Disappointing Reader Expectations and Pushkin’s ‘The Queen of Spades’

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Most books about successful novel writing emphasize that above everything, the writer who wants to sell well and avoid bad reviews must at all costs respect the  tropes of a genre, and particularly avoid ‘disappointing reader expectations’.

In fact, Chris Fox in his well argued and generally witty book  ‘Write to Market’ emphasizes this to the point of going into the specifics of market research,  cover design and plot details including even the sex of a spaceship’s pilot.

Besides this, genres are not at all costs to be mixed. He gives some brisk advice in a chapter headed ‘Don’t Get Cute’, citing his own experience.

Market research had already told him that Super Heroes and Alien Conspiracy stories were popular around 2016, and he had the idea of combining features of his two favourite television series, ‘The X Files’ and ‘Heroes’. He joined the themes of alien conspiracy and superheroes in the first novel for a projected series called ‘Project Solaris’, ‘Hero Born’.  As both of these are popular sub genres of fantasy, he hoped to draw in readers of both and market a best seller (his first novel had in fact been a best seller, though he modestly ascribes this to a stroke of luck) .

He claims that as it turned out, ‘Hero Born’  failed to attract readers from both genres because the expectations of each group were different and even conflicting.  For instance, market research advised him that readers of superhero stories tend to be in their teens and indulging a fantasy of being suddenly special. By contrast, readers of alien conspiracy themes are interested in reading about uncovering a deeper truth, solving a mystery, and putting right an injustice. He argues that the two themes  of his novel clashed.

The result was, that his book sold hundreds rather than thousands of copies. His current fans loved it, but it attracted no new ones.

Write to Market

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For me, and for many other writers, selling in hundreds is fine – it is selling in dribs and drabs of a couple a month that is soul destroying.  Chris Fox however, aims to sell thousands in weeks, and disappointing reader expectations is not the way to do that.

All this made me think enviously of writers in previous ages, who may not have had the advantages of internet publishing, but who seemingly did not have to adhere to such rigid demands from readers.

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When I recently re-read the collection of Pushkin’s prose in the book ‘The Queen of Spades and Other Stories’  (also In this collection is to be found my favourite robber novel, ‘Dubrovsky’ but that is irrelevant here), it occurred to me that this story, phenomenally successful in its day and now of course a renowned classic, almost seems to be designed to wrong foot the reader.

‘The Queen of Spades’ is of course, Pushkin’s most famous piece of prose writing and was the equivalent of a best seller in his own time. Obviously, with so small a reading public, the numbers sold would be insignificant compared to internet sales in the modern age, but not in his. It was an overnight sensation, and the talk of fashionable society – and possibly of unfashionable society as well.

I first read it at twelve – my father had an old edition of this book – and was struck even then by the concise, dry style, even in translation. For instance, there is the famous beginning of the story: –

There was a card party at the rooms of Naramov, an officer of the guards. The long winter night had passed unnoticed and it was after four in the morning when the company sat down to supper’.

Apparently, Pushkin used the concise style of the old French masters to perfection.

However, it is not about his style that I want to write in this post – though reading it makes me reflect how I must write more concisely myself – but about how in this classic story  Pushkin in fact seems to delight in disappointing those dreaded reader expectations.

For those who haven’t read it, it is about a secret gambling formula which gives inevitable success at cards. It was given to a spoilt young noblewoman by the mysterious Saint- Germain in the 1770’s. She at that time faced the threat of ruin, having lost a massive sum at faro at Versailles. Through using it, she recouped her losses, winning spectacularly, but never played again.

She refused to give the secret to her sons – all determined gamblers – but did once reveal it to another man in desperate circumstances, who also recouped his losses and ceased play from then on.

This story is told at the card party by Tomsky, her grandson, and is overheard by a German officer of the Engineers, Hermann. This man is remarkably careful of his money, having been left only ‘a small independence’ . He does not even touch the interest on his capital, living on his pay. However, so fascinated by cards is he, that he sits up watching others play until the small hours.

Pushkin says of him: – ‘He had strong passions and an ardent imagination, but strength of character preserved him from the customary mistakes of youth’.

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That he is a very odd character is surely shown by this. This is further reinforced by his obsessive thinking over the story as he wanders about Petersburg the next evening, musing on finding a way of getting the Countess X to reveal her secret to him.

