Celebrated author E.B White once asserted that writers “do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.” Yet the idea of what the true “role” for writers and artists is – or if there even is one – has been debated for centuries. Galileo, for instance, suggested that the artists’ role was “to communicate his deepest thoughts to another person”.
Many of us will have been party to debates that attempt to define the purpose of the artist and the creative works they produce. How useful is literature? What is it for? What is the purpose of writing? What is the point of art?
Few of us will have participated in such thorough debates as the one held between two giants of literature a century ago.
Wells vs James: fight (with words)!
Indeed, in 1915, Henry James and H.G. Wells, both men champions of free speech, both known for their social commentaries and strong political views (James is often described as a reactionary and social conservative; Wells described himself as a socialist), and both were absolutely committed to contrasting opinions on the purpose of art and literature.
These differences in opinion are, fortunately for us, preserved to this day thanks to the written word the two men argued so much about. Indeed, it is fascinating to see captured in written form a division within creative culture and between creative practitioners that continues to this day.
James first wrote to Wells in friendship – declaring his admiration for the emerging writer and telling him he was “the most interesting ‘literary man’ of your generation; in fact the only interesting one”. Yet James, who had previously described the act of creativity as being “an intimate restlessness of projection and perception”, soon changed his tune as he realised that Wells – a trained biologist known best for his science fiction – considered himself more than anything a journalist, and measured writing by its usefulness and practicality.
In 1915, these core differences were laid bare a year before James’s death, when Wells published a satirical novel – Boon – in which he parodied James’s writing and caricatured his writing style as a hippopotamus trying to pick up a pea in a corner. Wells argued that James “never discovered that a novel isn’t a picture … that life isn’t a studio.”
Had one artist attacked another with such a sideswipe in today’s digital culture, we might expect an instant, albeit brief and perhaps less-than-dignified rebuttal, from the accused via Twitter. However, in 1915, James took the time that so often seems absent in today’s Instaworld to compose a much more considered defense using the timeless, humble medium of the postal letter. Within this letter, James argues that the artist is ultimately beholden only to one measure of success and purpose: the “fullness of life and the projection of it, which seems to you [Wells] an emptiness of both.”
Wells responded thoroughly. The pragmatist to James’s creative idealism:
“To you literature, like painting, is an end, to me literature like architecture is a means, it has a use. Your view was, I felt, altogether too prominent in the world of criticism and I assailed it in lines of harsh antagonism. And writing that stuff about you was the first escape I had from the obsession of this war. Boon is just a waste-paper basket. Some of it was written before I left my home at Sandgate (1911), and it was while I was turning over some old papers that I came upon it, found it expressive, and went on with it last December. I had rather be called a journalist than an artist, that is the essence of it, and there was no other antagonist possible than yourself. But since it was printed I have regretted a hundred times that I did not express our profound and incurable contrast with a better grace.”
Despite Wells’s wish that the two authors might express their differences with “better grace”, James took affront and responded in outrage. He forthrightly condemns Wells’s view that writing and literature must be, above all else, created for a specific purpose:
“My Dear Wells
Your comparison of the book to a waste-basket strikes me as the reverse of felicitous, for what one throws into that receptacle is exactly what one doesn’t commit to publicity and make the affirmation of one’s estimate of one’s contemporaries by. I should liken it much rather to the preservative portfolio or drawer in which what is withheld from the basket is savingly laid away.
I have no view of life and literature, I maintain, other than that our form of the latter in especial is admirable exactly by its range and variety, its plasticity and liberality, its fairly living on the sincere and shifting experience of the individual practitioner. That is why I have always so admired your so free and strong application of it, the particular rich receptacle of intelligences and impressions emptied out with an energy of its own, that your genius constitutes… For myself I live, live intensely and am fed by life, and my value, whatever it be, is in my own kind of expression of that.”
James concludes his rebuttal with a final retort against the notion of art as some perfunctory thing.
“I absolutely dissent from the claim that there are any differences whatever in the amenability to art of forms of literature aesthetically determined, and hold your distinction between a form that is (like) painting and a form that is (like) architecture for wholly null and void. There is no sense in which architecture is aesthetically “for use” that doesn’t leave any other art whatever exactly as much so; and so far from that of literature being irrelevant to the literary report upon life, and to its being made as interesting as possible, I regard it as relevant in a degree that leaves everything else behind. It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance, for our consideration and application of these things, and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process. If I were Boon I should say that any pretence of such a substitute is helpless and hopeless humbug; but I wouldn’t be Boon for the world, and am only yours faithfully,
Where do you stand on the debate between James and Wells? What is the purpose of art? What is the purpose of the writer? Let us know in the comments below!