R.L. Stevenson and Art’s Intent

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“…in the humblest sort of literary work, we have it in our power either to do great harm or great good.”

There are many books purporting to teach the aspirant to write; of those, I have read more than a few. Tom Bissell’s essay Writing About Writing About Writing in Magic Hours provides a good review of these, and sums them quite nicely, and I daren’t add much more than that, suffice to say that some are good, some are bad, many give advice, many give inspiration, and many merely teach a writer to write books that teach to write. On the whole, they represent an echo chamber of hollow epithets and idiosyncrasies submitted as stricture.

R.L. Stevenson’s collection Essays in the Art of Writing (available in the public domain) has struck me as one of the most important works instructing an aspiring writer in how to approach their work. Unlike many such manuals it does not purport to teach the willpower and habits that are inevitably the domain of the individual, but it makes the case for the underlying state of mind and soul that is necessary to approach the art in anything resembling a moral fashion.

The collection opens with what may be considered a craft manual, On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature. Rather than delve into specifics, he outlines the considerations a prose writer must juggle (his metaphor being juggling oranges) to avoid crafting stilted soulless prose: word choice, the patterning of elements, rhythm, and the contents and sound of phrase. And he need not give examples, because each sentence is its own perfectly resonant, artful proof. A handful of examples plucked at random:

“It is, indeed, a strange art to take these blocks, rudely conceived for the purpose of the market or the bar, and by tact of application touch them to the finest meanings and distinctions, restore to them their primal energy, wittily shift them to another issue, or make of them a drum to rouse the passions.”

“These not only knit and knot the logical texture of the style with all the dexterity and strength of prose; they not only fill up the pattern of the verse with infinite variety and sober wit; but they give us, besides, a rare and special pleasure, by the art, comparable to that of counterpoint, with which they follow at the same time, and now contrast, and now combine, the double pattern of the texture and the verse.”

“Still, the phrase is the strict analogue of the group, and successive phrases, like successive groups, must differ openly in length and rhythm.”

“The vowel demands to be repeated; the consonant demands to be repeated; and both cry aloud to be perpetually varied.”

But it is the second essay in which Stevenson’s moral self shines. The Morality of the Profession of Letters begins with a discussion of the possibility of financial reward as a writer (the more things change…this essay was published in 1881), from which beginning Stevenson states his thesis: “The salary in any business under heaven is not the only, nor indeed the first, question. That you should continue to exist is a matter for your own consideration; but that your business should be first honest, and second useful, are points in which honour and morality are concerned.”

“Literature,” he goes on, “like any other art, is singularly interesting to the artist; and, in a degree peculiar to itself among the arts, it is useful to mankind. These are the sufficient justifications for any young man or woman who adopts it as the business of his life. I shall not say much about the wages. A writer can live by his writing. If not so luxuriously as by other trades, then less luxuriously. The nature of the work he does all day will more affect his happiness than the quality of his dinner at night. Whatever be your calling, and however much it brings you in the year, you could still, you know, get more by cheating. We all suffer ourselves to be too much concerned about a little poverty; but such considerations should not move us in the choice of that which is to be the business and justification of so great a portion of our lives; and like the missionary, the patriot, or the philosopher, we should all choose that poor and brave career in which we can do the most and best for mankind.”

Directly this passage speaks to a writer, but its message applies equally to any pursuit, to any career. And this universality is the very point of the essay: that if writing is approached from fact and from honest moral intentions, then this truth to humanity will shine through. “There are two duties incumbent upon any man who enters on the business of writing: truth to the fact and a good spirit in the treatment.”

The piece argues for the power of literature to communicate—and more broadly the power of communication to change the psychology of the reader. We are so caught up in fascination with the rapid expansion of communication, so swept away in doing its work, that we have ever less time and energy (I hesitate to argue we don’t care) to critically examine how it influences our minds and behaviour.

In one word, it must always be foul to tell what is false; and it can never be safe to suppress what is true.

Stevenson’s impassioned note declares all communication as moral. There is more moral obligation incumbent on artists because they are looked to as distinct from publications by corporations whose MO is to deceive. And thus the proliferation of this ability to communicate is such a great opportunity in our society: There will always be more mere words, bland tellings; there will always be the extremes that aim to sway belief; but there is always waiting hot and ready beneath the soil some wellspring of art that can do all of that but with beauty and honest moral intent. And arising from those intentions is the value of the art. Let that moral be the impetus for all your work.

Man is imperfect; yet, in his literature, he must express himself and his own views and preferences; for to do anything else is to do a far more perilous thing than to risk being immoral: it is to be sure of being untrue. 

There are many more jewels in this trove, and it is one to which I’ll return. Stevenson’s passion is that of a reader. The wish to read artful prose, married to the moral attitudes with which a writer reveals his or her heart, necessarily creates the conditions by which literature can maintain its value.

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