Book Notes: On Russian Literature, and Western Minds

Editor’s NoteSometimes Brendan and I randomly get interesting ideas when writing a good book. These observations will now be published in the category of Book Notes. Let me know what you think about this!

Russian Literature is both fascinating and daunting to the Western reader. Even Westerners who read and enjoy Russian literature tend to find themselves somewhat confounded by its contents. The whole of a Russian novels feels like a mystical experience, and often leaves reviewers rambling and raving about it in much the same way that the characters in Russian novels rant about their life experiences.

To explain why, one must first explain something about Russian characters that makes them qualitatively different from Western ones; especially what makes Russian heroes different from Western heroes. If one thinks of a Western Hero like Batman, the Doctor or King Arthur, almost all of them are fettered by some deep code that drives all of their actions. Even allegedly chaotic Western heroes, such as Iron Man, Robin Hood, or Brer Fox are always driven by some deep internal set of laws that they will never violate.

Everybody knows that everybody dies. But not every day. Not today. Some days are special. Some days are so, so blessed. Some days, nobody dies at all. Now and then, every once in a very long while, every day in a million days, when the wind stands fair and the Doctor comes to call, everybody lives.

Riversong, on the Doctor

Moral complexity in Western characters is almost always driven by conflicts in their ethical code. Legal thinking is a deep part of the Western Mind, with lengthy, tangled roots in the Roman legal system. But that’s a subject for another time.

On the other hand: heroes in Russian literature are almost entirely lead by emotion. Think Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Chichikov in Dead Souls, and Anna Karenina in the book of the same name. All are deeply flawed characters who follow their heart throughout chaotic circumstances, for better or for worse.

The most jarring idea in Russian literature is that the conflict between heart and head is rarely given any attention. Almost all Russian characters struggle between giving into one emotion or another. Raskolnikov is divided between the raw desire for power and love for his family.

Anna Karenina is divided between her erotic passion for a handsome officer and her respect for her husband. The bustling number of side characters almost always have their own set of passions. In Crime and Punishment for instance, Lebayastikov’s erstwhile desire for a socialist utopia; in Anna Karenina, Levin’s desire for a simple life. Characters with a Western-style legal mind are fairly rare, and never treated sympathetically.

People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education.  If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one’s heart, even that may sometime be the means of saving us.

Alyosha Karamazov

Ivan in Brother’s Karamazov is a slamming indictment of the Western mind. It is treated as a morbid, death-obsessed madness that occasionally infects the souls of well-meaning people. Catholicism, Lutheranism, the Western Nation State, Western Lawyers, Atheism, and Communism are treated as manifestations of a power hungry disease of the mind rather than ideals to be followed.

By contrast, the real struggle for Russian heroes often has to do with two conflicting desires. One is usually a higher desire – the desire for God, love of family, love of the Russian Church, joy in a simple life. The alternative is almost always nihilism, emptiness, intellectual morbidity, power, or hedonism.

Either way, both good and evil are treated as obsessions. What divides the heroes from the villains is not whether or not one is obsessed but what one is obsessed about. The heroes are obsessed with the good things in life, and the villains are obsessed with insanity. By contrast, in Western literature, obsession is almost always a strictly negative trait.


Why everyone should plot before writing a book

Every NaNoWriMo, the Internet is aflame with the age old argument: should you plot your novel, or should you make it up as you go along? Most people have agreed on the generally civil principle that some people are better at plotting, while others are better at ‘panstering’, and it’s best to live and let live. “Whatever floats your boat,” as the saying goes.

That logic is perfectly fine if you want to write a novel, and have no special wish for it to be good. In fact, ‘freewriting‘ – or writing consistently for a period of time about absolutely nothing in particular – is highly recommended as a technique to improve your writing abilities, and loosen up the cogs of your brain to let thoughts flow more freely.

However, I would like to argue that everyone should plot their writing to a certain extent, at least when the goal is to create an interesting, readable work.

