Robert Louis Stevenson on trying to make sense of the art and craft of writing

From Essays in the Art of Writing by Robert Louis Stevenson:
There is nothing more disenchanting to man than to be shown the springs and mechanism of any art. All our arts and occupations lie wholly on the surface; it is on the surface that we perceive their beauty, fitness, and significance; and to pry below is to be appalled by their emptiness and shocked by the coarseness of the strings and pulleys...

We shall never learn the affinities of beauty, for they lie too deep in nature and too far back in the mysterious history of man. The amateur, in consequence, will always grudgingly receive details of method, which can be stated but never can wholly be explained; nay, on the principle laid down in Hudibras, that "Still the less they understand, The more they admire the sleight-of-hand," many are conscious at each new disclosure of a diminution in the ardour of their pleasure.

I must therefore warn that well-known character, the general reader, that I am here embarked upon a most distasteful business: taking down the picture from the wall and looking on the back; and, like the inquiring child, pulling the musical cart to pieces.


Is it wrong that I think that picture looks a bit like Edward Albee? ;) I like what he says about not exposing the mechanisms. So often, that's what I don't like about literary fiction--that the work calls attention to itself and somehow exposes the mechanism. Likewise, genre fiction sometimes can get "clunky" when plots are too obviously constructed, or exposition too clunkily given.
Terrific quote and so true. Writing's like a sleight-of-hand magic act in that way. Readers should be so caught up in the wonder, they scarcely have power to fret over how it was done.
Joni Rodgers said…
I always say "I'm an orchard not a factory." But right now I'm having to be a factory. For some reason, this book of essays has been very comforting to me the last few weeks. I've been reading it waiting for airplanes, while getting my roots done, and other small decompression moments. (And I got it for free on my Kindle.)
Anonymous said…
Did you say free? Off to download to my Kindle!

Hugs to you, Joni. I know you're in the fiery furnace at the moment. But the end's in sight!

Colleen, who can't log in for some reason

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