The Novel Has Been Over-Furnished: Willa Cather on the Art of Writing

Illustrations © Nathan Gelgud

Writers in search of guidance need only scan Willa Cather on Writing for some sharp doses of advice. “The novel,” she writes in an analysis of the difference between creating good fiction and being adept at journalistic description, “has been over-furnished.”

“Every writer who is an artist knows that his ‘power of observation,’ and his ‘power of description,’ form but a low part of his equipment.” Writing about an overuse of the criticism that some fiction is strictly escapist, she warns, “give the people a new word, and they think they have a new fact.”

Nathan Gelgud Willa Cather main drawing 580px

In this collection, the author of O Pioneers! tells readers how she came to write her first novel, discusses her goals and processes, and writes about trends in writing, especially among novelists. While she’s at it, she takes on contemporaries like Stephen Crane (“He is rather the best of our writers in what is called “description” because he is the least describing”) and offers a concise treatise on what art should do.

In “On the Art of Fiction,” Cather takes on a kind of writing that was recently popular but is aging poorly, in which writers “tried to make a story out of every theme that occured to them.” They were trying to teach readers to “multiply our ideas instead of to condense them.” But art, Cather writes, should simplify, so that so much is cut away that any good story has in it “the strength of a dozen fairly good stories that have been sacrificed to it.”

She compares what is essentially a diligent process of revision to competent worksmanship: “a good workman can’t be a cheap workman.” But this isn’t to say that the truly inspired writer can easily find a market for his goods. In fact, if you’re writing as an artist, you should be making a kind of work for which there is no market demand at all. The very vitality and originality of the work makes it a hard sell. Perhaps not the most uplifting advice for anyone leafing through the pages of Willa Cather on Writing, but nonetheless accurate.