Let us turn now to three faults far graver than mere clumsiness – not faults of technique but faults of soul: sentimentality, frigidity, and mannerism […]
Mannered writing, then – like sentimentality and frigidity – arises out of flawed character. In critical circles it is considered bad form to make connections between literary faults and bad character, but for the writing teacher such connections are impossible to miss, hence impossible to ignore […] To help the writer […] the teacher must enable the writer to see – partly by showing him how the fiction betrays his distorted vision (as fiction, closely scrutinized, always will) – that his personal character is wanting.
-John Gardner, from The Art of Fiction
John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction has been a standard in writing classes for decades. Along with Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners (“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them,” she wrote), I think of The Art of Fiction as the masochist’s craft book. In Gardner’s text, you’ll find no warm fuzzies or self-helpy exhortations to discover your inner artist (as in Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within or Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way), or to keep at it, no matter how shitty your drafts (as in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird). Gardner treats the writer’s vocation with strict gravity; the path is both narrow and demanding, poseurs be warned and beware.
Thus, one reads Gardner for a trenchant kick in the ass; or, perhaps, when one has been working wretchedly at writing for some time and is ripe for someone to put him out of his misery: Not everyone is a writer, Gardner (and O’Connor, too) might say (to the horror of writing programs across the country who want your tuition dollars). Why not try your hand at water colors?
As both a student and teacher of writing, the above passages from The Art of Fiction have stopped me in my tracks. Faults of soul? Show the writer that his personal character is wanting? Imagine if book reviewers, as common practice, heeded Gardner’s entreaty. We’d see reviews that looked something like this (italics represent text from The Art of Fiction):
Jack Scribbler’s description of the protagonist Billy in his moment of crisis shows Scribbler’s essential frigidity; that is, clearly, Scribbler is less concerned about Billy than any decent human being observing the situation would naturally be. Scribbler’s essential indecency is the problem here; it is clear that he lacks the nobility of spirit that enables a real writer to enter deeply into the feelings of imaginary characters. In a word, Scribbler is cold-hearted and turns away from real feeling, he knows no more of love, beauty, or sorrow than one might learn from a Hallmark card.
Or, like this:
It is clear that Jill Hack, in repeatedly intruding herself into the narrative with stylistic tics that do not serve the subject matter, is primarily focused on proving herself different from all other authors; apparently, she feels more strongly about her own personality and ideas than she feels about any of her characters or all the rest of humanity.
In other words, reviews would be pointedly personal; what is wrong with the writing equated with what is wrong with the author. What would it mean if we all began drawing such short, direct lines from the work to the person? Likely we’d see an increase in reviewer-writer rows — online a la Alice Hoffman, or at Graydon Carter’s Waverly Inn – and many of us, helpless to survive such sharp knives to our souls, might give up the literary ghost earlier rather than later in our careers.
But what if we flip the supposition and consider the converse: if bad writing “arises out of flawed character,” it would follow then that the wellspring of good writing is good character (to be clear: good character – as in the cultivation/manifestation of the writer’s humanity – not good characters, which is, of course, another way of going at it). For aspiring writers, there will always be matters of craft and style; but how many of us, writers and teachers alike, imagine focusing our development as writers on personal character? And what, at any rate, would that look like?
Well… it would look like Chekhov.
A new film adaptation of Chekhov’s 1891 novella The Duel, from award-winning director Dover Kosashvili, recently opened at Film Forum in New York City and has me thinking about all the ways in which Chekhov is studied, admired, referenced, emulated, and, yes, adapted. Chekhov in fact rivals Shakespeare in the most-frequently-adapted-for-the-screen category.
Given how readers typically respond to screen versions of their most beloved books, it may not be surprising that the film left me wanting – to reread Chekhov’s exquisite novella, that is (which, subsequently, I did). It’s a fine film – well-acted, near-perfectly cast, shot beautifully to capture both the open landscape and confined domestic settings of a Caucasus seaside town (Manohla Dargis of the New York Times described the film as “very satisfying and tonally precise”) – but the project of condensing and dramatizing a Chekhov story may be a bit like trying to see figurative shapes in a Rothko painting: some things – works of art which approach perfection, in particular – simply are what they are.
Praising Chekhov, I realize, is a little like rooting for the Yankees (or Duke; or Roger Federer). Writers across the aesthetic spectrum, from Nabokov (“Exact and rich characterization is attained by careful selection and careful distribution of minute but striking features”) to Cornel West (“If I have to choose between Chekhov and most hip-hop, I’ll go with Chekhov”) to Flannery O’Connor (“Chekhov makes everything work – the air, the light, the cold, the dirt”) to Tennessee Williams (“Chekhov! Chekhov! Chekhov!”) laud the good doctor as unmatched in the short story form. Writing teachers and books on fiction craft invariably herd students to the altar of Chekhov – “Read Chekhov, read the stories straight through,” Francine Prose urges, in a chapter devoted to Chekhov in Reading Like a Writer. I am aware of just one literary giant who bucked the crowd: “Chekhov wrote about 6 good stories,” wrote Hemingway. “But he was an amateur writer.”
Yet it’s difficult, and arguably fatal, to teach Chekhov’s “style.” “Chekhovian” is in fact no compliment, it implies a near-replica, which, in the case of Chekhov, is worse than no replica at all. As Annie Proulx notes, in a Chekhov story, “everything seems chaos and only a little is revealed or resolved. But enough is revealed and resolved to give shape and form to the story. I do not like the pseudo-Chekhovian trailing away.” Eudora Welty described Chekhov’s stories in this way:
The revolution brought about by the gentle Chekhov to the short story was in every sense not destructive but constructive. By removing the formal plot he did not leave the story structureless, he endowed it with another kind of structure – one which embodied the principle of growth […] in each and every story, short or long, it was a structure open to human meaning and answerable to that meaning. It took form from within.