Now, let me explain. I’m not saying everyone should write in exactly the same way. Some people inevitably plan their works in much greater detail than others – they may carefully structure their work with the ‘snowflake method‘ or the ‘hero’s journey‘. Like Dostoevsky, they may fill a notebook full of character backgrounds, and like Tolkien, they may write out the histories of entire worlds before they ever start working on a story.

But I’m not saying all that is necessary. I’m not advocating any particular method, and I allow that some people flourish by ‘going with the flow’, while others find it a lot more productive to plan out every scene, character and line of dialogue before writing a book.

Nevertheless, I take it as a serious principle that every good story has a few key elements planned from the beginning.

What does Poe think?

Edgar Allen Poe did a good job of explaining this idea. Yes, that’s right, Edgar Allen Poe, the gloomy 19th century American writer with a big mustache who married his cousin and wrote a very famous poem about a raven. As weird as his works may have been, they were actually carefully planned, and before writing his poems, he planned them down to the last stanza.

In ‘The Philosophy of Composition’, Poe justified his own approach to writing like so:

Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement [conclusion; final act] before any thing be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention. ¹

So according to Poe, you should always have the ending in mind when you write a book.

Personally, I like to plan my books according to the three act structure, which means that I always have at least the setup, confrontation and climax in mind when writing, and I think everyone could stand to benefit from having at least this skeletal structure before writing the very first scene in a novel or even a short story.

Pansters are quick to point out that over-planning can make a novel stuffy and calculated, and I tend to agree. But under-planning can make a novel rambling and directionless. Without any direction, the point of a book can be hard to discern, and your writing isn’t likely to catch readers’ attention. A novel with a lot of potential can turn out mediocre if it isn’t given any thought beforehand.

Wherever you lie on the spectrum between plotter and panster, before you start writing a novel, have something in mind, and preferably a few things. You’ll thank yourself later on, and so will your readers.

Have your own take on this discussion? Leave a comment! We’d love to hear your opinions.


Why engineers leave STEM for art

Six months ago, I walked into the Department of Arts and Humanities at the University of Tennessee as a Computer Engineering major. When I left that department an hour later, I was an English major, and I haven’t looked back since. Many have disagreed with my decision. Some have laughed and scorned, and quite a few have expressed the unoriginal but provocative concern, “You won’t make any money that way.”

Even fellow writers have given me cautions. “Books feed your soul,” an administrator of the Tennessee Author’s Guild said to me. And as I turned to leave, she quickly added, “But you have to feed yourself too!”

So why have I persisted on this path? I’m not afraid to answer an unoriginal dilemma with an unoriginal answer: because there’s more to life than money, and I love writing.

But I am pretty sure this sentiment is no more satisfying than the question it responds to. In fact, questions and answers posed in this way tend to be weak by their very nature. When it comes to choosing a vocation and making significant life choices, more often than not, we turn from calculated reasoning to role models. In these matters, we look to parents, teachers, celebrities and famous people as guides; their stories, failures and successes shape our paths.

As such, I’ll begin by briefly describing some famous people – both living, and dead – who started their careers in STEM fields, before leaving it behind to become influential artists.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky


Fyodor Dostoyevsky is without a doubt one of the greatest writers of all time. His many works include the Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment and Notes From Underground. Although sometimes dealing with obscure themes and set against the backdrop of 19th century Russia, these works have been translated into more than 170 languages, and are broadly studied by students of English as essential works of literature.

But the world might have missed out on the genius of Dostoyevksy if he had continued in his first occupation. To fulfill the wishes of his father, Dostoyevsky studied to become a military engineer at the Saint Petersburg Nikolaevsky Engineering Academy.

Dostoyevsky was evidently unsuited for such an occupation. … Not long after completing his [military engineering] degree (1843) and becoming a sublieutenant, Dostoyevsky resigned his commission to commence a hazardous career as a writer living off his pen.¹

Thankfully, Dostoyevsky hated every second of his studies and his work, and made the unpopular decision to leave it all for his true calling. If he’d made the easy choice to stay, Dostoyevsky – who struggled with money all his life – would have been richer, and the world would have been poorer.

