists are spending a quite unreasonable proportion of their labor upon Externals.  I wrote “as a consequence” hastily, because it is always easier to blame the critics.  If the truth were known, I dare say the novelists began it with their talk about “documents,” “the scientific method,” “observation and experiment,” and the like.

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