Saturday, January 28, 2012

"If only they were better writers."

I've been struggling my way through The First Circle, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.


Maybe I just need to go ahead and accept the fact that I'm not intellectual enough for these guys. In examining Libertarianism, years ago, I dutifully slogged through Hayek and Mises, Nozick and Garrett. Rothbard, LeFevre and Read, oh my! I assumed, naturally, that the fact none of it taught me anything or made me anything but sleepy was entirely my fault. If only I were smarter. If only I had more education. Secretly, in that part of my heart I keep from expressing while confessing my faults at Party meetings, I thought, "If only they were better writers."

I'm aware that the writings of academics are supposed to be turgid and opaque, because only thus may the reader confront and hopefully overcome his own faults. The Emperor's New Clothes are a marvel of dazzling beauty, if only you could see them. But such things are not for hoi polloi like me. The older I get, the less it bothers me.

Sometimes it's right out in the open, as with Atlas Shrugged. That book is a shibboleth for separating true Objectivists from false ones, because the true ones claim to believe it's great literature and nobody else is expected to believe it's anything but wooden drek with a great idea or two buried in a metric shit-ton of manure. Tell the truth: When you finally got stoned enough to actually read all eighty pages of the Galt speech, did you really hope to find anything unique in all the repetition? Yeah, I did too.

Okay, sure, but that's Rand. When it's a writer we're taught to take seriously, angst sets in. We assume the fault is in ourselves. C'mon, admit you read the whole Gulag Archipelago and didn't accomplish anything but finding the context for the "how we burned in the camps" quote. And getting really, really depressed, not so much because gulags are bad things but because you must be some kind of dolt.

I confess, comrades, that Archipelago is the only Solzhenitsyn book I'd ever read before this past week. I came on a tattered copy of The First Circle in a box of M's books, and figured I'd give it another go. It's been a very mild winter, and I needed to feed my masochism some other way. And I will say that The First Circle is not nearly as deadly a read as Archipelago. But if you read it as fiction rather than political commentary, you run the risk of heresies like "I thought Solzhenitsyn was supposed to be a great writer." Fiction has rules, after all, and for the most part they're very useful rules, put there for a purpose. Pacing, for example, is considered important because proper pacing will keep the reader turning pages and prevent him from slapping the damn thing shut and going out to mow the grass because that's less work. Solzhenitsyn doesn't seem to have approved of that rule.

On the other hand the book does have a few stunted little ponies buried in the horseshit. Giving up on the hope of entertaining fiction and reading it as allegory, one finds the story of the janitor Spiridon, as dogged a peasant as was ever born. To escape conscription in the Red Army, he joins a bunch of guerrillas calling themselves the Greens, who are promptly conscripted by the White Army. More-or-less voluntarily turning himself over to the Red Army as a POW in hopes of escaping the White Army, he finds himself fighting for the Red Army after all. He even manages to become a commissar of sorts, briefly. And so it goes: He's taken prisoner by the Germans, who actually treat him quite decently, and upon repatriation is promptly arrested as a traitor for having fallen prisoner. All the time his only actual objective was to keep his family somewhat together, because he doesn't give a leaping shit about any of these people. And in the end, everything having been said, he sums it up thus:
Therefore he was obliged to say to all the kings, priests, and promulgators of the good, the reasonable, and the eternal, all the writers and orators, all the scribblers and critics, all the prosecutors and judges who made Spiridon their business:

"Why don't you go to hell?"
Heh - truth is, that was sort of worth the trip. But if I judge the book as fiction, I still face that fact that the delightfully horrifying little storylet is just one of many stumbling blocks in what I presume is supposed to be an overall narrative of some sort.

Dammit, good fiction exists. I saw it once. But it sure wasn't "political" fiction. Writers with a "message" seem to believe the greatness of their message absolves them from the obligation to tell a story rewarding enough in itself to justify the reader's expense and effort. This is a violation of what I was taught was a tacit contract between writer and reader: The reader agrees to willingly suspend his disbelief and treat the narrative as something that could have actually happened. The writer promises not to treat the reader like a kid in a classroom, or simply not to bore the shit out of him.

I like that contract. I wish more writers believed in it.


Anonymous said...

Hey Joel,

Now that I am no longer in a school with reading requirements, I have adopted a working practice.

If a book doesn't engage my interest within the first two chapters, well, I'll try out another one.

Life is just too short to slog through indecipherable intellectual text.

Borepatch said...

"I did not read Pasternak, but I condemn him."


You're a braver man than I, Joel. I did make it through The Road to Serfdom, but it was a slog.

MamaLiberty said...

My mother had a slight sadistic streak... We didn't have TV in those days, (honestly) and so we would sit together after dinner and read (if we didn't have homework to complete - and we'd darn well better not have had...) and read aloud the classics. Some were wonderful, and some were tolerable, and quite a few were simply torture.

I will not read Shakespeare to this day - and too bad if so many swoon with pleasure to read it. Solzhenitsyn was more like being waterboarded... I had a rich education anyway. :)

But understand it all? Never going to happen. I suspect that even they didn't always accomplish that. I love von Mises, but most of what he wrote leaves my head spinning even now.

Tom said...

"I like that contract. I wish more writers believed in it."

Yep. Me too.

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear! Well said! I used to read a book through, even if it was dull, for some reason I thought if I started it, I had to finish it. No longer! Especially if the characters have names that I have to agonize over every single time I come to them, trying to decide how to pronounce them...that of course leaves out a lot of sci-fi ;)

Underground Carpenter said...

Hi Joel,

"wooden drek with a great idea or two buried in a metric shit-ton of manure"

Well put. Good post.


Tam said...


Anonymous said...


Stick with the Honor Harrington, it has hundreds of pages of boring talking heads, but at least you get exploding starships at the end of every book...

Anonymous said...

There are three kinds of non-fiction writers:
1. Those trying to impress. You need a dictionary to look up their multisyllable run on sentences.
2. Those who use long winded styles to make it all seem like it is more then it is. As though a 500 page text imparts so much more then a 100 page text does.
3. An effective writting style that can be followed and understood. There is very little in the world that cannot be explained to a reader with an 8th grade education.

The trick is paragraph 1: tell the reader what you are going to say. Do it in one or two sentences. Paragraph 2: Tell them! Maybe two paragraphs but if it is much longer you should break it down into two or more topics. Paragraph 3: Tell them what you told them. Succinctly restate your main point.

Joel said...

Honor Harrington is to exploding starships what Hayek is to libertarianism: a good argument for not doing it.