As he sees it, winning her favour and perhaps posing as an admirer might compel her to do so. However, he dismisses this idea on the grounds that ‘She is eighty-seven. She might be dead next week, or the day after tomorrow, even.’

The callousness of this calculation made me start on first reading it, and then laugh at the grim depiction of his coldness.

His wanderings take him to a great house outside which a great many carriages are arriving for some social occasion, which he learns belongs to the Countess X.  Dreaming that night of winning enormous wealth through gambling, he returns to patrol outside the Countess’ house, and sees the Countess’ lovely young companion, the unfortunate Lizaveta Ivanovna, whom the Countess  has raised as an orphan and treats as a drudge. He looks up at the windows.

In one of them he saw a dark head bent over a book or some needlework. The head was raised. Hermann caught sight of a rosy face and a pair of black eyes. The moment decided his fate.’

At twelve, I had read a fair amount of romances and novels of other genres with romantic sub plots, and I knew that men more callous than Hermann were often destined to cast aside their wicked plans as they fell in love with the heroine. This is what I naively assumed would happen here. After all, I knew nothing about Pushkin save that it seemed that he had died young in a duel over his wife, which seemed to me romantic indeed.

I was startled and dismayed when far from falling in love, Hermann remains cold and calculating. He writes Lizaveta love letters (copied, so Pushkin tells us, from a German novel) and gradually persuades her to agree to an assignation with him. She tells him how to get into the house.

Hermann waits for this ‘like a tiger trembling for its prey’.  He waits until the staff have retired and the Countess is left alone in her room, and then approaches her.  At first, he begs her to reveal her secret to him. When she refuses, he threatens her with a pistol. She dies of fright.

He goes to confess to the horrified Lizaveta.

So those passionate letters, those ardent pleas, the bold, determined pursuit had not been inspired by love…It was not she who could satisfy his desires and make him happy! Poor child, she had been nothing but the blind tool of a thief, of the murderer of her aged benefactress! …She wept bitterly in a vain agony of repentance…’

The most sinister developments of the story are yet to come, but I will write no more spoilers, having made the point that this tale does not follow a conventional pattern. The anti-hero remains cold and callous, indifferent to Lizaveta’s appeal:

‘…Neither the poor girl’s tears nor her indescribable charm in her grief touched his hardened soul.’ 

Reading this at twelve, I was dismayed by the sheer unpleasantness of the anti-hero, who incidentally, is described facetiously by Tomsky to Lizaveta Ivanovna as having ‘the profile of Napolean and the soul of Mephistopheles’. I recall my reader expectations were disappointed in a big way. I did read to the end, and found it a fascinating tale, but at this age found the cynicism in the story rather too much for me, so that it was many years before I read any more Pushkin.

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Though I was very young when I read the story, I tend to think my expectations of it were typical. I seem to remember reading  somewhere that in this story, Pushkin deliberately upends expected tropes, and that most readers would expect some sort of love story between Hermann and Livaveta Ivanovna, even if it was not the main focus of the plot. How far Pushkin deliberately toyed with disappointing these dreaded tropes and reader expectations, it is hard to say. Pushkin was fascinated by innovation in writing, and Hermann has also been described as a character of a new type for Pushkin’s age.

There are all sorts of levels of  irony in this story, of course. One is that while it might ostensibly be called a story with a moral that points against becoming obsessed with making easy money through games of chance, Pushkin himself was dangerously drawn by gambling himself. On his death in that infamous duel, the Tsar paid off gambling debts for him amounting to hundreds of thousands of rubles.

Pushkin was, of course, a writer of literary fiction, not genre fiction, though this story might be defined as belonging to the genre of horror, or as a ghost story. By the time he wrote ‘The Queen of Spades’ of course, he was so renowned that he could afford to ignore such incidentals as readers’ tastes.

Have specific requirements for genres become more of a requirement in the current era? I do think readers make more demands for specific tropes for genre fiction, and in pointing this out, Chris Fox is doing a great favour to the writer who aspires to sell more.

But it is surely a hindrance on innovative sorts of writing, and I also wonder; isn’t it by breaking out of the demands of a genre, perhaps creating a new one in the process, that a writer often obtains the greatest success?

