This collection, by Robert Louis Stevenson, contains seven essays of which the first two are much longer than the others. They first essay ‘On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature’ is somewhat boring as there’s nothing really new to learn that other writers haven’t discussed more clearly. Stevenson distinguishes between prose and verse, and then continues by using the following four classifications 1- Choice of Words, 2- The Web, 3- Rhythm of the Phrase, 4- Contents of the Phrase’ to discuss further the elements of style in writing.
It is at the second essay ‘The Morality of the Profession of Letters’ that the collection became alive, with passages like:
A writer can live by his writing. If not so luxuriously as by other trades, then less luxuriously. The nature of the work he does all day will more affect his happiness than the quality of his dinner at night.
- and this was published back in 1912! Even then, successful writers struggled with the question of earning a living as a writer. Another passage:
There are two duties incumbent upon any man who enters on the business of writing: truth to the fact and a good spirit in treatment.
where he then discusses what and how writers should write based on their experiences and the pursuit of truth in literature.
In the third essay, ‘Books which Have Influenced Me’, after mentioning books that have influenced him and briefly explaining why, Stevenson quickly discusses reading:
The gift of reading, as I have called it, is not very common, nor very generally understood.
Here he elaborates on the changes of opinion we may undergo through reading:
A human truth, which is always very much a lie, hides as much of life as it displays. It is men who hold another truth, or, as it seems to us, perhaps, a dangerous lie, who can extend our restricted field of knowledge, and rouse our drowsy consciousness.
He elaborated on readers who have a dogma different from that of the writer and the possible metamorphosis they may undergo depending on how the writer structures his/her thoughts into writing and how far he/she pursues the truth as he/she perceives it.
In the shorter, fourth essay ‘A Note on Realism’, Stevenson discusses the change in literature that occurred “by the admission of the detail”. And with the following:
This method of realism, let it then be clearly understood, regards not in the least degree the fundamental truth, but only the technical method, of a work of art.
- he goes on to explain the process writers undergo from ideas in the head to execution on paper and focuses between the ‘ideal’ and the ‘real’.
In the last three essays, which decrease in length progressively, the focus shifts from the abstract and/or technical to the personal. Stevenson discusses his first novel – Treasure Island – in ‘My First Book’, how it came about, the work it entailed, the joy he had of drawing the map first and then writing the story only to have the map lost when he sent the manuscript to the publisher; he then had to redraw it by reading his story first (and then redrawing it accordingly). Despite it all, he never thought he’d write a novel simply because the length of such a work is taxing, but he did it and continued to write other novels then. In Master of Ballantrae (the novel discussed in the last 2 essays) he shares how the idea for that novel came about and the discussions he had with his publisher.
All in all, for a book published in 1912 and a writer who was prolific in literature (despite dying suddenly at the young age of 44), this is quite a collection revealing Stevenson’s thoughts and processes regarding writers, readers and his own work. It can be read by writers who seek knowledge in ‘The Art of Writing’ as a supplement, but it can also be read by the general reader interested in understanding the mind of a great writer.