Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky? The Experts Decide

8 experts seek to answer the age-old question
Leo Tolstoy (left) and Fyodor Dostoyevsky (right)
There's something slightly ridiculous about literary polls. (Or any form of artistic poll, for that matter.) They presuppose, among other things, that creative work can be neatly judged according to a set of empirical standards, or regulations. But, of course, no one can explain in any final or definitive sense why we prefer one book to another, or judge one painter above the next. Love is not a science.

Nevertheless, polls can be fun (if we remember not to take them too seriously). Writing for The Millions, Kevin Hartnett asks the age-old question of 19th century Russian literature: Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky?
As it turned out, I was not the first to consider the provocation. The literary critic George Steiner has provided the most authoritative resolution to the problem with his book Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, which positions Tolstoy as “the foremost heir to the tradition of the epic” and Dostoevsky as “one of the major dramatic tempers after Shakespeare.” Isaiah Berlin considered the seemingly opposing qualities of the two authors in his enduring essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” Nabokov argued in Lectures on Russian Literature that it was Tolstoy in a landslide, while America’s First Ladies have tended to give the nod to Dostoevsky: both Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush cite The Brothers Karamazov as their favorite novel. [Read More]
In order to resolve the debate once and for all, Hartnett draws upon 8 experts, from professors to graduate students to critics and columnists:
  • Carol Apollonio, Professor of the Practice of Russian, Duke University
  • Ellen Chances, Professor of Russian Literature, Princeton University
  • Raquel Chanto, Graduate Student, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs
  • Chris Huntington, author of the novel Mike Tyson Slept Here
  • Andrew Kaufman, author of Understanding Tolstoy and Lecturer in Slavic Languages and Literature, University of Virginia
  • Gary Saul Morson, Frances Hooper Professor of the Arts and Humanities, Northwestern University
  • Donna Tussing Orwin, Professor of Russian and Chair, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Toronto, and author of Consequences of Consciousness: Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy
  • Joshua Rothman, graduate student in English at Harvard University, and author of the column, Brainiac, which appears every Sunday in the Boston Globe’s Ideas section
Of course, whether we can be convinced by their arguments remains to be seen. [Read More]

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