Interstingly, various highly successful writers have achieved this in the past, Mary Renault for one, and Anne Rice for another. Perhaps I should not try and speak for advocates of sticking  to the tropes of a genre. Still, I suppose they might say that yes, that is true, but those are the ones in several thousand who became world famous, and that perhaps it is best to build a firm readership base before starting to tamper with the boundaries of a genre.

There are, to sum up on a tediously neutral note, there must be arguments either way.  Finally, I supose it must depend upon how well you can write for the market (and I would like to emphasize that Chris Fox in no way advocates selling out and writing about what you hate). Some can do it brilliantly; others, I suspect, less so.

 

Paul Debreckzeny’s Criticism of Pushkin’s Robber Novella ‘Dubrovsky’

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I orginally wrote this post nearly five years ago, just before I published my spoof historical highwayman romance ‘Ravensdale’.

I am posting it again, as I am again writing a spoof historical novel that features highwaymen, and I have never lost my admiration for this uncompleted novella of Pushkin’s.

At that time,  I was reading the traditional robber stories, including Christian Auguste Vulpius’  1798 ‘Penny Dreadful’ ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’ and Freiderich Schiller’s  1781 play, ‘The Robbers’.  Besides these, I read some well known highwayman romantic novels, including Georgette Heyer’s  1917  ‘The Black Moth’.  Not then knowing about Project Gutenburg, I didn’t realise that I would have been able to get hold of a copy of Harrison Ainsworth’s 1834  ‘Rookwood’. which features Dick Turpin, or to read some of the Blood and Thunder novels of  Jeffrey Farnol which feature highwaymen.

Besides these, I read an unfinished novella on a landlowner turned brigand by ‘The Russian Shakespeare’ Aleksander Pushkin”s 1832 ‘Dubrovsky’. This I found to be by far the best of them all, despite the unedited long legal document in the middle of it. Some critics think that this project of his, to write a piece of popular literature was a failure. I think that he gave up on it too easily.

There is a paucity of criticism on Pushkin’s prose works in English, and this is particularly true of his robber story ‘Dubrovsky’ which I described in my previous post (before pc was down for some time!) as notably Pushkin’s attempt to reconcile popular and ‘worthwhile’ literature in a novella form.

As I said there, there has been critical division (when isn’t there?) on how far he succeeded in this aim of bringing together popular tastes – excitement, romance, and a high literary quality to a story.

This is, of course, an area that impinges on all writers who are out to produce something of quality – how far to cater for popular taste?

Rosemary Edmonds, in her introduction to ‘The Queen of Spades and Other Stories’ describes ‘Dubrovsky’ as ‘One of Pushkin’s masterpieces’.

‘Melodramatic in subject, it is extremely simple in style. The fairly elaborate plot develops swiftly against against a background which presents an illuminating picture of rural conditions in Russia and Russian legal procedure under Catherine II…The two noblemen, Troyekurov and Vereisky, along with the Byronic hero, the young Dubrovsky, are impressive creations in Pushkin’s portrait gallery.’

She considers that ‘The heroine is more of a lay figure’ and indicates that this is one of the reasons why Maria Kirilevna doesn’t elope with Dubrovsky when she is given the chance after her forced marriage (which, as she hasn’t made the marriage vow, is no marriage at all in fact); having thought it ‘most romantic’ to be kidnapped from the alter by her brigand suitor, when the enforced marriage to the elderly prince goes ahead she is quite happy to slip into the role of another ‘heroine’ – that of the ‘devoted wife’.

Another critic writing of Pushkin’s prose works – Lezhnez in his book, ‘Pushkin’s Prose’, while only mentioning Dubrovsky in passing, makes a telling point about the strangely uplifting quality to be found in this, as in all Pushkin’s works, however sad their content.

‘Life in him smiles, though sometimes with a terrible, but charming, smile…Dubrovsky leaves without taking revenge, and without tearing Masha out of the arms of the old prince; he has lost his name, his love, and his property…But the sun shines. And the moving shadows of leaves tremble on the earth. And people know how to love selflessly and to sacrifice themselves. There is a spirituality in them, simplicity, generosity. They have faith in life, and Pushkin injects us with this faith….’

For my own part, I agree with this judgement, and think it is one of the reasons why, for all the drawbacks to it’s melodramatic romantic plot, ‘Dubrovsky’ is a great story.

