Writing again from London, this time in June, Fay tells Alice that she views literary critics as bus drivers and tour guides within the City of Invention. They have their role but should not dictate everything within the City. Fay recommends that Alice pay attention to the responses of her readers without being controlled by them.
In this chapter, Fay takes a more measured view of the role of readers, arguing that authors should not be intimidated by the power that readers hold as co-creators of fiction. Though readers are essential, thinking of them too much can inhibit an author’s ability to create.
Fay tells Alice that Jane Austen was wisely considerate of the opinions of her readers, listening to them without letting them decide what she should write. She shares with Alice some statements that Austen collected from her friends and family in 1814, noting what they did and did not like about Mansfield Park. Because the responses are all so different, Fay concludes that they are ultimately unhelpful. She notes that Alice’s boyfriend has called Alice’s novel juvenile, but that she should not worry about this criticism and avoid “waiting for approval” from others.
The conflicting statements of Austen’s friends and family provide additional evidence for Fay’s claim that authors should not let readers’ opinions shape their work too strongly. Although it conflicts somewhat with Fay’s earlier statements about the immense power of readers, it also seems to come from Fay’s feminist perspective, as the core of her recommendation is that Alice should speak up when she feels she is ready, without waiting for permission from the men in her life.
Fay goes on to acknowledge the pressure that writers, especially women, feel to get things “right,” but she points out that novelists cannot actually be wrong in depicting an imagined world. She encourages Alice to listen carefully to her readers and understand their responses to her writing, but to follow her own instincts as she builds her house in the City of Invention.
Again, Fay makes it clear that the purpose of fiction is to create a complex and multilayered set of realities, rather than worrying about what is or is not correct.
To emphasize her point, Fay quotes at length from a letter written by the novelist Walter Scott in 1816. Scott’s letter notes how fiction usually provides an escape from reality, which Fay points out is a contrast with the idea of fiction as moral instruction. Then, Scott notes the difficulty of representing true reality in fiction and compliments Jane Austen’s Emma as an admirable example of a new style of fiction, in which realistic stories give readers examples of how to live.
Through her analysis of Scott’s letter, Fay provides evidence of the revolutionary place that Jane Austen’s fiction occupied in her own time and connects this historical document to her own broader notion that novels like Austen’s have the power to influence reality by connecting the real world with an imagined, improved world.
Scott’s letter also mentions the benefits of even painful experiences like unrequited love, which can shape individuals in unexpectedly positive ways. Using this idea, Fay urges Alice to look for the upsides of her tumultuous relationship with her professor, and to not let the pain of it interfere with her work. However, she also suggests, seemingly sarcastically, that Alice could try behaving like Fanny in Mansfield Park, in the hope that being virtuous will help her win over the professor. In postscript, she adds that Alice does not win 50 pounds, because Alice guessed that Fay stopped her story about Grace D’Albier simply because it was boring. In reality, Fay says, she stopped the story because it had no real point.
Fay’s suggestion that there may be benefits in Alice’s painful relationship foreshadows the success of Alice’s novel based on that relationship. Again, fiction offers the hope of transforming the world through the vehicle of the author’s imagination. Explaining her reason for ending the Grace D’Albier story, Fay implies that having no point makes a story meaningless, and yet Grace’s story nevertheless serves a purpose by reflecting and amplifying the themes that Fay discusses throughout. This transformation from pointless into meaningful, which seems to occur without even Fay’s knowledge, again reinforces the essential value of adding stories to the City of Invention.