A very old saying, born in the land of rushing mountain streams, says: "Only shallow rivers are noisy." The
Center for Thaw Studies
SPEECH OF MIKHAIL SHOLOKHOV TO
2ND CONGRESS OF SOVIET WRITERS
21 DECEMBER 1954
Author of Quiet Don Attacks Lazy Writers and Gutless Critics!
"High Priests" Ehrenburg and Simonov Criticized
Literary Prize System Condemned
The Second Congress of Soviet Writers was held 15 - 26 December 1954. The Thaw in Soviet literature, which had begun just a year before, was under attack.
While not addressing the calls for more openness, honesty, and "sincerity" in Soviet literature, Sholokhov agreed with the pro-Thaw forces that much of post-war literature was dull, boring, and poorly written. One of the "high priests" guilty of such sloppiness, in Sholokhov's view, was Konstantin Simonov. Sholokhov also leveled criticism at the most prominent of the pro-Thaw advocates, Ilya Ehrenburg, whose novel "The Thaw" Sholokhov saw as an artistic step backwards.
The tumult and the excitement of the regional and district writers' meetings, where debates were sharp and speeches challenging, are over. The meetings at the republican level were more restrained, and now this all-Union congress of ours, which may be likened to a great river that has absorbed numerous large and small tributaries, is proceeding with truly majestic, and to my view, sinister calm.
The faces of the speakers are dispassionate, the reports are strictly formal, the speeches of most of our writers have been carefully streamlined, and even the authoresses and poetesses, generally more quick-tempered than the men in polemics, are locked in silence except for a few rare exceptions. Have our dear and aggressive ladies spent all their verbal energy at the preliminary meetings and are now feeling creatively exhausted, or are they conserving their strength for a new outburst towards the end of the congress? There's no understanding women, even though they are writers. There's no telling what they might do next. At least, I can never tell.
The congress is in its seventh day, but the atmosphere remains unchanged. Only Valentin Ovechkin's speech evoked a slight but stillborn animation. Can it be that all the problems which had worried us for twenty years have been settled and all we must do now is sum up our achievements and mistakes, and having taken note of these mistakes and unanimously adopted the new rules, take up the pen again with an easy mind? Hardly.
I hate to disrupt the classic calm prevailing at the congress which was just slightly marred by two or three speakers, but still I shall, with your permission, say what I think of our literature and dwell, if only briefly, on what must worry all of us.
A great deal has been said here about our general achievements. There is no gainsaying that our multinational Soviet literature has achieved truly great results in the past twenty years, and that many gifted writers have entered the literary scene. But for all that a drab stream of colorless, mediocre literature continues to gush forth from the pages of the literary magazines and flood the market.
It is time we joined efforts to bar the way to this murky stream by building a solid dam, otherwise we are in danger of losing our readers' respect which took no little effort and time for our serious writers to win.
This, naturally, does not apply by any manner of means to those young writers who have just entered literature and are doing better with every book, but only to the well-known authors who, having lost respect for their work and for their readers, are visibly wilting and going downhill turning from masters into hacks.
Let us take a retrospective view of these last years, if by last years we mean the period that has elapsed since the war. In wartime, naturally, most of the writers could not even give thought to big novels whose plots would be conceived in long and difficult reflection, books born in travail, with the language perfectly polished, and the style impeccable. In wartime the writer's pen was a weapon, and there was no time to worry about the perfection of form. Authors had but one task: to give their pen such a true aim that it would hit straight at the enemy, give support to our soldiers, fire and keep aflame in the hearts of the Soviet people a scorching hatred for the enemy and a passionate love of their motherland. The writers coped with this task well, as everyone knows. But after the war a great many of our writers carried on with the running start they had taken, and continued writing carelessly, in haste, with the resultant sharp reduction in the artistic standard of a large number of books. What the reader was willing to forgive us in wartime, would not pass muster after the war. And such truly talented postwar literature as the books of Fadeev, Fedin, Auezov, Pavlenko, Gladkov, Leonov, Paustovsky, Upits, Tvardovsky, Yakub Kolas, Gonchar, Nekrasov and some others brought into even sharper relief the wretched inferiority of those efforts which can be deservedly called literary miscarriages.
Needless to say, the habit of haste cultivated in wartime was not the only or the main reason for the general drop in the standard of our books.
