Nebraska Center for Writers

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Chekhov's Legacy




Reading Chekhov was just like the angels singing to me. — Eudora Welty

Chekov wrote about 6 good stories. But he was an amateur writer. — Ernest Hemingway

Chekhov! Chekhov! Chekhov! — Tennessee William, asked to name his favorite authors

I have a secret race with Chekhov, who is the greatest short-story writer of all time. He published five hundred sixty-eight stories. Of course, a third of them were vignettes. They don't count as stories. I've published something like four hundred, four hundred twenty. He died when he was forty-four. I'm well past that. He won the race, let's say. But it's still something to work for. — Stephen Dixon

If I have to choose between Chekhov and most hip-hop, I'll go with Chekhov. — Cornel West

Read Chekhov, read the stories straight through. Admit that you understand nothing of life, nothing of what you see. Then go out and look at the world. — Francine Prose, "Learning from Chekhov"

"Art tells the truth," Chekhov says; according to Tolstoy, art tells the truth because it "expresses the highest feelings of man." These may well be two statements of the same thing, but whether they are or not, what do they mean? How do we apply them? A group of people from all over the world, all of whom describe themselves as artists and therefore may be, converge in Paris to chop apart an automobile and spread wet spaghetti on a woman who has taken all her clothes off. Is it true? What is the nature of the lofty feeling? Is this alleged happening less true, the feeling less lofty, than what we get out of the nearly impenetrable odes of Pindar, the comic quotation of the William Tell Overture in Shostakovich's Symphony No 15, the stern Christianity of Njal's Saga or Gulliver's Travels, or the godless terror of John Hawkes' The Beetleleg? — John Gardner, On Moral Fiction (Harper, pp 150-51)

For another thing, thanks partly to certain movements in modern philosophy, the art of fiction, like all the arts, has become increasingly self-conscious and self-doubting, artists repeatedly asking themselves what it is they're doing. Chekhov and Tolstoy could say with great confidence that the business of fiction was "to tell the truth." Contemporary thought, as we've seen, is often skeptical about whether telling the truth is possible. ... Telling the truth in fiction can mean one of three things: saying that which is factually correct, a trivial kind of truth, though a kind central to works of verisimilitude; saying that which, by virtue of tone and coherence, does not feel like lying, a more important kind of truth; and discovering and affirming moral truth about human existence — the highest truth of art. — John Gardner, The Art of Fiction (Vintage, p 129)

[Reading his stories] "from a very early age was just electrifying." — Eudora Welty

Who better to learn from than Chekhov, who is here plainly in front of us to teach, as we can be plainly in front of him to learn. — Romulus Linney, Story Quarterly, 37, 2001.

I love, for example, the fables that Tolstoy made up for the serfs on his estate. Stories such as "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" that end with the flourish of an O Henry story. At the same time I like the openness of Chekhov's stories, and most of the stories in Joyce's Dubliners.

In great fiction we are moved by what happens, not by the whimpering or bawling of the writer's presentation of what happens. That is, in great fiction, we are moved by characters and events, not by the emotion of the person who happens to be telling the story. Sometimes, as in the fiction of Tolstoy or Chekhov — and one might mention many others — the narrative voice is deliberately kept calm and dispassionate, so that the emotion arising from the fictional events comes through almost wholly untinged by presentation; but restraint of that kind is not an aesthetic necessity. A flamboyant style like that of Faulkner at his best can be equally successful. The trick is simple that the style must work in the service of the material, not in advertisement of the writer. — John Gardner, The Art of Fiction (Vintage, p 116)

Anton Chekhov gave some advice about revising a story: first, he said, throw out the first three pages. As a young writer I figured that if anybody knew about short stories, it was Chekhov, so I tried taking his advice. I really hoped he was wrong, but of course he was right. It depends on the length of the story, naturally; if it's very short, you can only throw out the first three praragraphs. But there are few first drafts to which Chekhov's Razor doesn't apply. Starting a story, we all tend to circle around, explain a lot of stuff, set things up that don't need to be set up. Then we find our way and get going, and the story begins ... very often just about on page 3. — Ursula LeGuin

