Ken and Barbie Do Not Write Great Literature: Case in Point-Tolstoy

February 25, 2012 — Leave a comment

“Why is every story we read in school so depressing?” lament my students, “Everyone dies!”

My response is usually a flip, “Because happy people don’t write great literature.”

I have always held the theory that great literature is born from discontent; that great literature finds its genesis in the mind of the outsider, that great literature is written from the margins. In other words, great literature reflects the real-life experiences of an author, and some of these life experiences can be miserable.

Generally, readers understand that they can slip into a narrative unbound by gender, age, or background. Literature is a way for readers to participate in an experience that may not otherwise be possible. Often, these experiences can be painful.

But is my theory correct?

There are many sites on the Internet that have compiled a “Top Ten” rating of literature, with many of the same titles included. One such list is posted on the TIME website. Occupying the #1 place with Anna Karenina AND the #3 place with War and Peace is Leo Tolstory. These titles certainly meet the criteria of “depression”; the first ends in suicide, the second ends in critiquing the nature of power in history. While it is unlikely that either of these titles would ever be taught in a high school, I have taught his novella The Death of Ivan Illyich with great success, and several of his short stories are included in world literature anthologies in our English classrooms.

So, was Tolstoy happy?

He was born in Russia, orphaned before the age of 12, and educated at home. He enrolled, but never graduated from the University of Kazan, and he served in the army during the  Crimean War. He wrote in his diaries, “I put men to death in war, I fought duels to slay others. I lost at cards, wasted the substance wrung from the sweat of peasants, punished the latter cruelly, rioted with loose women, and deceived men. Lying, robbery, adultery of all kinds, drunkenness, violence, and murder, all were committed by me, not one crime omitted, and yet I was not the less considered by my equals to be a comparatively moral man. Such was my life for ten years” ( Ch. VI)

He married Sofya (Sonya) Andreyevna Bers, and together they had 13 children, however, only 10 of them survived infancy. The year Anna Karenina was published, Tolstoy became depressed and suicidal. Six years later he wrote in his diary:

“I am now suffering the torments of hell: I am calling to mind all the infamies of my former life—these reminiscences do not pass away and they poison my existence. Generally people regret that the individuality does not retain memory after death. What a happiness that it does not! What an anguish it would be if I remembered in this life all the evil, all that is painful to the conscience, committed by me in a previous life….What a happiness that reminiscences disappear with death and that there only remains consciousness.”

His diaries were subject of great controversy; ownership was disputed until his death. The Online Literature website notes, “For as the last days of Tolstoy were playing out, he still at times agonised over his self-worth and regretted his actions from decades earlier. Having renounced his ancestral claim to his estate and all of his worldly goods, all in his family but his youngest daughter Alexandra scorned him.”

So, was Tolstoy’s state of happiness a factor in his writing? Do his life experiences support my theory that great literature come an author’s from painful life experiences? Given the evidence above, Tolstoy does meet the standard of having miserable moments in his life. Would he agree that that great literature comes from the pens of unhappy writers?

Perhaps the answer is one of empathy. A great writer demonstrates empathy in creating an experience for the reader. Which goes to my point made in the title; Ken and Barbie, or the Ken and Barbie “types”, do not write great literature because they lack empathy. Those perfectly formed, coiffed representatives of all that is perfect in the world have not been marginalized; they have not experienced rejection or have  been misunderstood. Instead, their very success depends on their unfamiliarity with loneliness, victimization, exploitation, pain and suffering. Ignorance is bliss, but ignorance on the part of a writer is also ignorance of the human condition, and great writers are not ignorant.

That is not to say that great writers are unhappy either, even Tolstoy.  He did understand the paradoxical nature of pain and sadness and reader enjoyment; he reveals an empathy born from experience for both. Consider his opening line for the magnificent, and tragic, Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Sounds like a family living nowhere near Barbie’s penthouse.

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