Chekhov vs Shakespeare

I had a major aha! moment when I read this quote in the Stranger: “you can split the world of theater between people who prefer Chekhov and people who prefer Shakespeare.

I realized that this aesthetic scale, with the Chekhovian (restrained, thoughtful, subtle, naturalistic) at one end and the Shakespearean (larger-than-life pulpy exuberance) at the other, applies to books and movies and television as well. And I realized that several things that have always puzzled me about the academic anti-genre bias become much clearer if I regard the equation not as lit vs genre, but as Chekhov vs Shakespeare.

For example, there is a common anti-genre attitude where the mere fact of a strong plot or a fantastical premise is treated as an artistic detriment. “Oh,” they sniff haughtily, “It’s about *vampires*.”

The elements of storytelling are treated as a zero sum game, where obviously you can’t have profound insight into the human condition and badass heroes in the same novel. (As in this essay, with the mysterious “curtailment in other areas” which is supposed to happen, as if by magic, whenever a writer churns out a genre novel instead of something lit-ier.)

Even people who like genre can be dismissive of it or apologetic on its behalf. It’s “just” a genre work, as if a completely different standard of artistic evaluation applies. But what exactly prevents a story about vampires from being just as well-written or profound as a story not about vampires? Why should the lack of vampires or badass heroes be counted a literary virtue? Why should something without a plot be considered superior to something with a plot? What exactly do anti-genre literary critics think fiction is supposed to do, anyway?

It all kind of makes sense when you realize the answer is: they expect it to be Chekhovian.

The Chekhovian aesthetic dominates the high lit world to such an extent that anything too Shakespearean — that is, anything too exotic or plot-heavy or melodramatic or action-driven — is treated as automatically disqualified. The preference for the Chekhovian is a frame, and, as such, largely unspoken, a coy shared understanding that tends to fall apart on the specifics. If you have to ask why vampires make a book low and worthless, you obviously don’t get it.

Seeing it as two contrasting aesthetics also helps clarify something that has always bugged me: what exactly do people mean when they use the term “genre” as a catch-all? Sometimes it seems to mean “pulp” and sometimes it seems to mean “fantastical” and sometimes it seems to mean “popular” or “populist.” But what on earth do detective novels and epic fantasies have to do with each other? If you see “genre” as being synonymous with “Shakespearean” it makes a lot more sense.

It also explains something else that has always puzzled me: why people can dismiss “genre” at the same time they laud classics which have more in common with modern genre than with modern literary fiction. At the heart of the bias, you have hardcore Chekhovians who will openly dis Shakespeare himself. But then their ideas filter vaguely out into the mainstream, where all classics tend to get a free high art pass. So these conflicting notions collide into an attitude that goes something like: you know that genre stuff you like? It’s rubbish. Unless it’s more than a hundred years old. Then it’s brilliant!

This doesn’t make any sense, of course. But I think it seems to make sense if you regard literature primarily in an extrinsic fashion, by reputation, rather than intrinsically, by its actual content. So of course this view will end up being common, because it’s the view you can have without actually reading any of the works involved.

It’s easy to “just know” that Cormac McCarthy is a genius and Stephen King is a hack if you’ve never read either one. But I have read both The Stand and The Road and consider them entertaining, if flawed, post-apocalyptic SF horror novels. They are good in different ways and flawed in different ways. This seems to me a perfectly reasonable and moderate point of view, yet it feels oddly iconoclastic to express it so flatly: The Road is simply not a better book than The Stand. But it is, yes, oodles more Chekhovian.

So, if all this anti-genre nonsense is explained by the Chekhovian dominance in the world of academic literary criticism, one has to ask, why are the Chekhovians so dominant?

It might have originally come about because the Chekhovian aesthetic seemed really fresh and modern… about a hundred years ago. But the Chekhovian is old hat by now. There’s nothing especially novel about telling a narrowly focused and naturalistic story about an ordinary person’s ordinary life in which nothing in particular happens. I think that’s one reason why the lit world has a current fancy for borrowing juicier genre premises and giving them the Chekhovian treatment (ie, a narrow naturalistic focus and removing all the action, cf The Road). And yet the scorn for “genre” remains — vampires are okay, maybe, as long as all the fun has been sucked out of them. As long as you can say, “well, it’s not really a vampire novel.”

