Why you should not write like Tolstoy

I recently came across a book titled “How to write like Tolstoy”. I didn’t buy the book because it assumes that writing like Tolstoy is a good idea. This idea is idiotic for several reasons.

Reason #1: (Almost) nobody reads Tolstoy in 2018

Have you ever voluntarily read the works of Tolstoy? Not as part of getting your degree in literature, but for fun? Have you enjoyed it? Do you know any friends (who aren’t literature professors) who did it?

Probably not.

Reason #2: Those who read Tolstoy, read him for ideas

When a book is considered a classic, it’s because it contains some valuable ideas. Here are some examples.

Anna Karenina

I read some of Tolstoy’s works many years ago. I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. Among other things, I read “Anna Karenina”. I liked this particular work because Tolstoy’s description of a failing marriage and its various symptoms are brilliant. This was the payoff for reading a long book in ancient language.

The Brothers Karamazov

Same applies to other classics. My favorite book, “Brothers Karamazov” by F. M. Dostoyevsky describes the drama of four children raised in a dysfunctional family. It’s a novel about CPTSD and how to cope with it. There are four sons, which represent four different ways to deal with it.

Dmitry Karamazov tries to fill the gap of right parenting by enjoying life in its various forms — gambling, drinking, fighting (he is an officer) and love. He is a sensual type.

Ivan Karamazov is the intellectual type. He is agnostic and believes in science.

Alexei Karamazov tries to find refuge in spirituality.

Even though Dmitry, Ivan, and Alexei are very different, there is one thing that all of them share — they are decent people.

This does not apply to the fourth son of their father — Smerdyakov. He has an oversized ego, he is mentally ill, and has no moral constraints.

Nowadays, millions of people grow up in dysfunctional families, therefore the topic of this novel is as hot as it was in 1880. “The Brothers Karamazov” is kind of simulation of a dysfunctional family. If you suffer from CPTSD, and you read the novel, you will walk away with at least three recipes what to do about it (represented by Dmitri, Ivan, and Alexei Karamazov). For each of the recipes you will get a description of their benefits and drawbacks. That way you can figure out, which of the approaches may work best for you and what dangers it bears. That’s why it’s worth reading this book.

But this awesome content comes with a price. The first six units of the book (preface and chapters 1 through 5) are pure exposition. Nothing happens in the first 11618 words. I guess that a lot of people lay this wonderful book aside simply because they are impatient and don’t have the discipline to fight through 19 pages of exposition.

The Man without Qualities

Another example: “The Man without Qualities” by Robert Musil. There are lot of places where characters think about themselves and their lives. No action, and that’s a problem for all people with a short attention span. But if you manage to fight through those boring scenes, you can find gems of wisdom there. The biggest of them — an excellent description of the Austrian national character.

You can’t get good ideas by copying someone

By now it should be evident that when someone reads a classic in 2018, he or she

  • is attracted to the book by the ideas of the author and
  • therefore is willing to struggle through difficult (old) style.

This leads to two conclusions. First, only strong-willed people will fight through clumsy writing. If you want to get your message to a large audience, you must write better than Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Musil.

Second: Readers are drawn to books by ideas. In order for your ideas to be original, you must never copy anyone. Not Tolstoy, not Dostoyevsky, and none of your favorite writers. If you try to write like Tolstoy, you will be a miserable imitation and guaranteed to fail.

Reason #3: In 2018, Tolstoy wouldn’t write like he did in 1910

Tolstoy constantly improved his craft. If he lived today, he definitely would write different and fix the stylistic problems of his texts.

Among other things, he tried to innovate his writing process by using a phonograph (a voice recording device) in 1908. The idea was to save time writing letters and spend more time writing fiction.

Someone who is willing to try out the newest invention, would probably also constantly improve the writing process. Hence, we can be sure that today Tolstoy would write differently from how he did in 1910.


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