Public Domain Day 2021 and Writing Advice from 1925

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Public Domain Day was January 1, 2020. Although today is February 22, a tad late, it’s still a newsworthy event for writers and readers because books like The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald), Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf), Manhattan Transfer (John DosPassos), In Our Time (Ernest Hemingway), and An American Tragedy (Theodore Dreiser), among many others, came into the public domain.

Same with films like Buster Keaton’s Go West and songs like “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby.”

Here is the link to Duke University Law School’s announcement and listing of many other artistic works whose copyrights expired as of January 1: https://web.law.duke.edu/cspd/publicdomainday/2021/

One book in the bunch caught my attention: The Writing of Fiction by Edith Wharton, the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for her 1920 novel The Age of Innocence.

Has fiction writing changed much since 1925? Are 95-year-old insights from the first female Pulitzer winner relevant to writers in 2021?

The Writing of Fiction is short, fewer than 150 pages, originally published by Scribner in 1925. Much of the beginning section is literary criticism, comparing Proust, Austen, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and other greats of the era, contrasting them with the new “stream-of-consciousness” trend that shook up readers at that time. I confess I skimmed those parts.

But elsewhere Wharton reveals her views on the art and craft of storytelling.

I found several passages I thought might provoke interesting discussion among TKZers.

Wharton calls the “modern” novel “that strange chameleon-creature which changes its shape and colour with every subject on which it rests.”

In the following paragraph, she describes what writers often call being in the zone:

“To the artist his world is as solidly real as the world of experience, or even more so, but in a way entirely different; it is a world to and from he passes without any sense of effort, but always with an uninterrupted awareness of the passing.”

Here at TKZ, we often work on point-of-view problems.

Wharton is critical of “the slovenly habit of some novelists of tumbling in and out their characters’ minds, and then suddenly drawing back to scrutinize them from the outside as the avowed Showman holding his puppets’ strings.”

About character development, she writes: “[they are] the creatures of [the author’s] imagination, more living to him than his own flesh-and-blood…”

Further, she studies the tightrope that writers must walk while creating characters. On one hand, she cautions against the “author [who] is slave to characters” while, on the other hand, who risks becoming a “puppeteer manipulating marionette strings…”

Conflict is another topic that she addresses:

“The conflict, the shock of forces, is latent in every attempt to detach a fragment of human experience and transpose it in terms of art, that is, of completion.”

This is what she has to say about an artist’s sensitivity:

“One good heart-break will furnish the poet with many songs, the novelist with a considerable number of novels. But they must have hearts that can break.”

On the focus of a story, she writes:

“…the only remedy is resolutely to abandon the larger for the smaller field, to narrow one’s vision to one’s pencil, and do the small thing closely and deeply rather than the big thing loosely and superficially.”

The topic of inspiration:

“Many people assume that the artist receives, at the onset of his career, the mysterious sealed orders known as ‘Inspiration,’ and has only to let that sovereign influence carry him where it will. Inspiration indeed comes at the outset to every creator but it comes most often as an infant, helpless, stumbling, inarticulate, to be taught and guided, and the beginner, during this time of training his gift, is as likely to misuse it as a young parent to make mistakes in teaching his first child.”

Writers often ponder if their concept, plot, or characters are original enough to capture readers’ tastes. Wharton’s answer:

“True originality consists not in a new manner but in a new vision. That new, that personal vision is attained only by looking long enough at the object represented to make it the writer’s own; and the mind which would bring this secret germ to fruition must be able to nourish it with an accumulated wealth of knowledge and experience.”

~~~

TKZers: Did any of Edith Wharton’s thoughts particularly strike you?

Are they out of date, no longer relevant?

Or does she express timeless truths about the art of writing fiction?

~~~

 

Debbie Burke is one of Montana’s Women of Mystery, along with Leslie Budewitz and Christine Carbo. Three crime novelists will reveal writing secrets and talk about their books during a Zoom appearance on Wednesday, February 24, at 3 p.m. mountain time. Email debbieburkewriter@gmail.com for the Zoom invitation.

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30 thoughts on “Public Domain Day 2021 and Writing Advice from 1925

  1. IMHO, her advice to “narrow one’s vision to one’s pencil, and do the small thing closely and deeply rather than the big thing loosely and superficially” is spot on and will always be timely.

    In other words, Focus Down, a technique I first learned from reading Stephen King’s and Hemingway’s and Jack Higgins’ work. Think of the never-repaired stair step in Modern Family or find your own examples. Great fiction is full of them. The tighter the focus, the more deeply the reader is grounded in and surrounded by the story.

  2. Fascinating post, Debbie. I can relate to most of what Wharton says, although I’ve often wondered if having a stable childhood, parents who remained married for over 70 years, a “normal” adulthood with no real life crises to deal with–three good kids, a marriage of over 50 years, has stifled my writing. But I can make stuff up.