But what to do with such abstract analysis? “Open to human meaning and answerable to that meaning” sounds right, and profound; trying to emulate (or adapt) something which takes “form from within” is another matter.
The quietude of Chekhov’s talent contributes, perhaps, to the whiff of backlash one sometimes detects in the air; a dubiousness of the emperor-has-no-clothes variety. Somerset Maugham wrote:
[Chekhov’s characters] are not lit by the hard light of common day but suffused in a mysterious grayness. They move in this as though they were disembodied spirits. It is their souls that you seem to see… You have the feeling of a vast, gray, lost throng wandering aimless in some dim underworld;
and Virginia Woolf wrote
We have to cast about in order to discover where the emphasis in these strange stories rightly comes… The soul is ill; the soul is cured; the soul is not cured.
I understand both Maugham and Woolf to be enthusiasts of this mysteriousness, this strangeness; and yet, given their assessments, it is perhaps understandable if a contemporary reader of Chekhov finds his stories boring, shapeless, lacking in dramatic movement, unsatisfying — even if, lacking Hemingway’s balls, said reader feels sheepish saying so in the company of the literary set.
In “The Husband,” a man and his wife dislike and misunderstand each other; both are miserable, they grow only more impermeable, yet each seems to reach for something – empathy, intoxication, or something ultimately unnameable. In “The Two Volodyas,” a young woman married to an older man has a fickle and restless heart and falls into adultery, only to find herself as restless as before, albeit more acutely intimate with her own “shabby,” fretful soul. In “The Black Monk,” an overwrought young scholar retires to a country estate and begins to grapple with madness – or the light of genius, we don’t know which – the normalization of which, for the sake of his fiancée, results in a life of mediocrity, and death in isolation. In “The Lady With a Pet Dog,” a vain married man flirts with an unhappily married woman; an affair ensues, grows tiresome, but then rekindles, and the two find themselves strangely, unexpectedly devoted to each other despite the hopelessness of their situation. And in “The Kiss,” a shy, undistinguished army officer is the beneficiary of an aristocrat’s daughter’s mistake — she kisses him in the dark, thinking he is the other half of her secret tryst — and a euphoria fills his imagination as he fantasizes a continuation of the intrigue; only to realize bitterly that the incident was a non-sequitur and that no such consummation will ever come to pass.
Why, then, do these stories of anti-climax, of unconsummated longing, of isolation and impenetrability, inspire me so? And how might they make me both a better person and, following our line of argument here, a better writer?
I read Chekhov repeatedly, in marathon sessions, story after story, for consolation and for a kind of cleansing out of both personal and writerly bullshit. I go to him not exactly for writing instruction, so much as to enlarge my writer’s vision; which is to say to deepen my capacity to see and feel more honestly (Chekhov is “all eyes and heart,” Ted Solotaroff wrote). Chekhov teaches me to sit still and steady, companionate with all of life’s unseemly warts, unexpected beauty, sadness and futility; and to settle in with all of it — my creeping perfectionism, self-importance, and fidgety A.D.D. be damned. I go to Chekhov, frankly, when I am anxious or depressed. His stories invariably unlock and loosen a stuckness in my spirit — maybe like what nicotine or alcohol has done for writers throughout the ages – and nourish me in a way that helps me both to keep writing, and to keep living.
What we learn best from Chekhov is, then, this writer’s character – in Gardner’s words, “nobility of spirit,” and “decency”; in Solotaroff’s, “all eyes and heart” — without which we cannot possibly tell the stories which must be told, in a way that, as Annie Dillard‘s writes, “seizes our lives, and reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered [...] press[ing] upon our minds the deepest mysteries.” In reading Chekhov we begin to develop a profound underground system of roots that feeds the life and growth above. His stories burst our bubbles, yes, by flouting the climax-and-resolution paradigm; but they also pull back the veil on how much untruth we generally wallow in, and how petty fears, vanity, and self-delusion breed (tragically and often unnecessarily) all manner of soul sickness – not to mention frigidity, sentimentalism, and mannerism in our writing.
Perhaps most importantly — most skillfully — Chekhov does all this with gentleness and humor. Reading his stories keeps us honest, and humble, but somehow also light-hearted. (It was perhaps that tender touch of silliness – Laevsky’s rather hilarious, panicky ennui – and Chekhov’s loving characterization of Nadya as hungry for life, not merely vain – “all of it, together with the heat and the transparent, caressing waves, stirred her and whispered to her that she must live, live…” — which I missed most in Kosashvili’s adaptation.) To my mind, nowhere is there a more direct line between man and work – in the positive sense, as opposed to Gardner’s negative sense — than in the case of Chekhov. In other words, to write like Chekhov, one must be like Chekhov — see what Chekhov sees, feel as Chekhov feels, love as Chekhov loves – which is to say recognize and embrace life as it is, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health — which he helps us to do by writing stories that have, as Avrahm Yarmolinksy put it, “the impact of direct experience.”
“To be an artist means never to avert your eyes,” the Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa said. With his keen yet gentle gaze, Chekhov reminds us that to be a human being means the same. And with perhaps a more compelling, living argument (i.e. his body of work) than the austere Gardner, Chekhov challenges us to consider which comes first, the artist or the man.