Timeless Writing Advice

I’ve been reading a controversial collection of short stories called Crimes of Love. (Oxford World Classic, translated by David Coward) The author is none other than the notorious Marquis de Sade. That’s right, the man’s whose name is the origin of the term sadism. Before you bail on me, just listen. As a preface to the collection, the Marquis includes his insightful Essay On Novels.  I am pleased to share some of his timeless wisdom with you today.

“The novel, if I may express it so, is the ‘picture of the manners of every age’. To the philosopher who seeks to know the nature of man, it is as indispensable as history. The historian’s pencil can draw a man only in his public roles, when he is not truly himself: ambition and pride cover his face with a mask which shows only these two passions and not the man entire. The novelist’s pen, on the other hand, captures his inner truth and catches him when he puts his mask aside, and the resulting sketch, which is far more interesting, is also much truer; that is the point of novels.”

“The first and most important requirement is an understanding of human nature.  … A man learns nothing when he talks; he learns by listening. Which is why those who talk the most are, in the ordinary run of things, fools.”

“Any fool can pick a rose and pluck its petals, but the man of genius breathes its scent and paints its forms: that is the kind of author we will read.”

“But while I advise you to embellish, I forbid you to depart from what is plausible. The reader has every right to feel aggrieved when he realizes that too much is being asked of him. He feels that the author is trying to deceive him, his pride suffers and he simply stops believing the moment he suspects he is being misled.”

“No one forces you to ply the trade you follow. But if you do choose it, then acquit yourself to the best of your ability. And above all, you should not think of writing as a way of earning your living. If you do, your work will smell of poverty. It will be colored by your weakness and be as thin as your hunger. There are other trades which you can take up…  Our opinion of you will not be any poorer, and since you will be sparing us acres of boredom, we may even think the better of you.”

Regarding characters:

“If you send your characters on a voyage, be sure you are acquainted with the countries where their travels lead them, and spin your tales with such magic that I can identify with them. Remember that I voyage at their side wherever you send them to, and that I may know more than you and will not excuse your errors in reporting manners and costumes nor forgive a geographic blunder.  …you must make your descriptions of your chosen localities authentic, or else you should stay at home. This is the only area of what you write where invention cannot be tolerated, unless the lands to which you transport me are imaginary.”

“Avoid any display of moral earnestness. Morality is not something anyone wants in a novel. … It should never be the author who preaches, but his characters, and even then only when the circumstances leave him no alternative.”

And finally, in his defense (because he was in trouble most of the time…) he writes:

“It is not my wish to make vice attractive. … I harbor no dangerous plan to make women love men who deceive them, but on the contrary, to ensure that they loathe them. …  And with this in mind I have made those of my heroes who tread the path of vice so repulsive that they will certainly inspire neither pity nor love. In this I make bold to claim that I am a more moral writer than those who make their villains attractive.”

Fascinating insight, no? And really, advice on novel writing that stands the test of time. As always I hope you enjoyed and found this helpful.

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