Chekhov was a very humane writer, and the kinds of ways he would be most influential would be through those features in his stories that illuminate our complexity. His formal view of his own stories was quite undoctrinal and various. He wasn't a writer who, as say Hemingway, would bias young writers toward a certain way of putting a story on the page or of writing sentences. Chekhov's writing is so various that he wouldn't affect you very much as a writer in any one way. He is often said to be the master of irresolute endings, but that isn't always true. His endings are not open-ended; many are quite conclusive. I think most of the ways Chekhov would be likely to affect a writer would be ways he or she would want to be affected. That is to say, he would encourage a writer to be more searching in his analysis, more humane in his view of people readers might otherwise in a conventional way be likely to dismiss. He would be encouraging in asking a writer to write about people who might not ordinarily seem natural subjects. He would encourage writers to pay attention to landscape. He would teach writers all kinds of intensities: the intensity of notice, of sustained analysis, of the intensity needed to imagine human motive. He would teach someone that writing is a high calling, but not necessarily sober-sided, which would make him a good influence. And we are also reading his stories translated into English, so we don't have them in their original language, only in that buffer zone of English, which may (if Ms Garnett was any good) stress larger thematic matters and stress less matters of surface style and local effect. — Richard Ford

I just like seeing the situation where 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." — E Annie Proulx

Yes sir. You can be more careless, you can put more trash in [a novel] and be excused for it. In a short story thatís next to the poem, almost every word has got to be almost exactly right. In the novel you can be careless but in the short story you canít. I mean by that the good short stories like Chekhov wrote. Thatís why I rate that second — itís because it demands a nearer absolute exactitude. You have less room to be slovenly and careless. Thereís less room in it for trash. — William Faulkner

What they [James, Chekhov, Joyce] are really asking is that all general commentary, unrelieved by irony, should be eliminated. The narrator must not say "bleak walls" or "vacant eye-like windows," or "black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre." The walls and windows and tarn should be dramatically portrayed in order to be made visually alive with their bleakness and vacuity and luridness shown to the reader rather than merely told. This seems to me a demand that springs from the prejudices of an age desiring effects basically different from Poe's. For Poe's special kind of morbid horror, a psychological detail, as conveyed by an emotionally charged adjective, is more effective than mere sensual description in any form. ... Those of us who can remember a time when Poe was effective known how indispensable the heavy adjectives are. Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (U of Chicago P, pp 202-03)

The "short story" is a highly elastic term, after all. Poe's remarks are inappropriate to our time, and in fact to the marvelous modern tradition of the story that begins with Chekhov, Joyce, Conrad, and James. — Joyce Carol Oates, Studies in Short Fiction, XVIII (1981), 240.

Poe required that everything the writer put in the story be directed toward the unified effect, whereas Chekhov, along with the other "moderns" Oates names, was concerned with what was left out of the story and its effect on the outcome. In his letters, Chekhov reiterates the short story's necessary incompleteness: "Long detailed works have their own peculiar aims, which require a most careful execution regardless of total expression. But in a short story, it is better to say not enough than to say too much." In the interest of compression, a certain amount of subjective activity must be left to the reader, who participates by supplying what the author leaves out. Although this activity helps reinforce the concentration of the reading experience, at the same time it involves a reach outside the story itself for a moment. — Robert M Luscher, "The Short Story Sequence," Short Story Theory at a Crossroads, ed. Susan Lohafer and Jo Ellyn Clarey (Louisiana State UP, p 152)

Unity of effect is the organization of all a story's elements so that they interact and enhance each other, resulting in a total effect on the reader. Chekhov said, "A shotgun introduced on page one must go off before the end of the story." Pattern, or design, the repetition through complications of the central incident or idea, contributes to unity of effect. As we sense the pattern or design of the story we feel that it is moving forward at the same time that the main line of interest is being sustained. Pattern or design has to do with the organized relationships between the various elements or aspects of the story. Each part functions in its relationship to the whole. The effectiveness of a pattern is that the reader follows it to its completion. Through a careful concern with these elements, form evolves and we have a sense of unity when we have finished the story. ... Some experimental writers strive to create a work free of pattern, design, and unity, but the nature of all writing is that it is inherently patterned in defiance of any willful imitation of chaos. Chaos on paper is order merely impersonating chaos. A so-called nonunified story may have powerful isolated effects, but unity intensifies each effect by relating each to all others. — David Madden, Revising Fiction (Plume, pp 235-36)

