“Chekhov is an incomparable artist, an artist of life.”
Leo makes a bold claim here — and an enviable one as well: That Chekhov is loved and admired universally — a writer with timeless appeal. What a goal to aspire to — and what a priceless achievement! Yet few would argue that Anton succeeded. His plays are still wildly popular and his short stories are still studied as masterpieces of their form. To write well, Anton believed, meant to write with economy — to talk briefly about big issues — and to capture life as he found it.
For Anton, the writer’s job is not to solve life’s problems or answer its questions, but only to show how they express themselves in human circumstances. As he put it, “The artist must not be a judge of his characters or of what they say but only an objective observer.” As a gifted observer, he brought deep compassion and humanity to this self-appointed task. Over time, he also developed a set of “touchstones” for his work.
On May 10, 1889, Anton wrote a letter offering some basic advice to his older brother, Alexander, who had taken up writing as well, but with little success. In the letter, which is quoted by the translators of Anton Chekhov: Stories, he laid down six principles that “make for a good story”:
1. Simplicity: lack of posturing of a political/social/economic nature
2. Total objectivity: observation rather than adornment
3. Truthfulness: true-to-life descriptions of persons and objects
4. Extreme brevity: economy of style
5. Boldness and originality: flee the stereotype
6. Compassion: understanding not judgment
As we strive to develop our own unique voices, these touchstones may be helpful to us as well. Do they strike a chord with you?