Return to Naturalism
The practitioners of the literary school diametrically opposed to mine—the school of Naturalism—claim that a writer must reproduce what they call “real life,” allegedly “as it is,” exercising no selectivity and no value-judgments. By “reproduce,” they mean “photograph”; by “real life,” they mean whatever given concretes they happen to observe; by “as it is,” they mean “as it is lived by the people around them.” But observe that these Naturalists—or the good writers among them—are extremely selective in regard to two attributes of literature: style and characterization. Without selectivity, it would be impossible to achieve any sort of characterization whatever, neither of an unusual man nor of an average one who is to be offered as statistically typical of a large segment of the population. Therefore, the Naturalists’ opposition to selectivity applies to only one attribute of literature: the content or subject. It is in regard to his choice of subject that a novelist must exercise no choice, they claim.
The Naturalists have never given an answer to that question—not a rational, logical, noncontradictory answer. Why should a writer photograph his subjects indiscriminately and unselectively? Because they “really” happened? To record what really happened is the job of a reporter or of a historian, not of a novelist. To enlighten readers and educate them? That is the job of science, not of literature, of nonfiction writing, not of fiction. To improve men’s lot by exposing their misery? But that is a value-judgment and a moral purpose and a didactic “message”—all of which are forbidden by the Naturalist doctrine. Besides, to improve anything one must know what constitutes an improvement—and to know that, one must know what is the good and how to achieve it—and to know that, one must have a whole system of value-judgments, a system of ethics, which is anathema to the Naturalists.
Thus, the Naturalists’ position amounts to giving a novelist full esthetic freedom in regard to means, but not in regard to ends. He may exercise choice, creative imagination, value-judgments in regard to how he portrays things, but not in regard to what he portrays—in regard to style or characterization, but not in regard to subject. Man—the subject of literature—must not be viewed or portrayed selectively. Man must be accepted as the given, the unchangeable, the not-to-be-judged, the status quo. But since we observe that men do change, that they differ from one another, that they pursue different values, who, then, is to determine the human status quo? Naturalism’s implicit answer is: everybody except the novelist.
The novelist—according to the Naturalist doctrine—must neither judge nor value. He is not a creator, but only a recording secretary whose master is the rest of mankind. Let others pronounce judgments, make decisions, select goals, fight over values and determine the course, the fate and the soul of man. The novelist is the only outcast and deserter of that battle. His is not to reason why—his is only to trot behind his master, notebook in hand, taking down whatever the master dictates, picking up such pearls or such swinishness as the master may choose to drop.