Chekhov made one of the remarks that is most frequently quoted about plot. He said that if a shotgun hangs on the wall in the first act, it must go off in the last act. There is a certain ambiguity about this statement, but its usually taken to mean that a plotmaker should never put anything useless or extraneous to the plot into his play. (Chekhov violated this rule frequently and with great pleasure.) — Robey MaCauley and George Lanning, Technique in Fiction, (Harper, p 178)

While I was still at Michigan I wrote a review for the Daily of the stories of William Carlos Williams. Since he, too, was part of the modernist pantheon, I assumed that his stories were much more complex than they seemed and I gave them the exegetical treatment, as though Williams were Kafka, ambiguities and paradoxes everywhere, whereas his stories were really much more like those of his fellow physician Chekhov — all eyes and heart. — Ted Solotaroff, A Few Good Voices in My Head (Harper, pp 29-30)

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. And it was one that had no cause to repeat itself; 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. — Eudora Welty, The Eye of the Story (Random House)

I remember an old teacher quoting Chekhov to us: "Help us walk into someone else's mind. ... Look how you live, my friend." It's what I try to get my students to see. Don't judge your characters. You may want to set them up for your readers to judge, but don't savage them and don't make them look stupid, because what you're trying to do is understand what it feels like to be in their heads. Sometimes students don't want to hear that because it blunts their cleverness. It's easier to stand outside; more fun, too. — Rosellen Brown, Conversations on Writing Fiction (Harper, pp 53-4)

Your story, like these other two, is essentially the presenting of a pathetic situation, and when you present a pathetic situation, you have to let it speak entirely for itself. I mean you have to present it and leave it alone. You have to let the things in the story do the talking. ... Chekhov makes everything work — the air, the light, the cold, the dirt, etc Show these things and you don't have to say them. — Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being (Farrar, Straus, pp 83-4)

Well, for one thing he didn't do anything called workshops! As a matter of fact, the students never saw each other's stories, nor did he discuss our stories in class. What we talked about in class was Chekhov, Chekhov's stories. I read Chekhov's stories until I was blue in the face. — Stanley Elkin on Randall Jarrell as teacher, Conversations on Writing Fiction (Harper, p 91)

And we were captivated by the craft of writing and fascinated by all the ways people had done it. We were always reading things, figuring out how Chekhov had written this sex scene without any nuts and bolts in it, and yet it's so wonderful — the one called "The Lady with the Dog." It's the way people really are when they're having an affair; it's those two people and their reactions. That's the kind of things we talked about. How it's done. — Gail Godwin on her time at the Iowa Writers Workshop, Conversations on Writing Fiction (Harper, p 131)

Now, being irrelevant — or apparently irrelevant — for the moment is something that has its uses in fiction. Chekhov, for example, used that device exceptionally well for comedy, suspense, or for other effects. But irrelevancy cannot be piled on irrelevancy. Something must be proceeding in the scene, some addition to the pattern must be developing. — Robey MaCauley and George Lanning, Technique in Fiction, (Harper, p 142)

The Russian writers of the nineteenth century, however, had avoided an overdependence on plot, and their influence now rose considerably. Chekhov's style of short story was preferred to Maupassant's, and Tolstoy loomed larger than Dickens or Balzac in the novel. The tendency to minimize plot in favor of other values can be seen clearly in the stories of Sherwood Anderson, Katherine Mansfield, and Ernest Hemingway, and in such novelists as Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Today, plot has r egained a certain respectability, but most serious fiction writers employ it with a sense of moderation; they realize that it is only one of the means toward their end. — Robey MaCauley and George Lanning, Technique in Fiction, (Harper, p 160)

The Russian writers (Turgenev particularly) had their impact on the generation of Henry James and Joseph Conrad, but it was not until the second and third decades that their whole style became absorbed by writers in English. Beginning with Katherine Mansfield, who sometimes wrote almost direct imitations of the Russians, it affected decisively the work of any number of other short story writers. In the novel, Tolstoy's and Dostoevsky's influence was more generalized and not so specific as Chekhov's was on the short story in English. — Robey MaCauley and George Lanning, Technique in Fiction, (Harper, p 189)

Hereís what I think the basic problem we all face is: We did not become writers to be Jacqueline Susann. We became writers, in my case, because of Somerset Maugham, because of Chekov, because of all those guys. Youíre not as good as they are. So your whole fucking life youíre faced with the failure of your own inadequacies. — William Goldman interview for Writers Guild of America

There is never a time when Iím not reading or rereading a story or play by Chekhov. — Cristina Garcia

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