The Shakespearean risks being ridiculous, the Chekhovian risks being dull. We have a culture where it is easy to think yourself elevated and discerning when you mock something for being ridiculous, less so when you mock it for being dull. Mocking something for being dull makes you sound like a low thrill-seeking cretin.

Thus, there is a self-perpetuating, emperor’s-new-clothes aspect to the critical praise for Chekhovian works. Nobody wants to admit to being bored by certified brilliance, after all. Similarly, nobody wants to laud something if they are afraid the critical establishment will deem it ridiculous.

This also ties into an odd Puritanical idea that the act of being entertained is inherently suspect and must be “justified” by some other virtue. You have to be “learning something.” Or “experiencing great art” which is assumed to be different from being entertained by it. It’s more like a religious obligation.

So, the very fact that most people find the Chekhovian less entertaining most of the time (come on, you know it’s true) becomes a point in its favor. It’s good for you like broccoli.

“Well, I know it’s not entertaining, so therefore it must be brilliant!”

But, of course, the Chekhovian done properly can also be quite entertaining, and even the Shakespearean can be dull. I have seen a Chekhov play only once, in high school AP lit. It was a videotape of a production of The Cherry Orchard that was absolutely stultifying in its tediousness. But even then I could tell they were doing it wrong, that the flat and pointless dialog could be played for deadpan humor instead of with long, meaningful pauses and significant looks.

There is a lot of good and bad to be found in both styles. Although my absolute most favorite stuff tends to be Shakespearean, Mike Leigh is a pretty Chekhovian filmmaker, and I usually enjoy his movies. Meanwhile, you would have to strap me in a chair Clockwork Orange-style to get me to sit through anything in the Transformers franchise, although their bombast puts them technically on the Shakespearean side of things.

But, you know, Shakespeare himself didn’t turn out Hamlet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream every single time. That fact is no longer widely used as an argument against the brilliance of Shakespeare, but it is commonly used as an argument against the brilliance of writers like Stephen King, and is more widely used as an argument against the brilliance of any genre work.

But the work is the work, and the judgment of history tends to win out. History does care about quality. But it doesn’t care so much about whether a work is Chekhovian or Shakespearean.


    1. Oh, God, and the apostrophes! I really should pay LiveJournal so I can edit my comments again.

  1. Author

    Yes, that does sound like exactly what I’m talking about.

  2. This is so much more cogent than I would have put it. You rock. I’m stealing this explanation in the future. :)

    1. Author

      Thanks! It helped me clarify something I’ve been struggling to put my finger on for a really long time. I imagine as an English lit major/genre fan you encountered the same kind of thing.

  3. I’ve been out of academia for a while, so this is a wonderfully clear explanation of the high art / pop culture divide.

    When my partner was in art school a while back, she was somewhat scornful of places that called themselves “art galleries” or “art festivals” that were filled with what she calls “crafts” rather than painting/sculpture, etc; and yet at the same time considered what she does now (easel painting) as opposed to what she did in the past (carpentry, woodturning, blacksmithing) “useless” and “merely decorative”. Now some of this – maybe a lot of it – has more to do with self-imposed judgements she’s making about herself, about who and what she’s doing it for; but I think her schizophrenic reaction has a lot to do with a similar split in the world of visual arts, not all that different from what you’re talking about here. (And a lot of her professors had very narrow views of realism vs abstractionism, and thought that making art for money bespoiled the artist and so forth.)

    In other words, theory is mired in a lot of nonsense.

    1. Author

      Academia can have that ivory-tower feel, where everything is just so rarified and insular.

      I got a whole English Lit degree without ever really warming up to most modern “literary fiction” and with my preference for “genre” firmly intact. I’m sure there are academics who would consider that a woeful failure of the system.

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