If you’re a writer, count yourself fortunate that Mark Twain is no longer around to read your book and write about it (I’m looking at you Stephanie Meyer). James Fenimore Cooper (author of The Deerslayer, The Last of the Mohicans, and others) wasn’t so lucky. In a famous essay titled “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” Twain skewers Cooper (and his work) without mercy, and while he’s harsh (and hilarious) there’s plenty of wisdom for any writer to take note of in his list of charges. What follows is the first part of the essay in which Twain lists each offense. Do yourself a favor, though, and read the rest of the essay as well. You can find it here in its complete form.
Excerpted from “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses”
by Mark Twain
Cooper’s art has some defects. In one place in ‘Deerslayer,’ and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offences against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.
There are nineteen rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction—some say twenty-two. In Deerslayer Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:
1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the Deerslayer tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in the air.
2. They require that the episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the Deerslayer tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.
3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the Deerslayer tale.
4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the Deerslayer tale.
5. They require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the Deerslayer tale to the end of it.
6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the Deerslayer tale, as Natty Bumppo’s case will amply prove.
7. They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship’s Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in the Deerslayer tale.
8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as “the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest,” by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the Deerslayer tale.
9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the Deerslayer tale.
10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the Deerslayer tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.
11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the Deerslayer tale this rule is vacated.
In addition to these large rules there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:
12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
14. Eschew surplusage.
15. Not omit necessary details.
16. Avoid slovenliness of form.
17. Use good grammar.
18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.
Even these seven are coldly and persistently violated in the Deerslayer tale.
Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.
Hey! I liked that book and Last of the Mohicans too! they weren’t deep, but they were entertaining. Twain’s books were better of course, but…ouch!
This bit has always been my fave part of Twain’s critique:
“They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the Deerslayer tale.”
A key consideration for us writer-folks, to be sure : )
I have a copy of _The Deerslayer_ that (true confessions), found its way to my shelf in a (failed) desperate bid to impress. I’m pretty sure of two things: 1) That I attempted to read it and 2) That I didn’t get very far, perhaps owing to the important plot distinction mentioned above.
I really did like _Last of the Mohicans_, though. For real, and not just because it could have earned me points with Unnamed Fellow. I don’t think he ever knew, anyhow. I actually liked it better than the movie. After reading the book it seemed to me that the romance element of the movie version really obscured the themes of the story. Honor and idealism of gruff, scruffy (probably also smelly) old guys just doesn’t play so well on screen for the modern audience.
I read this for the first time just last week. It’s brilliant.
I reserve the right to ignore the literary criticism of anyone who hates Jane Austen. Just kidding. Sort of.
That said, it is a good article.
I really enjoyed this.
Number 13 is classic and hilarious…. I laughed out loud when I read it.
13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
Thanks Pete for sharing!
Rule 14 – ha! (Is that supposed to be humorous? I certainly found it so.)
Poor Mark Twain! I wonder what he’d think if be knew that his critique was so well written that it makes me want to read Deerslayer, if only to discover who is alive and who may or may not be dead… 🙂
Well, the living/corpse binary certainly smacks down all zombie fiction. Hooray!
Loving #3 🙂
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