Sat 27 Mar 2010
A quote from my guestbook: Very exciting period in history. I know you will be a successful [writer] and perhaps compete with Dostoevsky my favorite writer.
First of all, I very much appreciate the sentiment! More to the point for this blog entry, I’m glad that someone mentioned the connection between me and Dostoevsky, because it was bound to come up eventually. The similarities are too obvious to miss. Dostoevsky was Russian; I mention the czar in the epilogue to Siege. Alyosha, the main character of the classic novel The Brothers Karamazov is an Orthodox priest; one of the main characters of Siege is an Orthodox priest. In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov murders a pawnbroker; in Siege, many, many people are murdered. Dostoevsky was one of the founders of psychological realism; I am real.
Well, maybe we don’t have that much in common. But there is one thing that I love about Dostoevsky, and which I strive to emulate in my own work: he is a great example of how even popular literature can address big questions. Because make no mistake, Dostoevsky was popular in his day. He wasn’t writing in an effort to plumb the depths of the human soul (or at least not primarily). He was writing to make money. Dostoevsky was a gambling addict who was often desperate for cash. It is said that he dashed off Crime and Punishment in a frantic hurry after a particularly long losing streak left him penniless.
It often seems like genre fiction is the place where big ideas come to die. Authors get so caught up in telling a good story that they forget that part of what can make a story good is that it gets people thinking. Dostoevsky never lost sight of this. In all his books, he struggles with important questions of morality. While serving out a sentence in a Siberian labor camp, he had a conversion experience and remained a devout Orthodox Christian from that point. But his faith was troubled by questions being raised at the time in Western philosophy. Namely: if God exists and is just, then why must the innocent suffer? Or, the inverse, if God does not exist, then is everything permitted? Or at the very least, is it permitted to do wrong in the service of a greater good? These are big questions, which Dostoevsky tackles most directly in The Brothers Karamazov. One of the eponymous brothers, Ivan Karamazov complains that he cannot understand a God who allows children to die bloody deaths (an aside: Dostoevsky collected newspaper clipping of atrocities involving children) or why we must wait until the afterlife for justice. Faced with the seeming contradiction of good people suffering, Ivan rejects God and declares that “everything is lawful.” In Doestoevsky’s work, the failure of Ivan’s creed is shown though the failure of his life. Still, perhaps the most frequently cited idea from this, Dostoevsky’s greatest novel, is the concept that if there is no God, “everything is lawful.”
I am fascinated with the questions Dostoevsky raises, which is one of the reasons that I too love his books. And while my books aim to be rollicking adventures, not gripping portraits of psychological reality, I still think it is important to deal with big questions. In particular, Siege, and even more so the Saladin Chronicles, address one of the same questions that bothered Dostoevsky: is it right to do wrong in the service of a greater good? Or, to put it more precisely in the context of my books: is it worth sacrificing one’s honor to achieve greatness, or is greatness achieved precisely through adhering to one’s honor?
Now, don’t run and hide just because I’ve admitted that my books address a larger theme. They are still fun to read! In fact, I think they are more fun to read precisely because they grapple with questions larger than who is going to kill who. I’ll go a step further and say that dealing with these sorts of questions is precisely what separates good from run-of-the-mill genre fiction. All writers can’t be Russian gambling addicts obsessed with atrocities involving children (what a shame…), but we could all use a little Dostoevsky in our writing.
Next time: Sequels (on the importance of thinking ahead)