Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Viktor Shklovsky and Me: Guest Post by Peter Abrahams aka Spencer Quinn



I’m sure you’re all familiar with Viktor Shklovsky, but for the one or two who may have temporarily forgotten him, here’s the Cliffs Notes version. By the way, Viktor died in 1984 (age 89) and Cliffs Notes began in 1958, so it’s conceivable that Shklovsky knew of Cliffs Notes! Did he come across them in his long and varied career in the literary world? If anyone out there has information on a Cliffs Notes – Viktor Shklovsky connection, please get in touch. My guess is he would have loved Cliffs Notes, but my mind is open.

Viktor Borisovich Shklovsky was a Russian literary theorist – as well as a novelist, poet, critic, and screenwriter, but our interest in him here today is strictly on the theoretical side, where he is chiefly known for introducing the idea of ostranenie. Ostranenie - as I scarcely need remind you – can be rendered as defamiliarization or estrangement in English. It’s all about breathing life into the overly familiar in art – but let him tell it: “And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art. The purpose of art, then, is to lead us to a knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition. By ‘enstranging’ objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and ‘laborious.’ The perceptual process in art has a purpose all its own and ought to be extended to the fullest.” (Shklovsky, Viktor. Theory of Prose. Translated by Benjamin Sher, Dalkey Archive Press, 1990, p. 6.)

And there you have it! Although at this point you may be asking what this has to do with the writer (me) of a series of mystery novels (Chet and Bernie) narrated by the detective’s dog (Chet). Answer: plenty! First, Chet is not a talking dog. He’s as canine as I can make him. And therefore we believe in the reality of how he experiences the world we share, he and us. But his take is very different from ours. He defamiliarizes the overly familiar. Ta-dah! We end up seeing things, to say nothing of smelling, hearing, tasting them – talk about the perceptual process! - in a brand new way. Voila! The tool of art in action! Fresh mysteries for sale, out of an old Russian oven! Meet Chet, four-legged master of ostranenie!

By now you’re probably wondering whether I myself would have been welcomed in 1920’s Soviet literary society. What other answer can there be but “with open arms?” At least at first, but with the Gulag looming later.

Did I know all this theory before I began writing Chet and Bernie, and is it therefore all just an exercise to illustrate a recondite point? Of course not! I only became aware of it quite recently, when I learned that the Chet/Shklovsky axis was a topic of conversation in certain academic circles. What fabulous news, I thought, because I know there’s resistance to the Chet and Bernie series from a kind of reader who believes the stories will be “cute” and lacking in literary depth and rigor. To those dissidents I can now say: Take it up with Mr. S!

Spencer Quinn aka Peter Abrahams is the bestselling author of the Chet and Bernie mystery series, as well as the #1 New York Times bestselling Bowser and Birdie series for middle-grade readers. He lives on Cape Cod with his wife Diana—and dogs Audrey and Pearl. Of Mutts and Men is the latest in the Chet and Bernie series.

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