With regard to the weaknesses in the presentation the melodramatic romance, Paul Debreczeny in  ‘The Other Pushkin’ is almost merciless on this topic and comes to the conclusion that Pushkin himself stopped writing the novel because he could see that his attempt to combine ‘the serious with the entertaining’ had failed.

Debreckzeny takes the view that the problem begins with the presentation of Vladimir Dubrovsky, which is at first detached and ironic, in much the same way that the depiction of the tyrannical Kiril Petrovitch and the elder, proud and unbending Dubrovsky are portrayed; when we first meet Vladimir, he is a rakish officer of the guards, with little thought for the future ‘Irresponsible and ambitious…Occasionally, the thought crossed his mind that sooner or later he would be obliged to take to himself a rich bride’.

Later, the narrator remarks that young Dubrovsky, who has been from home since boyhood, values family life all the more highly for ‘having had so little opportunity to enjoy its peaceful pleasures’. However, Debreczeny remarks that the portrayal of Vladimir Dubrovsky soon becomes ‘the unhumorous stock in trade of romantic literature.’

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Certainly, the meetings between Dubrovsky and his true love Maria, Kirol Petrovitch’s daughter, are depicted in a straightforwardly melodramatic way as Eugene Onegin’s courtship of Tatiania, for instance, never is. When Dubrovsky tells Maria of his developing love for her, for example, he admits to having stalked her in her grounds: ‘I followed you in your careless walks, dodging from bush to bush…I established myself in your house (as a French tutor).These three weeks were days of happiness for me; the memory of them will be the joy of my melancholy existence…’

Debreckzeny’s point if very valid; this wild devotion of Vladimir Dubrovsky to Maria is touching, but the picuture it sums up of his stalking her in the garden is also faintly ludicrous and the turns of phrase are too melodramatic (in fairness, this is a translation; the effect may have been different in the original Russian, though one doesn’t get the impression from Debreckzeny that it is).

It is arguable that the problem could have been overcome by Pushkin using his habitual ironical detachment as narrator, so that the reader feels both moved by Dubrovsky’s hopeless passion and amused by it. It may have been Pushkin’s intention to revise the work, and do away with this ‘straight’ presentation of the lovers contrasting with his detached one of the other main characters.

That, anyhow, is my opinion, but Debreckzeny takes a dimmer view of the central cohesion of the novel: ‘Although the robber theme could be fused with the theme of social or political protest, in Pushkin’s novel it does not serve to shed light on or further elaborate the problem of peasant rebellion…It’s only function is to somehow bring a romance into relation with a revolt…’

I don’t personally see why story of social protest can’t also involve a romance, and think that one of the fascinating aspects of ‘Dubrovsky’ is its combination of romantic melodrama and it’s depiction of a nobleman rising against his society in company with his erstwhile serfs.

Debreckzeny however is of the opinion that a lack of interest in ‘Dubrovsky’s love life’ leads to the various oversights in the text, the timing of the old princes’ proposal and Dubrovsky’s offer to Maria to rescue her from a forced marriage distasteful to her and so on, even down to peculiarity of Maria refusing to run away with Dubrovsky when he does belatedly rescue her, which the critci argues is based on literary precedent (ie, from Walter Scott’s writings) rather than a moral stand.
This critic is dismayed at a scene I particularly enjoyed – the one where the ‘French tutor’ unmasks himself as the Dubrovsky the leader of the robber band in the dead of night to the treacherous man who perjured himself to help Kirol Petrovitch take his estate: ‘Be quiet, or you are lost. I am Dubrovsky.’

Pushkin was a perfectionist and seems to have been unable to appreciate the literary value of even those works he considered failures; while a lesser talent, delighted by what s/he had achieved in this novella, might well have carried on with the story, attempting to work out the problems in the plot, varying tone, narrotor objectivity, etc, Pushkin cast it aside and never returned to it.

Instead, he went to work on his history of the Pugachev rebellion. He also completed a long short story or novella connected with it, ‘The Captain’s Daughter’ which I actually found far less absorbing than the flawed but fascinating robber melodrama ‘Dubrovsky’.

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Writing Resolutions for the New Year: Why Writers Might Take a Look at That Unfinished Manuscript in the Drawer

3f2d6d5a693742ecd2ef850e8192b69eI wonder what people’s writing resolutions for 2017 are?

