The Fallacy of “Documents.”
Now you may observe a man until you are tired, and then you may begin and observe him over again: you may photograph him and his surroundings: you may spend years in studying what he eats and drinks: you may search out what his uncles died of, and the price he pays for his hats, and—know nothing at all about him. At least, you may know enough to insure his life or assess him for Income Tax: but you are not even half-way towards writing a novel about him. You are still groping among externals. His unspoken ambitions; the stories he tells himself silently, at midnight, in his bed; the pain he masks with a dull face and the ridiculous fancies he hugs in secret—these are the Essentials, and you cannot get them by Observation. If you can discover these, you are a Novelist born: if not, you may as well shut up your note-book and turn to some more remunerative trade. You will never surprise the secret of a soul by accumulating notes upon Externals.
Then, again, we have Local Color, an article inordinately bepraised just now; and yet an External. For human nature, when every possible allowance has been made for geographical conditions, undergoes surprisingly little change as we pass from one degree of latitude or longitude to another. The Story of Ruth is as intelligible to an Englishman as though Ruth had gleaned in the stubble behind Tess Durbeyfield. Levine toiling with the mowers, Achilles sulking in his tent, Iphigeneia at the altar, Gil Blas before the Archbishop of Granada have as close a claim on our sympathy as if they lived but a few doors from us. Let me be understood. I hold it best that a novelist should be intimately acquainted with the country in which he lays his scene. But, none the less, the study of local color is not of the first importance. And the critic who lavishes praise upon a writer for “introducing us to an entirely new atmosphere,” for “breaking new ground,” and “wafting us to scenes with which the jaded novel-reader is scarcely acquainted,” and for “giving us work which bears every trace of minute local research,” is praising that which is of secondary importance. The works of Richard Jefferies form a considerable museum of externals of one particular kind; and this is possibly the reason why the Cockney novelist waxes eloquent over Richard Jefferies. He can now import the breath of the hay-field into his works at no greater expense of time and trouble than taking down the Gamekeeper at Home from his club bookshelf and perusing a chapter or so before settling down to work. There is not the slightest harm in his doing this: the mistake lies in thinking local color (however acquired) of the first importance.
In judging fiction there is probably no safer rule than to ask one’s self, How far does the pleasure excited in me by this book depend upon the transitory and trivial accidents that distinguish this time, this place, this character, from another time, another place, another character? And how far upon the abiding elements of human life, the constant temptations, the constant ambitions, and the constant nobility and weakness of the human heart? These are the essentials, and no amount of documents or local color can fill their room.