Shop Talk: Anton Chekhov on the Aim of Literature

I promised in my last post to share another passage from Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, this one quoted from a letter by Chekhov (my boldface):

“Artistic literature is called so because it depicts life as it really is. Its aim is truth—unconditional and honest. A writer is not a confectioner, not a dealer in cosmetics, not an entertainer; he is a man bound under compulsion, by the realization of his duty and by his conscience. To a chemist, nothing on earth is unclean. A writer must be as objective as a chemist.

“It seems to me that the writer should not try to solve such questions as those of God, pessimism, etc. His business is but to describe those who have been speaking or thinking about God and pessimism, how and under what circumstances. The artist should be not the judge of his characters and their conversations, but only an unbiased observer.

“You are right in demanding that an artist should take an intelligent attitude to his work, but you confuse two things: solving a problem and stating a problem correctly. It is only the second that is obligatory for the artist.

“You abuse me for objectivity, calling it indifference to good and evil, lack of ideas and ideals, and so on. You would have me, when I describe horse thieves, say: ‘Stealing horses is an evil.’ But that has been known for ages without my saying so. Let the jury judge them; it’s my job simply to show what sort of people they are. I write: you are dealing with horse thieves, so let me tell you that they are not beggars but well-fed people, that they are people of a special cult, and that horse stealing is not simply theft but passion. Of course it would be pleasant to combine art with a sermon, but for me personally it is impossible owing to the conditions of technique. You see, to depict horse thieves in 700 lines I must all the time speak and think in their tone and feel in their spirit. Otherwise, the story will not be as compact as all short stories ought to be. When I write, I reckon entirely upon the reader to add for himself the subjective elements that are lacking in the story.”

Stating the problem correctly, not solving it.  That could be interpreted as meaning the author should bluntly state it, but we know from Chekhov’s writing that he means show it without commentary. Flying down to San Diego over the weekend I read a wonderful example of this by another writer, The End of the Affair by Graham Green. The narrator reveals himself to be a shallow, jealous man utterly blind to the fact that he’s destroying the best thing in his life. Green knew to simply let the narrator dig his own grave. Brilliant.


I’m just back from the Historical Novel Society conference in San Diego. I can’t recommend this conference enough for those interested in writing historical fiction or fans of same. The panels I attended were all excellent, provocative, and there were no stars, all were  peers talking shop.  I enjoyed mine as well. I even had a chance to thank Cecelia Holland for being my inspiration so many moons ago–her book The Firedrake reassured me that one could get published writing historical fiction that was realistic. She still inspires me.

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