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'What is Genius?' by Robert W. Chambers (1917)

In_Search_of_the_UnknownI asked Robert W. Chambers, who has written more "best sellers" than any other living writer, what he thought of Flaubert's method of work.

He looked at me rather quizzically. "I think," he said, with a smile, "that Flaubert was slow. What else is there to think? Of course he was a matchless workman. But if he spent half a day in hunting for one word, he was slow, that's all. He might have gone on writing and then have come back later for that inevitable word."  

"But what do you think of Flaubert's method, as a method?" I asked. "Do you think that a writer who works with such laborious care is right?" 

"It's not a question of right or wrong," said Mr. Chambers, "it's a question of the individual writer's ability and tendency. If a man can produce novels like those of Flaubert, by writing slowly and laboriously, by all means let him write that way. But it would not be fair to establish that as the only legitimate method of writing. 

"Some authors always write slowly. With some of them it's like pulling teeth for them to get their ideas out on paper. It's the same way in painting. You may see half a dozen men drawing from the same model. One will make his sketch premier coup; another will devote an hour to his; another will work all day. They may be artists of equal ability. It is the result that counts, not the method or the time."  

"And what is it that makes a man an artist, in pigments or in words?" I asked. "Do you believe in the old saying that the poet - the creative artist - is born and not made?"  

"No," said Mr. Chambers, "I do not think that that is the truth. I think that with regard to the writer it is true to this extent, that there must exist, in the first place, the inclination to write, to express ideas in written words. Then the writer must have something to express really worthy of expression, and he must learn how to express it. These three things make the writer - the inclination to say something, the possession of something worth saying, and the knowledge of how to say it." 

"And where does genius come in?" I asked. 

"What is genius?" asked Mr. Chambers, in turn. "I don't know. Perhaps genius is the combination of these three qualities in the highest degree. 

"Of course," he added, with a laugh, "I know that all this is contrary to the opinion of the public. People like to believe that writers depend entirely upon an inspiration. They like to think that we are a hazy lot, sitting around and posing and waiting for some sort of divine afflatus. They think that writers sit around like a Quaker meeting, waiting for the spirit to move them."  

"But have there not been writers," I asked, "who seem to prove that there is some truth in the inspiration theory? There is William de Morgan, for example, beginning to write novels in his old age. He spent most of his life in working in ceramics, not with words."  

"On the contrary," said Mr. Chambers, "I think that William de Morgan proves my theory. He really spent all his life in learning to write - he was in training for being a novelist all the while. The novelist's training may be unconscious. He must have - as William de Morgan surely always has had - keen interest in the world. That is the main thing for the writer to have - a vivid interest in life. If we are to devote ourselves to the production of pictures of humanity according to our own temperaments, we must have this vivid interest in life; we must have intense curiosity. The men who have counted in literature have had this intense, never-satiated curiosity about life. 

"This is true for the romanticists as well as the realists. The most imaginative and fantastic romances must have their basis in real life. 

"I know of no better examples of this truth than the gargoyles which one sees in Gothic architecture in Europe. These extraordinary creatures that thrust their heads from the sides of cathedrals, misshapen and grotesque, are nevertheless thoroughly logical. That is, no matter how fantastic they may be, they have backbones and ribs and tails, and these backbones and ribs and tails are logical - that is, they could do what backbones and ribs and tails are supposed to do. 

"In real life there are no creatures like the gargoyles, but the important thing is that the gargoyles really could exist. This is a good example of the true method of construction. The base of the construction must rest on real knowledge. The medieval sculptors knew the formation of existing animals; therefore they knew how to make gargoyles." 

"How does this theory apply to poets?" I asked. 

"I don't know," answered Mr. Chambers, "but it seems to me to apply to all creative work. The artist must know life before he can build even a travesty on life." 

I called Mr. Chambers's attention to the work of certain ultra-modern poets who deliberately exclude life from their work. He was not inclined to take them seriously. 

"There always have been aberrations," he said, "and there always will be. They're bound to exist. And there is bound to be, from time to time, attitudinizing and straining after effect on the part of prose writers as well as poets. And it is all based on one thing - self-consciousness. It is self-consciousness that spoils the work of some modern writers." 

