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Moscow Times
December 21, 2001
Hunting For Russia's Next Dostoevsky
By Oksana Smirnova

Literary critic Alla Latynina has been with Literaturnaya Gazeta for as long as she can remember. She has been a columnist, a department head and deputy editor of literature. Today Latynina also writes a weekly column for a second paper, Vremya MN. She is a member of the critics' guild, which is grandly named the Academy of Russian Letters.

Latynina has a handful of books and hundreds of articles to her name. At present she is compiling her critical articles from the 1990s for publication in book form. Latynina's opinion carries weight in the world of Russian literature. Her services are in constant demand, and she can frequently be found on the juries for Russia's various literary prizes, including the Russian Booker, for which she chaired the first jury in 1992.

Latynina recently spoke to The Moscow Times about the state of literature in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Q: In the past decade we've seen the rise of pulp fiction in Russia. What genre of popular literature interests you most?

A: Detective novels, because intellectuals are experimenting with them now. Polina Dashkova is, of course, an intellectual writer. Alexandra Marinina, well, what can you say. She's a former police officer. But Nik Perumov is a microbiologist with a huge fund of technical knowledge and a great understanding of Russia's culture of science. He doesn't create his fantasy worlds simply in order to entertain the reader. Boris Akunin fits in this category, too.

The detective novel attracts writers who have shied away from writing traditional psychological novels about contemporary life. And if you think about it, an old-fashioned novel about Russia in the last 10 years would be a terrifying thing. The detective novel has its own strict generic frame, and today's reality fits quite nicely into it -- crime, the mafia, kidnapping, murder.

Q: So ours is the era of detective fiction?

A: To a great extent, the potential for realistic prose has been vested in the detective novel. For that reason, we should pay close attention to how this genre develops in Russia. Because something very interesting might result down the line. The reader who wants to know what's happening in Russia these days reads newspapers, of course, but he also reads detective novels.

Q: Are these writers just catering to the market?

A: All writers who want their books to be read take their readers into account when they work. Some of our authors write to win prizes, to build up their reputation. And others write in such a way as to interest Slavists at Western universities. There is a very specific category of poets and prose writers whose work is studied in the West. These writers carry on creating a sort of legend of Russian literature for foreign professors. But this approach is totally unproductive because there are fewer and fewer Slavists in the world, so these writers are receiving fewer grants, invitations to lecture abroad, etc.

Q: Who were the important writers of the 1990s?

A: I don't think that the 1990s produced a single writer of truly historical importance. We had Viktor Pelevin and Vladimir Sorokin, among others, but all in all I would characterize the 1990s as a sort of twilight period in Russian literature. Will things change? That's very hard to say. I am prepared to bury literature for good, but I am also prepared for things to develop in a positive direction.

Q: How did the 1990s compare with the 1980s? A: During the 1980s, we witnessed a remarkable explosion of literature. There was a fantastic stirring in society. At the same time, a terrible uncertainty struck absolutely everyone at once. We all knew that the Thaw had come and gone once before. I did not believe that the changes then underway were irreversible. But we had the sense that miracles could happen, and that we had to do everything as fast as possible.

Things changed so quickly. In 1988, the progressive Yegor Yakovlev cut the name of Alexander Solzhenitsyn from an article I wrote for Moskovskiye Novosti. In 1989, Novy Mir published "Arkhipelag GULAG." The pace of change was incredible, and the interest in literature was just as incredible. People devoured every new publication.

Q: But did the 1980s produce truly significant works?

A: No. Everyone was busy reading all the new and formerly forbidden books that appeared. Reading itself seemed a crucial activity, and during all the commotion we lost track of one thing -- what was actually being written while we read. Time has shown that not much of interest got written. We were busy eating up dishes prepared long before. And while you're eating, there's no need to cook.

Q: So in the 1980s we were busy reading. What about the 1990s?

A: In the 1990s, we overturned all the achievements of the past. We tore down everything done by preceding generations, including the literature of perestroika. We ripped Anatoly Rybakov, Vasily Aksyonov and Vladimir Voinovich from their pedestals along with everything dear to the 1960s generation. The new generation of writers was occupied with clearing the ground, making room for itself. But literature is not a cemetery, where old graves must be removed to make room for the new. Literature is a boundless field. Anyone who has the strength can make their mark.

Q: How do you know what writers will leave their mark?

A: Sometimes it's immediately clear. Take Solzhenitsyn. When I read "Arkhipelag GULAG" in the mid-1970s, I did not say it was a great work of art. But I knew that it would endure, like a chronicle, that it would never be forgotten. It is one of the books that one must read in order to be considered an educated person.

As for Lyudmila Ulitskaya [who won the Russian Booker prize earlier this month], it's clear to me that she is simply the cream of this year's crop. That's what the literary prizes are -- a one-year cross-section of literature. But I read nothing in the 1990s that will stand the test of time. For example, I like the work of Vladimir Makanin very much, but I clearly see that it will leave no trace in literary history. His name will remain among the ranks of second-rate authors.

Q: How do literary prizes affect the development of literature?

A: Prizes, paradoxically, have no direct relation to literature. Prizes always establish a hierarchy, and that only makes sense in terms of a single year. They attract attention to literature from society at large, but they do little to increase actual interest in literature. Often they do nothing to develop literature, especially in Russia, where they accomplish nothing at all. Books that receive the English Booker are published in huge runs, and the books fly off the shelves. In Russia, the winning authors get a financial shot in the arm and their picture in the papers. But strangely, this does nothing to make them more famous or anything else. I can't say that prizes are useless, however, because they do attract the public's attention to literature.

Q: Does literature have a future in Russia?

A: If it has a future here, and that future lies in stepping back from the current dead end into which postmodernism has led us.

Our writers need to turn their gaze back to real life, because life is the inexhaustible source of stories. In our fashionable literary circles this approach is considered "slumming," because this is what our detective writers do. Contemporary reality is seen as an "abandoned field" that has been claimed, for the most part, by the detective novelists.

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