One of the main reasons, to my mind, was the astonishing and quite unreasonable drop in standards among the writers and the drop in criteria among the critics. Writers drifted past their comrades' definitely bad, let alone mediocre novels with amazing indifference and completely blank expressions. They did not speak up in indignation against the publication of garbage which cultivates low tastes in our less exacting readers, corrupts our young people, and gives literature a bad name with the qualified readers who are exacting and uncompromising in their evaluations.
Well, and as for some of the critics, matters were even worse. If a rotten book was published by an esteemed author, and a prize winner to boot, a great many of the critics put on blank expressions, seeing this indecency, and more often than not they simply turned away in great embarrassment. The reading public sometimes witnessed a truly staggering, fantastic transformation: these "vehement Vissarions" (referring to Russian critic Vissarion Belinsky, 1822-1848) suddenly turned into blushing damsels. Some silently burnt with shame, while others, forgetting about their virtue and deciding to build up some small "capital", gushed over the celebrity and lavished a wealth of little-deserved and extravagant compliment on him. And indeed, has our press ever published a single critical article in which a literary master received what was due to him for an inferior book in full measure, without any allowances or reservations? Never. And it's a pity. We cannot and must not have any persons enjoying the right of immunity.
Some might object and say that such articles were written but not published for reasons beyond the control of the critics. In the years of the Civil War the workers and peasants used to say: "Soviet power is in our hands." Today, we have every right to say: "Soviet literature is in our hands." And the fewer timid souls like Ryurikov (Editor of Literaturnaya Gazeta 1953-1955) there are in the newspapers and magazines, the more uncompromising, bold and badly needed critical articles will be published.
Literaturnaya Gazeta is called upon to shape the readers' public opinion. This newspaper is a key to our literature, a means of gaining an unprejudiced acquaintance with it. But how can it possibly be unprejudiced when it is headed by a person who, greatly indebted to Comrade Simonov for this promotion in the field of literary criticism, looks up to his patron as if he were the sun, and actually shields his eyes from the dazzling light?
When we, pondering on the future, speak of the type of political leader our Union ought to have, most of us gratefully and sorrowfully remember Comrade Polikarpov: gratefully because he did a lot for the wholesome development of our literature if only by virtue of his non-affiliation with any groupings, and sorrowfully because with our silent connivance he was finally "eaten up alive" by those literary lads and lassies who, to our great misfortune, happily combine two skills --that of the writer, and that of the plotter. When they rest from the toils of writing, they plunge into scheming and, alas, they often succeed far better in their second skill than they do in their first.
What Literaturnaya Gazeta needs is an editor who belongs to no groups or groupings, a man who is dedicated to Soviet literature, and not its high priests, be they Simonov, Fadeev, Ehrenburg or Sholokhov. The editor of our newspaper has to be courageous, staunch, and of course absolutely honest in matters of literature. It is not enough to dream of such an editor, comrades. We must demand an editor like that. We have the legal and inalienable right to demand it.
To come back to the subject of critics, it may be said that they spring back to life when a weak story by a middling writer, a little-known, or a budding author appears in print. Now when this happens, our critics pull on their men's trousers again--forgive the metaphor--and their lyric sopranos immediately change to authoritative baritones and basses. Now they can let go and swing out with all their might! Now even Ryurikov will gladly print their articles without fear of being shouted down from Vorovsky Street (headquarters of the Writers Union), and now the critic can really let himself go and make a brilliant show of condescending witticism and virulent sarcasm.
Instead of oil and treacle with which the celebrated have just been anointed, the critics now ladle out a different, and often far from fragrant fluid from another vessel and generously pour it onto the heads of the poor devils who have not qualified for prize winners and are therefore no celebrities. Sometimes the poor chap will still be seeing stars from the first blow, when the next critic has already crept up to club him from behind again.
By the way, many people have spoken here of our "literary cartridge clip"--our five or ten leading writers. Is it not time, comrades, to check on our ammunition like the old soldiers we are? Is there anyone who doesn't know that bullets become oxidized and grow rusty if they are kept too long in the cartridge clip, especially in rainy or slushy weather, known as the thaw? Well then, is it not time we removed the old, stale bullets and filled the cartridge clip with new and fresher ones instead? Far be it from me to suggest throwing out the old bullets, they will still come in useful, but they need to be gone over with an alkaline solution or, if this does not help, with sandpaper. Don't worry, their skin won't come off. These old bullets should by no means be discarded because after all not every one of them will misfire. That, too, must be appreciated.