    • That’s a hoot, Terry. If only you had a scarred, tragic life, you might too have won a Pulitzer.

      Given the choice, I bet you’d wisely stick with the blessings you have, right?

    • Everything in my education history, degrees in literature and writing courses from current literary writers, said I should write literary fiction, but I chose not to. One of the questions I was asked during interviews in my early days of publishing is why I chose popular genre instead of literary fiction. My tongue-in-cheek answer was similar to yours. I grew up in a stable family environment with good parents so I had nothing to whine about in my fiction.

  3. I agree with Harvey. One “telling detail” can illumine a character or scene better than 500 generalized words.

    Also: “But they must have hearts that can break.” Readers sense when an artist truly cares about the characters and the story world, versus just going through the motions. This applies to any book, any genre.

    It’s what makes Dreiser’s An American Tragedy a classic. And now that book is public domain. Thanks for the updates, Debbie.

    • You’re welcome, Jim. A number of critics consider 1925 the all-time best year for literature b/c authors captured the zeitgeist of post-World War I and a sea change in social attitudes–women now had the right to vote and Prohibition was in effect.

  4. I agree with Harvey and others about focus.

    “…the only remedy is resolutely to abandon the larger for the smaller field, to narrow one’s vision to one’s pencil, and do the small thing closely and deeply rather than the big thing loosely and superficially.”

    I’m reminded of the phrase: a mile wide and an inch deep. The real story is in the moment and the depth of character (IMHO). DB, you come up with the most interesting topics. Thank you!

  5. Debbie, thanks for the information and the links. I hope some of these books will show up on Project Gutenberg (Gutenberg.org).

    The quote from Edith Wharton that I liked was about character development and story line:

    Further, she studies the tightrope that writers must walk while creating characters. On one hand, she cautions against the “author [who] is slave to characters” while, on the other hand, who risks becoming a “puppeteer manipulating marionette strings…”

    We need to give the characters some “free rein” and see where they want to go, but we don’t turn over the whole farm to them and let them take over. (my rural interpretation)

    Great post, Debbie. Thanks!

    • Thanks, Steve.

      Rural analogies are great. I haven’t quite mastered Wharton’s advice with one of my characters who always has the bit in his teeth and drags me along with a foot still stuck in the stirrup.

  6. Yep: “Inspiration indeed comes at the outset to every creator but it comes most often as an infant, helpless, stumbling, inarticulate, to be taught and guided, and the beginner, during this time of training his gift, is as likely to misuse it as a young parent to make mistakes in teaching his first child.”

    The only thing is, I often feel like every one of my books turns out to be that ‘first child.’ I will admit, however, that the training of my inspiration takes a little less time with each one.

    • I hear you about the “first child,” Steven. It does get a bit easier after writing multiple books but each one still goes through the “terrible twos.”

  7. “True originality consists not in a new manner but in a new vision.” How you look at something, based on your experience, including your emotional experience and the emotional experiences of others can create a new slant or angle on something. Vision is closely related to the magic of writer’s voice, too.

    All of her advice here is timeless. Thanks, Debbie, for sharing her wisdom with us this Monday.

  8. Run for your life, the resident pedant of narrative history has arrived. Wharton is not only talking about what the writer should do but how narrative is changing. The omniscient narrator has finally given way to the viewpoint character as the primary portal into these new novels, and good riddance. Now, reread her comments to see what she’s primarily talking about.

    Narrative styles change, but one thing that doesn’t is that each new wave of authors and their styles requires those new authors to insult their elders and praise their contemporaries by writing books and articles like this. Warton is being politer than most.

    Of the author works mentioned above, I’m sure most have read GATSBY and the Hemingway, but I can only recommend Dos Passos of the others. Both Wolfe and Dreisser require Prozac to avoid crawling into a corner in a catatonic ball.

  9. Debbie, Thank you for sharing this with us. Wisdom that has lasted almost a hundred years!

    Like several others here, the quote that jumped out to me was “narrow one’s vision to one’s pencil, and do the small thing closely and deeply rather than the big thing loosely and superficially”

    IMHO a story is a mosaic that can be appreciated as a whole only because of the care taken in each tiny piece of colored glass.

  10. This is fantastic, Debbie. Thanks a bunch for posting this.

    But they must have hearts that can break didn’t speak loudly to me. It whispered to me, something that’s an attention-grabber more that yelling IMHO.

    If I am composing a tear-jerker scene, and I’m not jerking my own tears, there’s something wrong. Must go deeper.

  11. Thanks for the terrific post, Debbie. It contains a veritable feast for thought. I’m going to bookmark this one, and then check out that public domain list, which I have been meaning to do for weeks!

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