One of the things literary critics get to do is to write commentary on literature about literature, where we ponder the nature of the writing craft. Writing differs according to its form and function. Some forms of writing have gained a place in our culture as intrinsically challenging, like poetry, drama, and “serious” belletristic literature – think Ulysses and James Joyce.
All good writing, however, contains some basic traits. Lidiia Korneevna Chukovskaia, in her book «В лаборатории редактора,»[i] In the Editor’s Workshop, spends a lot of time discussing what makes good writing, and what makes a good reader of literature. In this case, she contemplates the kind of reading skills that make a skilled editor.
«Интерес к языку, постоянные попытки осознать, осмыслить перемeны, происходящие в нём, тонкий слух к индивидуальным особенностям, присущим языку и стилю того или другого писателя, -вот что характеризует мастера редакционной работы…»
“Interest in language, the constant attempts to understand, to comprehend the changes that occur in it, the delicate sound of individual features inherent to the language and style of one or the other writer, that is what distinguishes a master of the editorial labor…”[ii]
Chukovskaia points out that truly gifted writing can come from a great range of sources, but what it needs is a respect for the words themselves. The style of a work, its form, reflects the totality of the writer, down to the writer’s sincerity or insincerity. What matters most is for a writer to be truly committed to the depth of the words s/he writes, their meaning, and the way they function stylistically to reflect the segment of life from which they derive. The words should serve as the eyes of the world that the writer sees. Total honesty and total mastery of the grammar of the world s/he is trying to depict.
«Искусство – орудие изучения жизни, орудие воздействие на жизнь не в меньшей степени, чем наука. А без ясности – какое же изучение и какое воздействие?»[iii]
“Art is a tool for the study of life, a tool that impacts life no less than science. And without clarity — what kind of learning or impact can there be?”
The key to this learning, to this impact, lies in the word «естественность» — which the dictionary defines as “natural,” but which means so much more. In Chukovskaia’s parlance, “natural” involves not only a sensitivity to language style that reflects the elements of nature it portrays, but also moral and artistic sincerity and integrity in its utterance.
The emphasis on sincerity and sensitivity should come as no surprise to those who Chuckovskaia as The Memory of Soviet literature. Not only did she serve as guardian of her father’s work – his insistence on sincerity and sensitivity in his literary criticism earned a “demotion” to the children’s literature division, where he and other talented writers created some of the most memorable children’s literature in the world – but also of Anna Akhmatova’s works. Her efforts to keep Akhmatova’s literary memory alive ensured that some of the most riveting poetry of the Stalinist period made it to the era of perestroika and to this day.
At the same time, in true Soviet style, Chukovskaia never utters the words sincerity or sensitivity explicitly. What she does is to create the rhetorical equivalent of a picture of the negative space around these words, forcing the reader to fill in the positive space to obtain its meaning. Rather than speak directly of the need for sincerity and clarity in Soviet literature, she speaks about the problems of Soviet literature and its intrinsic “didactic” tone, the imprint of the Soviet bureaucratic way of thinking, чиновничье мышление. The only antidote to that was a scientific approach to language that maintained its reflection of life. “Clarity, clarity, and clarity again is the demand of the editor in the name of the reader on the style and language of scientific language…” Left unsaid, of course, is that this bureaucratic language lacked a lot in the area of clarity. At the same time, Chukovskaia warned of the dangers of assuming too reductionist a stance when it came to grammar. “Editing an artistic text from the narrow position of elementary school grammar means to destroy it.”[iv]
What Chukovskaia tries to encourage is a critical stance that avoids selfish ideological reductionism and encourages sensitivity to the nature of language. The goal is to create a text that will transcend the limitations Socialist Realism placed on Soviet literary production, and which would make it possible to record the reality of life following the Stalinist regime. Thus, true art could emerge from any form of art – novels, poems, children’s literature – as long as the editor and the writer worked together as a dynamic duo and presented a language that clean and true and pure.