Paul Johnson

It’s not what you put in but what you leave out that matters

It’s not what you put in but what you leave out that matters

In the art of writing, one of the central problems is what to put in and what to leave out. In the past, I have always been one for putting in. I felt myself full of good things I did not want the reader to miss. So my books got longer and longer. This gigantism spent itself, and from the gross satisfaction of putting everything in I turned to the more delicate pleasure of deciding what to leave out. I discovered I could write down everything a reasonable person needed to know about the Renaissance in 40,000 words, and I have since done Napoleon and Washington at the same length. It has proved to be great fun.

It is one thing, however, to leave out material for reasons of space, bulk, balance and other physical causes, quite another to leave out for reasons of art. That is one of the great mysteries and problems — and delights — of creation. One great artist who knows exactly what to leave out and what to put in is Jane Austen. When I went up to Oxford I had read only Pride and Prejudice, and thought it quite good, but had no present plans to move further into her oeuvre. Then, through the good offices of my sister, a don at St Anne’s, I was invited to have tea — I am not sure it was not ‘to take tea’ — with Miss Mary Lascelles at Somerville. Miss Lascelles was from a grand Yorkshire family and most particular about manners, and I went with some trepidation. She was also a woman of remarkable sensibilities and acute intelligence. A few years before, in 1939, she had published a striking work, Jane Austen and Her Art, which more than 60 years later is still the best book written on the subject.

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