Edith Wharton on Art and Writing

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As much as I enjoy Jane Austen and Emily Bronte, I confess a lifelong adoration of Edith Wharton (1862—1937). Well after Darcy offended LIzzie and shortly after Heathcliff roamed the moors, Wharton won a Pulitzer (and was thrice nominated for the Nobel) in literature. This “bluestocking” author brilliantly used dramatic irony to criticize the upper class from which she came. So it’s no wonder she also made some astute observations about writing and art, some of which I’m sharing here.

Mind your manners.     “I have never known a novel that was good enough to be good in spite of its being adapted to the author’s political views.” Unless your work in progress is of a political nature, best to keep your politics to yourself and remain invisible as an author. Politics and opinions saturate the media, so let’s invent something more productive and positive with our talent.

Your writing can outlive you.     “One can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegrationcolin-firth-460_1212763c if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.” If you’re fortunate enough to become a famous author, your work will speak for you. So write carefully, live fully, see grandly, and be thankful for your talent (even if publishers don’t recognize it).

Find your voice—and your sight.     “True originality consists not in a new manner but in a new vision.” Despite publishing’s risk-averse straightjacket, there will never be another Hemingway, or JK Rowling, or (I pray) E. L. James. Every person, therefore author, is a uniquely created child of God, and we should share our originality with the world. (If we plan to make money, we need also ensure our vision coincides with market demand.)

Be original.     “A classic is a classic not because it conforms to certain structural rules, or fits certain definitions (of which its author had quite probably never heard of). It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.” Note a theme? Wharton dared to defy convention (in many ways, so check out her biography and writing). Her progressive life and insightful writing were symbiotic, yielding great personal and professional fruit. She was not a copy—and our writing shouldn’t be either.

Do you have a favorite Wharton book or short story? Perhaps right before Halloween is the perfect time to read some of her famous ghost stories and discover this talented American writer.

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