Sarah Anne Johnson

War and Peace February 26, 2012

So, I was able to move beyond Sherlock Holmes and dive into War and Peace, allegedly the best novel ever written. Part I, the first 118 pages, reminds me of Downton Abbey set in Russia, complete with vaulted-ceilinged homes filled with  Russian high society, and dinner served with a footman behind every dining chair.

I wanted to read Tolstoy after reading about the term “defamiliarization,” first coined in 1917 by Viktor Shklovsky, who wrote:

“The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.”

Shklovsky illustrated the idea of defamiliarization with examples from Tolstoy:

In ‘Shame’ Tolstoy ‘defamiliarizes’ the idea of flogging people in this way: ‘to strip people who have broken the law, to hurl them to the floor, and to rap on their bottoms with switches.’ [Shklovsky 1917, 56]

Why all this talk of defamiliarization and Tolstoy?

The whole point of all this thinking about defamiliarization is that it gave me a new lens through which to look at my own work. As I work on the new novel, I’m trying to find ways to shake up the prose, and re-look at how I see things with words. What can I do to make a sentence, a character, a voice, jump of the page?

Do what Tolstoy did: slow down and show the object, situation or character not only in vivid detail, but in a way that will slow the reader down, make her see with fresh eyes, even make her question what she sees.

Reading Tolstoy

Reading inspires me. It teaches me. Reading leads to writing. I haven’t been writing  since my book has been out to publishers, but Monday is my writing day, so I’m going to get my butt in the chair. Reading Tolstoy ought to at least help me take a fresh look at my prose. Even if I don’t write like Tolstoy at the end of the day, I may do a better job of writing like me.



War and Peace

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Sarah Anne Johnson

Sarah is the author of The Lightkeeper’s Wife (Sourcebooks), The Very Telling, The Art of the Author Interview, and Conversations with American Women Writers, all published by the University Press of New England. Her interviews appear in The Writer’s Chronicle, Glimmertrain Stories, Provincetown Arts, and The Writer where she is a contributing editor. Her fiction has appeared in Other Voices, and she is the recipient of residencies in fiction from Jentel Artists’ Residency Program and Vermont Studio Center. She has taught the Art of the Author Interview Workshop at Bennington College Writing Seminars MFA Program, Leseley University MFA Program, and at literary conferences.

War and Peace February 26, 2012