Wells says that, in these days, he always found it easy to write short stories. He could write one about nearly any topic:
I turned out tale after tale like a baker making fruit tarts. They were all about three or four thousand words long. You laid hands on almost anything that came handy, a droning dynamo, a fluttering bat, a bacteriologist’s tube, a whale’s otolith, a blast furnace at night, or what not; ran a slight human reaction round it; put it in the oven, and there you were (“Introduction” to the revised version of “Country of the Blind”).There were no rigid requirements about the subject matter or even, very much, the form that such stories were supposed to take, which made the writing of them easier and their inspiration more plenteous:
[The short story might] be horrible or pathetic or funny or beautiful or profoundly illuminating, having only this essential, that it should take from fifteen to fifty minutes to read aloud. All the rest is just whatever invention and imagination and mood can give (“Introduction” to The Country of the Blind and Other Stories).Wells found inspiration everywhere:
I found that, taking almost anything as a starting-point and letting my thoughts play about it, there would presently come out of the darkness, in a manner quite inexplicable, some absurd or little incident more or less relevant to that initial nucleus. Little men in canoes upon sunlit oceans would come floating out of nothingness, incubating the eggs of prehistoric monsters unawares; violent conflicts would break out amidst the flower-beds of suburban gardens; I would find I was peering into remote and mysterious worlds ruled by an order logical indeed but other than our common sanity (“Introduction” to The Country of the Blind and Other Stories).As is often the case, the success of this art form gave rise to a critical study of it, and, before long, practitioners of this gross science would “murder” that they “might dissect,” and editors, Wells says, believed that they understood the market for writers’ “products.” The bean counters also entered the fray, presumably, as “every editor” began to trail “a real or imaginary public behind him.” In short, the short story became both a topic of scholarly and critical study and a product for the marketplace. These developments had a crushing effect upon the art of the story, Wells believes:
There was a tendency to treat the short story as though it were as definable a form as the sonnet, instead of being just exactly what anyone of courage and imagination can get told in twenty minutes’ reading or so (“Introduction” to The Country of the Blind and Other Stories).For his part, Wells prefers the old ways, wherein a story could be about “almost anything”:
Certainly, in “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe argues something quite different than Wells does, believing that a short story should be purposefully written with but one goal in mind, which is to deliver, at the conclusion of the tale, as throughout, a single, unified effect in the best way possible. Aspiring writers are likely to come across differences of opinion among celebrated writers, just as they might when watching the proceedings of a criminal trial wherein both the defense and the prosecution call expert witnesses to testify about a theoretical issue pertaining to the case. Experts disagree.
I. . . am all for laxness and variety in this as in every field of art. Insistence upon rigid forms and austere unities seems to me the instinctive reaction of the sterile against the fecund. . . .
. . . The short story is a fiction that may be read in something under an hour, and so [long] that it is moving and delightful, it does not matter if it is. . . ‘trivial’ [or]. . . human or inhuman (“Introduction” to The Country of the Blind and Other Stories).
There seems to be at least three reasons for such disagreements, when it comes to theories about literary art, at any rate.
First, individuals, whether Sigmund Freud or Edgar Allan Poe or H. G. Wells tend to write as if they were the voice of all men and women, everywhere and for all time, rather than one person who is here and now. Their dictums are opinions dressed up, as it were, in royal robes, and their pens are, therefore, sometimes mistaken for scepters. While only a fool would disregard the considered opinions of a Poe or a Wells (notice the exclusion of Freud), only a fool, likewise, would take his pronouncements as gospel. The individual expresses his or her own thoughts only, and each one who considers them must do so with his or her own mind in gear, rather than in neutral or park, deciding what, and to what degree, to give credence to such statements. The truth is likely to be between such extremes of opinion.
Second, as an art develops, so do lenses for viewing it and principles for using these lenses. Like critics, readers will also come to understand, and to seek, patterns within works. John Hammond, the president of the H. G. Wells Society and editor of The Complete Short Stories of H. G. Wells, notes, in his “Introduction” to the book, that Wells writes to a formula: “In each case the central character is an ordinary person whose life changes in an unforeseen way and who finds it difficult to return to normality. . . . The typical Wells hero is a person going about his everyday affairs whose life is turned upside-down by a random event or encounter.” Although, within this framework, there is no doubt that Wells’ stories were imaginative and varied and “horrible or pathetic or funny or beautiful or profoundly illuminating,” they do have a tendency to unfold in the manner described by Hammond. Likewise, although they may have been written as Wells’ fancy dictated, they were published, Hammond points out, only after considerable revision on the author’s part:
. . . There is a widespread impression that Wells was a facile writer who did not take pains over his writing and rarely revised his work. In fact the reverse is the case. The manuscripts of most of his novels and short stories still survive, all written in his minute spidery handwriting (no word processors in those days). These reveal that his stories were most carefully written and revised, often going through draft after draft before he was satisfied. ‘A Dream of Armageddon,’ for example, went through six versions before reaching its final form, and the different drafts of ‘The Country of the Blind’ reveal an extraordinary amount of indecision, especially its final paragraph.In short, as William Wordsworth points out, we do “murder to dissect,” and, as a result, we learn more about the blood and guts inside the skin, whether of the human corpse per se or of the literary specimen. This knowledge, in turn, generally allows improvements upon the structure and the mechanics of the story, even if, at times, it also may stifle the author’s creativity. Likewise, by learning the tricks of the writer’s trade, the reader comes to expect better and greater writing, which, like the critics’ “dissection” of the form, enhances the artistry of the artists whose art produces the story. It’s a circle, sometimes vicious, but one in which, to a greater or lesser degree, each of its participants--writer, critic, and reader--are served more or less well.
Third, art, like religion, can be studied from either of two perspectives. In religion, there is prophecy, which is to say, revelation, and there is dogma, which is to say, tradition. Although the two are ultimately complementary, they are, in the short term, and especially in the moment, often seemingly antithetical and antagonistic. Revelation is new knowledge or instruction, from on high, from God himself, as given through the intermediacy of a prophet. It is the spirit of the law, so to speak. Dogma is revelation stored and mediated through the priest. It is the letter of the law, as it were. Both are necessary and, ultimately, complementary. Analogously, the writer is the prophet, speaking, as it were, for the muse who inspires him or her. The critic and the writer are the clergy and the laity, who practice the “faith” that is given to them by the writer. At the same time, to better understand that which art has given them, they codify and interpret and canonize. It is through the work of all parties that fiction becomes whatever it is at any moment and whatever, in the future, it may become. Like faith, literature is the creation of a community of the faithful, consisting of not the writer only, nor the critic only, nor the reader only, but all parties together. Literature is a communal ceremony.