I find your novel unreal just as you find mine to be so... All that your school of novelists lias to say about the novel seems to us nonsense', remarked Hugh Walpole in his open Letter to a Modern Novelist published in 1932.
Walploe's own novels are now often forgotten, but they were popular during the twenties and thirties, and the comments in his Letter are a useful introduction to the situation of the novel around 1930, and to some of the questions which confronted its authors. One perplexity for the novelist in the nineteen thirties, as Walpole's remarks indicate, was the existence of a divergence in opinion about the proper nature of fiction. This was very differently envisaged by authors whose views could be seen as dividing them into the sort of opposing 'schools' Walpole mentions. His particular use of the word 'modern* in his Letter helps to suggest the nature and origin of such divisions in contemporary opinion. Walpole's own career as a novelist stretches back to 1910, and continues long after 1932, and yet it is emphatically the puzzling young writer to whom his open letter is ostensibly addressed whom Walpole considers modern, and not himself. Clearly, 'modern* in his view refers to a style of writing practised only by some novelists in the modern period, and certainly not by all his contemporaries. His Letter describes the appearance of such a specifically modern style, which seemed to Walpole 'nonsense1 because, among other shortcomings, it disdained the traditional strengths of fiction — character; storytelling which leads the reader from page to page; and what Walpole calls 'that arrangement of the older novelists, the placing of things in order... the crisis at its proper time, the ending neatly rounded off'.
Walpole's recognition of a 'modem' school of writing which discards or re-shapes earlier conventions has been strongly confirmed by later critics. Stephen Spender, for example, whose own poetry began to appear around 1930, later remarked 'I see the "moderns"... as deliberately setting out to invent a new literature as a resuls of their feeling that our age is in many respects unprecedented, and outside all the conventions of past literature and art1.2 Walpole's Letter names Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence as part of the 'modern' school: later critics have often added the names of Virginia Woolf, Ford Madox Ford, and Dorothy Richardson; and sometimes also included Henry James and Joseph Conrad. Though such 'moderns' — mddernists as they are now usually called — did not really see themselves as a school, all can be considered as sharing in the attempt (also visible in the poetry of the period) to 'invent a new literature' different in style and technique from the work of their predecessors. This urge sharply distinguishes them from contemporaries, Walpole among them, who, whether or not they regarded their age as unprecedented, did not feel the need to alter 'the conventions of past literature and art' in recreating it in their novels. Since k is the modernists who are generally considered as among the greatest and potentially most influential of twentieth-century authors, overshadowing the work of the past fifty years, their fiction demands careful consideration as a preliminary to any account of the progress of the novel since 1930.