It's a poor soldier who has just one cartridge clip. He'll never win a battle with such meager ammunition. Like all of you, I also want us to have plenty of bullets in our cartridge clips and more in the boxes where they will be handy if the need arises. Their safety will be the business of our readers. They are no misers, but at the same time they do not approve of waste.
And here is another thing. The word "leading" when applied to someone who really leads others is quite all right, but it also happens that a once leading writer no longer leads anyone and is marking time. And he marks time not for just a month, or a year, but for a good ten years or even more say, like me, or someone resembling me.
You will readily understand, comrades, that it's not very pleasant saying such things about oneself, but one has to: self-criticism, you know. Well then, a writer such as this will stop like a ram in front of a new gate, and stand there. So how can he be called a leading writer when he's a standstill writer?
Everyone knows how it's done in Party work--a man commanding respect, a leading figure, will be appointed secretary of a regional Party committee. He works more or less passably the first year, and less passably the second year, and then he is very politely told to go and learn the job.
As the saying goes, a holy place will soon be fitted. And so the literary "cartridge clip" will be filled. It's not the writers themselves who will fill it simply because they wish to do so--it will take a bit more than wishing here--it's the people who want to struggle for their culture, for their happiness, for communism, who will put them in with the hand of the true master.
One more reason why the standard of our books has dropped is the system of awarding prizes for literature, a system which, regrettably, has persisted to this day. Comrade Ovechkin has dwelt on this question in detail, and I only have to add a few words. Honestly, dividing works of literature into classes, first, second and third, makes me think of a price list.
Well, and what about the works that did not qualify for this price list? What must we call all those books that failed to win any prize? Are they scrap, or what? This is absurd, authors will feel bitterly wronged, and so this system is no good at all, especially if one bears in mind that many good books--talented, intelligent books--have never fetched a prize, yet sometimes they are in greater demand than prize-winning ones.
A thing like this may happen. Say, an author has written a fair-to-middling book. He has no illusions about his own abilities, and does not expect it to be a spectacular success. His next will be better, he hopes. And all of a sudden he receives a prize for it. A second prize, it is true. Do you expect him to say to the prize-givers in all honesty: "What are you doing, brothers? Don't give me the prize, my book doesn't deserve it." Oh no, only a simpleton would do that. So, the writer accepts the prize, and before long he begins to think that he himself and the people who awarded the prizes had underestimated the worth of his book and he might well have been given the first and not the second prize for it.
That's how we mislead both the writers and the readers.
I do not make so bold as to propose to the congress anything definite on this matter. But one thing is clear--we must approach the government with a request to reconsider the system of prizes for literature and art, because things cannot go on the way they are now.
Under this system, if it continues, we ourselves will soon be unable to tell gold from copper, and the completely disoriented reader will be on his guard against books by prize-winners.
A high award cannot be given casually and lightly, for if it is it will cease to be a high award.
Think what will happen to some of our talents in ten or fifteen years from now if the existing system of prizes continues! One lady we all love for her glorious talent (I mean Alia Konstantinovna Tarasova) will not be able to walk unsupported, so laden she will be with the medals she has won and will yet win. To say nothing of Comrade Simonov. We can safely expect him to produce a play, a poem, and a novel a year, not counting such trifles as poetry, short stories, and the like. Converted into medals, this means three a year. As it is, Simonov walks about these halls with the prideful air of a crown prince of literature, and in fifteen years' time, having overeaten himself on fame, he will no longer walk, even if supported on either side, but will be pushed about in a wheel-chair.
It's terrible, really!
Already now many of our prize-winners inspire trepidation, if not awe. And what will happen if this goes on?
The other day I saw a man in civilian clothes and his whole chest was covered with gold and medals. Good heavens above, has Ivan Poddubny (famous Russian wrestler) risen from the dead, I thought? No, he did not have the build of a wrestler, and it turned out that the man was either a film director or a cameraman. It's a hell of a muddle, honestly. No, comrade writers, let's shine with our books more than with our medals.
A medal is an acquired thing, and a book is your own brain-child.
It is only my deep concern for literature that compels me to say unpleasant things to my fellow writers sometimes.