I asked Mr. Chambers to be more specific in his allusions.

"I cannot mention names," he said, "but there are certain writers who are always conscious of the style in which they are writing. Sometimes they consciously write in the style of some other men. They are thinking all the while of their technique and equipment, and the result is that their work loses its effect. A writer should not be convinced all the while that he is a realist or a romanticist; he should not subject himself deliberately to some special school of writing, and certainly he should not be conscious of his own style. The less a writer thinks of his technique the sooner he arrives at self-expression.  

"It's just like ordinary conversation. A man is known by the way in which he talks - that is his 'style.' But he is not all the while acutely conscious of his manner of talking - unless he has an impediment in his speech. So the writer should be known by his untrammeled and unembarrassed expression." 

I asked Mr. Chambers what he thought of the idea that the popularity of magazines has vitiated the public taste and lowered the standard of fiction. 

"I do not think that this is the case," he said. "I do not see that the custom of serial publication has harmed the novel. It is not a modern innovation, you know. The novels of Dickens, Thackeray, and George Eliot had serial publication. But I do believe that the American public reads less fiction than it did a generation ago, and that its taste is not so good as it was." 

This was a surprising statement to come from an author whom the public has received with such enthusiasm, so I asked Mr. Chambers to explain. 

"Of course the magazines are mechanically better today than they were a generation ago. Then we had not the photogravure and the half-tone and the other processes that make our magazines beautiful. But we had better taste and also we had more leisure. 

"I remember when one of the most widely read of our magazines was a popular science monthly, which printed articles by great scientists on biological and other topics. That was in the days when Darwin was announcing his theory of evolution - the first great jolt which orthodoxy received. People would not take time to read a magazine of that sort now. They are so occupied with business and dancing and all sorts of occupations that they have little leisure for reading."  

Mr. Chambers stopped talking suddenly and laughed. "I'm not a good man for you to bring these questions to," he said, "because I never have had any special reverence for books or literature as such. I revere the books that I like, not all books."  

"And have you such a thing as a favorite author?" I asked. 

"Yes," said Mr. Chambers. "Dumas." 

During the 1870's Mr. Chambers was an art student in Paris, and he has many interesting memories of the French and English writers and painters who have made that period memorable. He knew Paul Verlaine (whose poetry he greatly admires), Charles Conder, and Aubrey Beardsley.  

"I knew many of the Beaux Arts crowd, because my brother was a student of architecture at the Beaux Arts. And they were a decent, clean crowd - they were not 'decadents.' I do not take much stock in the pose of 'decadence,' nor in the artistic temperament. I never saw a real artist with the artistic temperament. I always associated that with weakness."  

Mr. Chambers, although he has intimate knowledge of the Quartier Latin, has little use for "Bohemia." 

"What is Bohemia?" he asked. "If it is a place where a number of artists huddle together for the sake of animal warmth, I have nothing to say against it. But if it is a place where a number of artists come to scorn the world, then it is a dangerous thing. The artist should not separate himself from the world. 

"These artistic and literary cults are wrong. I do not believe in professional clubs and cliques. If writers form a combination for business reasons, that is all right, but a writer should not associate exclusively with other writers; he should do his work and then go out and see and talk to people in other professions. We should sweep the cobwebs from the profession of writing and not try to fence it in from the public." 

Before I left, I mentioned to Mr. Chambers the theory that literature is better as a staff than as a crutch, as an avocation than as a vocation. This, like the "inevitable word" theory, is greatly beloved by college professors. Mr. Chambers said: 

"I disagree utterly with that theory. Do you remember how Dr. Johnson wrote Rasselas? It was in order to raise the money to pay for his mother's funeral. I believe that the best work is done under pressure. Of course the work must be enjoyed; a man in choosing a profession should select that sort of work which he prefers to do in his leisure moments. Let him do for his lifework the task which he would select for his leisure - and let him not take himself too seriously!"


Robert W. Chambers was born in Brooklyn, New York, May 26, 1865. One of the most widely read writers of his time, he has given his attention chiefly to English and American society, making it the theme of a large number of novels, among which may be mentioned The Fighting Chance, Japonette and Athalie.

An extract from Literature in the Making by Joyce Kilmer (Harper & Brothers, 1917)