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Dealing with a Difficult Writer

For the umpteenth time I have started some Dostoevsky novels and short stories, only to surrender 50 pages in. Yes I know, it seems like common sense to be a good sport about this, to shrug it off, and to move on to a different writer. But it is worth giving the benefit of the doubt to a writer who has a high reputation. On the other hand, I should dismiss the opinion of the "experts" if it doesn't agree with my own experience.

Perhaps the best reason for not giving up on Dostoevsky too soon is that something might be gained by trying to explain why reading him just doesn't work for me. I used to think that his books had too much religious guilt and physical suffering in them for my tastes. Russians are pretty good at suffering, but I am not.

The more I thought about it, this time around, the more the blame went to his unsympathetic characters. I simply don't care what happens to his characters, and therefore, have no interest in the story. Don't think that I am lobbying for perfect characters or goodie-two-shoes. Such characters would be pretty boring, actually. But they have to have something about them that makes you want to "stick" for them.

Perhaps Dostoevsky did think his characters were somewhat sympathetic. Read a biographical blurb on him sometime. It is amazing what he survived. Perhaps he lost track of how weak and spoiled his readers are compared to the hardships of his own life. (And that includes me.)

Well then, if this is the right explanation for my difficulty in reading Dostoevsky, what should he have done? I am not going to argue that he should have given up at being a serious writer, and devolved into a pulp writer, who follows all the easy formulas that make a book a commercial success.

But couldn't he have let the reader 'come up for air' now and then, with more action, some humor, or even a little romance, as silly as that sounds. But this doesn't sound very inspiring to a serious writer, does it? It sounds like I'm advocating watering his work down. It might backfire because of its obvious condescension to the readers.

Isn't there a way to admit and accept the readers' humanity, including their weaknesses, without being condescending? Is there some way to visualize adding things to his books, rather than merely diluting them?

If reading his books is an non-success story for me, we need to come up with success stories. Next time I will give examples of movies that talked about serious subjects in a non-serious way; and by doing so, they fit better with an audience that isn't superhuman, but merely human.

Here I am, trying to make an allowance for my readers' humanity by offering some eye-candy in a Nevada arroyo. But it has nothing to do with the post, so it backfires, because it treats the reader in a condescending way.


I read lots of Dostoevsky while in high school (not required) but wouldn't enjoy him at all now. Consider your own circumstances - when you're in H.S., you're more confined and likely to read such stuff.

PS I also read and enjoyed Spenser's "Faerie Queen," as well as Camus, Sartre, and many other "greats." Now it all just seems irrelevant to real life. I can't hardly even read fiction these days.
Well, you were certainly more of a reader than I was, in high school. Sometimes what "seems relevant to real life" is in the middle of a paragraph of a book -- it doesn't reside in the overall plot.
XXXXX said…
Don't know. I do think you tend to overanalyze.
Russian history is brutal and hard. That's a fact. I often wonder about the drive to write. Cold rooms. Harsh times. Yet driven to write his story. Since it is a classic, shouldn't one's thoughts gravitate to understanding why rather than thinking of ways he might have written differently?
I can't read him either but I know the stories and I have read something of Russian history. Can you imagine the times? One can surely understand the revolutions and why the Russian people were attracted to some of the ideas and promises that arose.
I doubt that the books were meant to entertain. We're pretty foolishly embedded in entertainment, don't you think? Other cultures hardly knew the meaning of the word. In Russia, for much of its history, it tended to be limited to the bottle.
George, "Since it is a classic..." I gravitate toward classics because it is a useful screening device, not because they have some kind of authority over me. I needn't like classics or even agree that they should be considered classics.

I agree that we are over-addicted to trivial entertainment and that Russians weren't that way, except for vodka.
Good point, but I'm too restless/ADD/lazy to look for it, that's why I read your blog. I'll let you do the searching and revelation.
Spotted Dog Ranch, gee if I'd know I was providing such a useful service, I'd have raised the subscription price. (grin)
XXXXX said…
Of course you don't need to like them. It's just interesting to try to figure out why some things are considered classics and others not. For me, especially some art work which just looks like something someone did in their garage.
Yea, I don't even try with visual art.
I think the term "Classic" is used for stuff that can best torture students. Ha.