Do All Programmatic Works of Fiction Suck?

Or at least most of them? I was thinking about what Keith said about my earlier post. There’s another example that I’d like to bring up in this area. We remember Dostoevsky, but what about Chernyshevsky?


Nicholas Chernyshevsky, like Dostoevsky was a Russian writer active in the mid-19th Century and yet the only way I think anyone would encounter him without taking a Russian lit course is by reading a heavily footnoted edition of one of Dostoevsky’s or Tolstoy’s books. In other words, probably only nerds (like me) know who he is. That Dostoevsky would reference Chernyshevsky (and indeed, Notes From Underground in large part is a rebuke of Chernyshevsky) should tell you that he was, as Ron Burgundy would say, kind of a big deal.

What happened to Mr. Chernyshevsky? He had a huge influence on socialist radicals in Russia with his book What is to be Done? and even Lenin was so influenced as to borrow the title for one of his own works. What I think happened here though is that Chernyshevsky has been forgotten because his book was a sort of novel-tract on how to be a socialist revolutionary. Now this is certainly not something that has gone out of fashion as the sales of Che paraphernalia will certainly attest – yet no one knows who Chernyshevsky is anymore.

The reality is, if you want to treat moral, social or political themes in art, perhaps you need to do so in an ambiguous way if you want to create art (as opposed to, say, an ethics textbook). I think most critics would say that Dostoevsky himself is at his weakest as an author, when he starts hitting people over the head with his views (e.g.: the end of Crime and Punishment or sections of Demons). Conversely he is at his strongest when he forces his readers to think for themselves about the questions he has raised.