Literary Fiction Marginalized but not Stifled

Expectedly, following the spread of market economy, pulp fiction won over literary fiction in Russia as well, simply pushing it to the margins. "This is not where the buzz is today," to quote one critic about US literary fiction. It seems that since Russia began reintegrating into international life its culture developed along the same lines as in the West.

If Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky tried offering their novels to commercial publishers today they would have a hard time getting them published. They might not even have won the Booker or some other big prize, which are used by publishers today as fishing nets to fish out novels suitable for their publishing programs.

Many writers of literary fiction are heading for the middle market, turning out novels by numbers. In the early 1990s they were still embarrassed to write under their own names and used pseudonyms. But now it's even become fashionable among the intellectual elite to acknowledge pop culture and work within popular genres.


Victor Pelevin
The example of Victor Pelevin is both typical and exceptional in this connection: he was one of the first to declare his intention to embrace genre forms and win broader appeal (which seemed highly improbable to me at the time.) He was one of the very few, however, who never sacrificed any of his literary merit while achieving his aim. As a result, his books are enjoyed by different categories of readers, each perceiving them at their own level. Very few of the other young writers, who followed his example, have managed to keep this balance - either the quality of the writing suffered or they never reached the mass market at all.


Boris Akunin
Akunin is also a highly symptomatic figure - a highbrow intellectual who made a conscious decision to write for the mass market (under a pen name though) and has had a great success precisely because as an extremely intelligent person and a good psychologist he knows how to impress simple minds. His example has been followed, with varying success, by many a bright young author.

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Vladimir Sorokin
As literary fiction has to co-exist with the mass-market culture young writers keep trying to throw bridges over the gap, increasingly employing popular literary forms and resorting to all sorts of self-promotion devices, of which scandal has become the most popular and effective means of catching public attention. When Vladimir Sorokin, our Russian Marquis de Sade, was accused of disseminating pornography and his books were theatrically thrown into a cardboard toilet outside the Bolshoi Theatre by that notorious youth organization "Marching Together", the scandal only served to enhance Sorokin's popularity, so much so that his publisher even tried to fan it out as much as possible.

The literary process is now organized as show business with flashy presentations and contests, ratings, quizzes and so on. Serious authors conduct TV shows and even advertise consumer goods.

Western influence on young Russian authors is quite obvious today. But it mostly concerns the form and method rather than the deeper things. Since authors look at the Russian condition and use local material their works remain uniquely Russian in spirit and style. It should be mentioned that the celebrated 19th century Russian classics used the classical French novel as their model and that detracted nothing from their originality and importance.


Lyudmilla Ulitskaya
Only quite recently some big publishers, very cautiously, started literary fiction series in the hope that some of the works will make it into wide distribution and will bring profit. This has, indeed, happened with a number of authors, such as Pelevin and Ulitskaya who are probably the best known in the West today.

Women, as the more practical creatures, are particularly active in mass-market publishing although in Soviet times women's names, and gender problems as such, were practically absent from Russian literature. The current profusion of successful female names both in pulp and literary fiction is a new feature of the current literary scene (see the Glas collections of new women authors, particularly the latest one: NINE of Russia's Foremost Women Writers.)


Aleksandr Selin
The Gogolean tradition in contemporary writing still remains the most conspicuous trend. Here, too, some excellent authors have been overlooked. Suffice it to mention Valery Ronshin, a master of black humor with an element of philosophical parable; Alexander Selin whom critics called "a modern-day E.T.A. Hoffmann"; Alexander Pokrovsky whose service in the navy resulted in a number of Zoschenko-like narratives that are both funny and frightening.

Traditional realism and literary non-fiction continue to go strong in Russia. Many new writers work in these fields and they are increasingly preferred by publishers and literary prizes today. As in the rest of the Western world there is an obvious return to the plot-driven story.

In the course of Russian literary history we can recall many authors who were not so lucky as to become widely read in their lifetime, or even recognized by critics as being of any importance. Suffice it to recall Pasternak, Bulgakov, Brodsky. Quite typical for Russia, certain books suddenly find themselves in public demand many years after they've been written. In fact, most of today's literary stars were well known in literary circles back in the early 1990s, but in those immediate post-censorship times so much formerly banned literature was published that new writers were simply not noticed.

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State support for culture came to an end in the late 1980s together with ideological censorship. This gave writers freedom of expression but on the other hand diverted public interest towards mass culture. Literary fiction lost its prestige. Meanwhile the 1990s produced a rich and varied culture. In many aspects, this post-censorship period had much in common with the 1920s - the country was again in the throes of violent change, overthrowing its former idols, questioning established values, and trying new ideas for size. All sorts of productive as well as weird theories and movements sprouted out. Post-modernism co-existed with every brand of realism: magic, dirty, surrealism. Writers set up their own publishing presses, bookshops and literary clubs to reach their readers and somehow make a living in the absence of public interest in new writing. Literary fiction was published in tiny printings. People were busy catching up on their education devouring formerly banned books published in cheap editions. The literary and artistic life was active as never before, but faced with such variety both the critics and the public felt disoriented.

I'm using the past tense here, although some of the above is still going on, because this period is over and the endangered freedom of self-expression moved to the Internet where new writing thrives and feels safe. Have the 1990s produced artistic and literary giants? Time will tell. In the 1920s the general public was not aware of the great artistic developments going on. From numerous memoirs we know that then, as now, critics held widely ranging views on one and the same artist or phenomenon; they made forecasts about the future of this or that personage and often guessed wrong.

Due to the general diminishing of interest in Russian literature after it stopped to be seen as a Communist threat, and also for lack of reliable sources of information, publishers abroad largely disregarded Russian literature in the past few years. This is why every possible effort should be made to preserve what you consider to be important works of literature. This is what we are doing in Glas, creating a gallery of names for future use, in our case to help foreign publishers and critics. Some of the authors we published in English translation back in the early 1990 were hardly published in Russia yet, and today most of them have been recognized as leading names. Somebody has to preserve this literary treasure until there is a demand for it. It has happened before and will happen again.

But we in Glas are focused exclusively on high-quality literary fiction, both new and the overlooked classics of the 20th century, particularly of the 1920s and 30s.

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