Wednesday, January 21, 2015
"Steal Like an Artist" TOLSTOY TO CHEKHOV TO BUNIN TO NABOKOV
In his Youtube video (see below for link) Austin Kleon tells us something all artists have known since time out of mind: that art is not totally original, that it comes out of previous art.
"Nothing is original," says Kleon, and all artists are "creative kleptomaniacs."
If you want to become a creative writer, read creative literature. If you want to become a great creative writer read GREAT writers. Then write. Some twenty years later, if you are still reading great writers and still practicing your craft every day, you will become, maybe not a great, but probably at least a GOOD writer. This does not mean that you have plagiarized from the great artists. No, you have taken the creative coals from their fires and you have blown on those coals, and you have built your own fires upon those coals and your own breath.
Then again, if you are a feminist you may not want to read the great male writers, many of whom are, let's face it, quite often misogynists. So no problem: read Virginia Woolf, Rebecca West, Flannery O'Connor. But don't make the mistake of thinking that, e.g., To Kill a Mockingbird, is a great novel. As Flannery once said, "this is a children's book."
As for Russian literature, examples of creative artists as thieves are easy to find. Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina. Chekhov read and loved AK, and he wrote lots and lots of stories with heroines named Anna. Those stories were, while original, the creative offspring of Tolsoy's AK. One of them, "The Lady with the Dog," is one of Chekhov's most well-known stories. Bunin also loved AK, but he also read "The Lady with the Dog." His story "Sunstroke" comes, largely but not entirely, out of his reading of AK and "The Lady with the Dog." Nabokov read AK, loved it, but he also read Chekhov and Bunin. His story "Khvat," (in English translation, "A Dashing Fellow") is a brutal parody on Bunin's "Sunstroke." But this Nabokov story would also not have been written without the tacit participation of Tolstoy and Chekhov.
So it goes. At least so it goes in part. Given that any writer has read many many different things and has had a whole plethora of personal experiences to draw on, what finally comes out on the page cannot be ascribed totally to that writer's reading of only Tolstoy, or only Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Bunin.