Easier said than done

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The artist is not meant to be a judge of his characters and what they say; his only job is to be an impartial witness … Drawing conclusions is up to the jury, that is the readers. My only job is to be talented, that is, to know how to distinguish important testimony from unimportant, to place my characters in the proper light and speak their language.

(Anton Chekhov: letter to Alexi Suvorin May 30 1888)

What a good starting point when you’re pondering a book’s effect. But can an author really be an impartial witness? There are lots of good writers who obviously do judge their characters – Jane Austen for one. How do you not judge in a comedy of manners? How do you not set up the ‘testimony’?

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10 thoughts on “Easier said than done

  1. I think the writer is less an impartial witness and more a counsel for both prosecution and defence. Yes, the reader is both judge and jury, but without leading questions and suggestions (“I put it to you that …”) how is the reader to make sense of the indictment, let alone the question of guilt or innocence? Great quote, nevertheless!

    1. I’m reading some Elizabeth Hardwick stories at the moment and this is very much in my thoughts. It will be interesting to see how her style changes over time (stories range from 1946-1983) but just now she doesn’t seem to be an impartial witness. In spite of that, the stories are good. I really like your idea of counsel for the prosecution and defence.

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