My personal writing resolution is to finish the sequel to ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ and then, if there is time, to get a novella out which commemorates the St Peter’s Field Massacre of 1818.

I had already written the first third of that sequel in the first six months after publishing ‘Ravensdale’ back in 2014. But then I allowed myself to be distracted by other projects – including the one that ended up as ‘The Villainous Viscount Or the Curse of the Venns’.

I had all sorts of difficulties with that one.  At one point, I had weeks of writer’s block – really dismal – I did a post about that on this blog.

I wrote 50,000 words of a serious version, and 22,000 words of a frivolous version, and I worried over a conflict between the strain of the comic mode of presentation and the tragic back story –but in the end I thought that I had found a way round that – and I hope that readers agree. The result is dark comedy, and perhaps that is the approach that suits me best. Well, there is one chapter which is not comic at all – and that’s the tragic backstory involving a forced abduction.

Anyway, all that took ages to resolve.

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But back to the present.  Now,  I  resolve not to let anything in the writing line distract me for too long from that sequel – not even the novella I have been musing over these past few months on the St Peter’s Fields, the horrible ‘Peterloo’ Massacre of 1818 – though I do want to publish a novella in time to commemorate the bicentenary of that event.

I must admit that getting the B.R.A.G award for ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ did encourage me to get back to working on more of the eponymous scoundrel and Sophie’s adventures (not to mention those of Ravensdale and the one-time-highwaywoman Isabella) – and I’ve been working on it since November.

I hope that a lot of writers are making similar New Year’s resolutions about that Project in Abeyance. There’s so much promising writing, so many projects started out full of hope that end up that way, so it would be good if we all unearthed the good ones.

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The awful thing is, if it is left too long, that Project In Abeyance threatens to become The Manuscript in the Drawer, and for manuscripts, that’s like being in cast into a dungeon and forgotten.

After all, as I have commented on this blog before, one of my favourite novellas, Alexander Pushkin’s ‘Dubrovsky’ ended up as incomplete because he put it to one side, and never got back to it.

This, one of the first ‘robber novels’ was an attempt to combine genre writing with literary merit.  He hoped to extend the borders of genre fiction  (sound familiar on this blog?)

As such, ‘Dubrovsky’ was a source of inspiration for me to write ‘Ravensdale’, particularly in the comic scenes where the outlaw hero shakes with passion when he disguises himself as a librarian in the house of his true love Isabella, and comes upon his true love.

In the manner of a true late Regency hero, that is exactly what Dubrovsky does when he enters the house of  his own true love, Aurelia, disguised as a humble tutor.

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Pushkin, after working steadily on ‘Dubrovsky’ for about 33,000 words in 1832, put it aside – perhaps through problems with the structure and possibly, waning interest after that first rush of enthusiasm – never to return to it.

Unfortunately, the remaining years left to him were few. He was mortally wounded in a duel over his wife only five years later. ‘Dubrovsky’ was only published posthumously in 1842.

That is the problem with laying things aside, though it is unlikely that many writers will be killed in duels in the coming five years. But it is so easy for a writer to adopt the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude to what was possibly something really promising, and to be distracted by other projects to the point that s/he or he never returns to it.

dubrovskyI hope that I have made the case for those sad, neglected, lonely Manuscripts in the Drawer being worth a second glance.  Some have been left incarcerated for so long that they may have been stored on the memory of BBC micras (in the UK, that is, or on Smart). They are suffering like the Counts of Monte Christo and their plight should arouse compassion.

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There are, admittedly, if my own early writings are anything to go by, some of these which were abandoned with good reason, which certainly will never deserve to see the light of day again.  There was one of mine, written when I was perhaps thirteen and  clearly inspired by Norah Lofts’ ‘Madselin’ (Marcher Baron, anyone?) that literally made me cringe.

But, if anyone reading this were to take a moment to glance through his or her own manuscripts in a drawer, it might lead to something really worthwhile being hauled out from the dismal company of  (I hope the contents of this drawer of mine was more rebarbative than average) a dead spider, a sweet wrapper, a battered how to booklet on Making Money From Your Writing and a grubby pound coin (was that all the money I managed to accumulate from the said booklet?)

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Anyway, Happy New Year, everyone.