With his innate modesty and his fidelity to our unwritten law, Comrade Simonov has said nothing about himself in his report. Allow me to fill in the blank.
This is neither the time nor the place for a detailed analysis of his books. I should like to speak of his work as a whole.
Konstantin Simonov is by no means a new man in literature, he is a sufficiently old and experienced soldier. And he has written a lot in all the genres common to literature. But as I re-read his books I can't rid myself of the suspicion that he was not striving for top marks when he wrote them. And yet he is indisputably a gifted writer, and his reluctance (not inability, which is out of the question) to give the whole of himself to his book, gives food for troubled thought. What can young writers learn from Simonov? Perhaps only speed, and an aptitude for diplomatic maneuvering which is not all that essential to a writer. These abilities, I'll be quite frank, are hardly enough for a big writer. His last book worries me especially: on the surface of it everything is all right, everything is in its right place, but when you have finished the book you have the feeling that you, a hungry man, had been invited to a banquet and were treated to some bread soaked in water, and not enough of it to appease your hunger. You're disappointed, and hungry, and angry at your miser of a host.
Comrade Simonov has been writing for many years, and it's time he took a retrospective view of his career and stopped to think that the day will come when a little boy will point at him and say: "Why, the king is naked!" We won't want to see your nakedness, Konstantin Mikhailovich, so take our friendly advice in the spirit in which it is offered: hurry, and put on more clothes, preferably the kind that will never wear out.
I simply must mention Ehrenburg, too, seeing that we're old friends. Don't worry, I'm not going to start an argument again on questions of writing, heaven forbid! It's all very well arguing with someone who puts up a furious defense, but Ehrenburg takes offence at the slightest hint of criticism and says that it completely puts him off writing. When your opponent brings up his old age the moment you touch him and makes you pity him, what kind of an argument is it? No, we don't hit a person when he's down, it's not our way. I don't want to put Ehrenburg off writing.. .. He's doing a big and very useful job by actively participating in our common struggle for peace. But we criticize him as a writer, not as a peace fighter, and that's our right. For instance, he took offence at Simonov for his article about The Thaw. He ought not to have taken that attitude, because if Simonov had not been so prompt with his article, another critic would have written differently about The Thaw. In actual fact Simonov had saved Ehrenburg from very sharp criticism. And still Ehrenburg feels wronged. I suppose this can only be explained by that "oversensitiveness" with which Ehrenburg endowed all the writers the other day at this congress.
But we need not worry too much about the exchange of high words between Ehrenburg and Simonov. They'll make up.
There is just one point I'd like to raise with Comrade Ehrenburg. In his speech he said: "If I am still able to write another book, I shall endeavour to make it a step forward from my last book"--meaning The Thaw. Compared with The Storm and The Ninth Wave, it is unquestionably a step back. Now Ehrenburg promises to make a step forward. I don't know how these dance steps are called in other languages, but in Russian they are called "shuffling". So, come to think of it, it's not much you have promised us, Ilya Grigoryevich.
Our malicious enemies abroad allege that we, Soviet writers, write at the bidding of the Party. Actually, the fact of the matter is rather different, since each one of us writes at the bidding of his own heart--and our hearts belong to the Party and the people, whom we serve with our art.
We are sometimes unnecessarily rude to each other, we are sometimes intolerant in our opinions of books, but we are certainly not motivated by spitefulness, vanity or greed, and only by our wish to make our literature an even better helper of the Party in the business of educating the masses in the spirit of communism, to make it even worthier of our great people and of our country's great literary past whose rightful heirs we are.
I believe with all my heart that many of us will produce new, outstanding works before we meet for our third congress.
From the bottom of my heart I wish every one of you, comrade writers, new creative successes and the happiness of knowing that a good job has been well done--that feeling of light- hearted joy familiar to every workingman.
END OF SPEECH
Translated by Olga Shvartse
Reprinted from "At The Bidding of the Heart", Progress Publishers, 1973.
Ilya Ehrenburg's Speech to 2nd Congress of Soviet Writers.
Biography of Mikhail Sholokhov
Biography of Ilya Ehrenburg
The Thaw by Ilya Ehrenburg, a detailed summary.
On Sincerity in Literature by Vladimir Pomerantsev, the text in English.
Tvardovsky Axed!, the controversy surrounding A. Tvardovsky prior to the 2nd Congress.
Biography of Konstantin Simonov