Rhett McLaughlin and Charles Lincoln “Link” Neal


We jump more than a century ahead to some of the most influential ‘internetainers’ in the world. Every day, upwards of four million YouTube subscribers take their morning coffee with the latest episode of Rhett and Link’s comedy show Good Mythical Morning. With warm personalities and eccentric senses of humor, Rhett and Link have established a tremendous platform as comedians, musicians and entertainers.

But things weren’t always so. Although the two always managed to make their friends laugh, they had never intended to make a career out of it. Together, Rhett and Link pursued degrees in Civil and Industrial engineering respectively at North Carolina State University. For some time, Link even worked for IBM, and Rhett for Black & Veatch.

Fortunately for millions of people, R&L both had spouses who realized engineering wasn’t going to work out forever.

They saw that we weren’t happy in our engineering jobs and encouraged us to follow our dreams. ²

Sir Alfred Hitchcock


The contributions of Alfred Hitchcock to cinema were so significant that he was appointed Knight Commander by Queen Elizabeth II in 1980. Known for his masterpieces in the genres of thriller and horror such as Psycho, The Birds and Rear Window, Hitchcock was a revolutionary and historic filmmaker.

But as the reader will suspect, Hitchcock was not headed in the path of a movie maker, nor an artist of any kind, but began studying at the London County Council School of Engineering and Navigation at the age of 15. He went on to join the Royal Engineers during WWI, but quickly realized through experimentation that his talents were better suited for the silver screen.

He began to write short stories for The Henley Telegraph, and soon became its editor before going on to join a film company.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Scott Adams

Even if you aren’t an avid comic reader, you are bound to have encountered Scott Adam’s ‘Dilbert’ at some point. Adam first published a Dilbert cartoon in 1989, and continued to draw them throughout the 1990s. By the year 2000, the comic was being published in 2,000 newspapers across multiple countries, and Adams was able to pursue a career as a full time cartoonist. Since then, Adams has written influential satirical works which have been tremendously influential on the white-collar business landscape in the United States.

Adams did not study engineering, but after receiving a degree in Economics from Hartwick College, went on to work in various fields of expertise, including Computer Programming. He worked closely with Telecommunications Engineers at Crocker National Bank.

After the tremendous and unexpected success of his comics, Adams was able to leave behind his office job for good, and continues to create comics for his international fan-base.

Clarence Brown


One-time engineer and World War I aviator who became one of the film world’s most prolific directors

-From Clarence Brown’s obituary in the LA Times

Not many people will immediately recognize the name of Clarence Brown, but I’ve included him anyways, not only for his achievements as a motion picture director, but as a nod to our shared Alma Mater. In the course of his prodigious life, Brown directed over 50 pictures. His films received a total of 37 academy award nominations, and 9 oscars. Classic movies directed by Brown include National Velvet, The Yearling and Anna Karenina.

Brown also began his career as an engineer, graduating from The University of Tennessee at the age of 19 with degrees in Mechanical and Electrical engineering. He spent some years of his life working in the automotive industry, before he left engineering to study directing under Maurice Tourneur.

So, why do Engineers leave STEM for art?

My answer is simple: because the wrong people have the wrong role models, and some of them realize it after starting down a path they weren’t made for. And it may be that the next Beethoven or the next Ernest Hemingway grew up believing that they should be the next Steve Jobs, or the next Stephen Hawking.

Even though there is as much room in the world for a Hemingway as there is for a Hawking, our culture has made the questionable assumption that there are simply not enough Engineers or Scientists to go around. As a result, our universities are flooded with too many mediocre Engineers and Scientists who are not motivated so much by aspirations to make the world a better place as they are to make a fat paycheck.

Now the point about money stands, but it’s easier to answer. It’s probably true that more engineers are rich, and more artists are poor. But it might be a better thing to find happiness doing something that is important and fulfilling to you than it is to make twice the money doing something monotonous and miserable.

I always remember the author who told me that books feed the soul. I’ve realized that if one path feeds my soul twice as much as the other path, half the food is worth the compromise. If you feel that you enjoy studying Aristotle more than you enjoy studying Calculus, don’t worry too much about money. Hard workers can get that anywhere. The world needs you, and it will be just fine without one more Engineer.