Not just Salinger: Andrey Astvatsaturov mixes academic and literary style

Writer Andrei Astvatsaturov performing at the Red Square Book Festival in Moscow.

Evgenya Novozhenina / RIA Novosti

Writer and scholar Andrey Astvatsaturov – who once considered American literature too simple, before radically changing his mind – has published a book chronicling his reading experience of English-speaking writers.

An academic by training, Andrey Astvatsaturov is also renowned for his autobiographical fiction, which depicts his life and his creative development through numerous flashbacks to his childhood. He rose to fame as an author in 2009 with Naked people, the first of his “future trilogy”, which also includes Skunkamera (2010) and Autumn in my pockets. The writer, who recently assisted the London Book Fair, released a new book, Not just Salinger. A collection of essays on American and British literature, the book combines what Astvatsaturov has described as its “two sides”: philology and creativity.

A reluctant Americanist

Andrei Astvatsaturov. Not just Salinger. Yelena Shubina editors, 2015

Astvatsaturov has had a career spanning more than two decades at the University of St. Petersburg, where he teaches foreign literature and has become one of the best-known Russian scholars of American literature. So it is perhaps surprising that he left American literature aside for many years, preferring to stay on the European side of the Atlantic and focus on British writers such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

“For a long time, I did not deal with American literature,” notes Astvatsaturov. “I found it too simple, too primitive. I had a sudden turnaround about ten years ago and now I see its cultural and linguistic value.

Not just Salinger is the expression of this interest. With a shameless academic undertone, he seeks to put Astvatsaturov’s own theories on language and literature into practice. He thinks that critics and academics put too much of a writer’s own experience, feelings, and impressions into their analysis. Astvatsaturov’s approach is different, as it seeks to get rid of such subjectivity. “I understand what writers mean to their readers and I just explain it,” he explains. “My point of view is sober and analytical.”

To learn how to read

The editors approached Not just Salinger with caution, as it combines a literary analysis on famous American and British writers with lyrical reflections and flashbacks to points in Astvatsaturov’s life. As he explains: “It is a very different book, so we were a little afraid of losing readers – it was with the publishers for a year and a half.

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Despite its experimental quality – or perhaps because of it – the book has been a hit with the reading public, and indeed is not aimed at academics at all. “I focused on two types of readers,” says Astvatsaturov. “First writers who are just starting out and want advice from great writers, and second, people who want to learn to read. This comment sounds a little strange, but Astvatsaturov is convinced that very few people can really read. “It’s a very difficult process,” he says, “trust me, not even all literary academics can do it.”

There is a didactic quality to Not just Salinger; Astvatsaturov is keen for his readers to learn something concrete from the English-speaking writers featured in the book, and is perhaps unique among Russian authors in this desire. “I did not choose my subjects at random,” he says. “The 10 writers featured in the book taught me something beneficial, and I’m sure they can teach it to my readers as well.”

Accept the difference

Astvatsaturov’s willingness to teach in Not just Salinger reflects the origins of the book. This is partly a collection of lectures he gave with his colleague Dmitry Orekhov as part of their Literary Workshop, intended to help budding writers. This series has been around for four years with the aim of helping these aspiring authors hone their literary skills.

“The workshop series is different from my university workshop,” says Astvatsaturov. “At university, I give information to the students as a whole, but I can be much more practical during the workshop – and interact with each participant individually. “

Astvatsaturov and Orekhov diagnose the strengths and weaknesses of participants and suggest specific authors to help them improve certain skills. “For example, if I see that a particular student has a knack for noticing details, I might recommend that they read Salinger more,” says Astvatsaturov.

He admits it’s not just fans of his work who attend the class. “A lot of Atelier students are very skeptical about my books – and they are my favorite books. Both parties are interested in arguing. Astvatsaturov believes that it is through this type of dialogue that writing as an art form can develop, and he never seeks to be dogmatic that his path is right. “I never impose my point of view and my writing style on anyone,” he says.

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Ann G. Starbuck