A Call to Wake Up: On Viktor Shklovsky’s “On the Theory of Prose”

Jason DeYoung reads Shushan Avagyan’s new translation of Viktor Shklovsky’s classic work, “On the Theory of Prose.”

A Call to Wake Up: On Viktor Shklovsky’s “On the Theory of Prose”

On the Theory of Prose by Viktor Shklovsky. Dalkey Archive Press. 220 pages.

VIKTOR SHKLOVSKY’S On the Theory of Prose is a classic. Nearly a century old, it’s still avidly read and discussed in MFA circles, thanks to its author’s meticulous dissection of the devices of fiction, likely more valuable than any of the most recent craft books on the shelves. Unquestionably, it has been a kind of ur-text for many fledgling novelists because it discloses so clearly what one writer calls the “narrative math” that underpins all fiction. But the influence of the book can be felt in most narrative media — if you know what to look for! In fact, novelist and critic A. D. Jameson goes so far as to claim, “I’ve yet to encounter a narrative — any narrative, in any narrative medium — that can’t be understood or explained in terms of Shklovsky’s analysis.” And Shushan Avagyan’s new and thoroughly updated translation, published by Dalkey Archive Press last December, offers a fresh opportunity to revisit this colossus of 20th-century criticism.

With the aftermath of the Russian Revolution as its backdrop, On the Theory of Prose was published in 1925. But the foundation for its thinking came out of a group called the Society for the Study of Poetic Language (or OPOYAZ), which formed in 1916 at the University of St. Petersburg. This group, made up of such radical intellectuals as Boris Eikhenbaum, Osip Brik, and Boris Kushner, were frustrated by what they saw as an overall conservatism in the academia of their time. They wanted a new, modern (scientific might be another word) way of looking at poetry and prose. This group would eventually become the formalists, unified by their dedication to identifying the devices that make up prose (and poetry) and how those devices work together to form literature. In his foreword to the book, Shklovsky puts it this way: “I examine in literary theory the inner laws of literature. If I were to draw a parallel with the factory, I would say that I’m neither interested in the international cotton market nor in the politics of trusts, but only in the types of thread and ways of weaving.” Simply put, his concern is form over content. Form defines art.

Likely the most well-known section of On the Theory of Prose is “Art as Device.” This essay opens with a polemical onslaught against contemporary critics, whose theories about art Shklovsky considers to be rubbish, especially Aleksandr Potebnya’s notion that “art is thinking in images.” No, Shklovsky protests, art is device, the summation of techniques within the narrative. Every work of literature, he asserts, has a structure and that structure consists entirely of the relationships between the work’s parts. “By objects of art, in the narrow sense, we mean things created through special devices designed to make them as obviously artistic as possible.”

The preeminent device that writers employ is ostranenie (estrangement). By using a passage from Tolstoy’s diary, in which the novelist equates actions done “unconsciously” (such as dusting one’s bedroom) with an overall deadening of one’s life, Shklovsky leaps to one of his central themes: that art saves us from automatization, rescues life from oblivion. Ostranenie in literature and art is the antidote to this mindlessness.

To show what he means, Shklovsky returns to Tolstoy, this time to his short story “Strider,” famously told from the point of view of a horse. While the approach might seem a touch gimmicky, Shklovsky’s point is that Tolstoy’s conceit defamiliarizes the quotidian. Actions, objects, philosophies, even the language that we take for granted are drawn into question by the horse’s perspective: “I could not at all understand what they meant by speaking of me as being a man’s property. The words ‘my horse’ applied to me, a live horse, seemed to me as strange as to say ‘my land,’ ‘my air,’ or ‘my water.’ […] [T]hose words had an enormous effect on me.” Filtered through the horse’s point of view, the commonplace assumptions of our world, such as the existence of private property, are depicted as outlandish and bizarre. And thus, Shklovsky concludes, our awareness is shaken out of its complacency.

Although “Art as Device” is likely the most discussed chapter in On the Theory of Prose (and I’ll have more to say on it later), the rest of the book isn’t to be ignored because Shklovsky continues to develop his catalog of devices, explaining their roles and history. In examining Don Quixote, he analyzes the techniques of interjection, digression, and “string” plot, then discusses the more elaborate — and deliberate — misuse of those devices in Tristram Shandy, wherein Sterne “accentuates and violates the conventional plot scheme.” The chapter on Tristram Shandy is a joy to read because it so deftly lays bare Sterne’s organization: it’s a novel built on the derangement of principles, putting devices out of step, establishing its own artistic laws.

The later chapters focus on what was considered experimental Russian literature at the time. Andrei Bely and Vasili Rozanov are the main subjects. While these writers have fallen out of fashion today, Shklovsky’s chapters on their work contain a wealth of interest. Here, in these final pages, are the critic’s more aphoristic views of what it means to be an artist, avuncular insights that invite genuine contemplation:

An artist must maintain the pathos of distance and not allow himself to be tied down. He must adopt an ironic attitude toward his material and not let it get to him. Just as in boxing or fencing.

Don’t take writers at their word; their psychology has nothing to do with the work and should be considered as no more than an appendix to it.

The writer cannot produce a work of art when an external ideology, unsupported by the technical prerequisites of craftsmanship, invades the realm of writing.

It is important for a writer to create the possibility of multiple interpretations in his work — the possibility of “ambiguity.” […] So, in order to maintain this ambiguity, the fantasticality of the work is at one point affirmed and at another point denied.

Art, in essence, is unemotional. Remember how in fairy tales people are placed in a barrel studded with nails and thrown into the sea. […] For that reason, art is ruthless and alien to sympathy unless the feeling of sympathy has been employed as material for construction.

Jaded readers might be tempted to scoff at my enthusiasm for this book, to see the work as a relic. How these dated views might apply to contemporary literature is the most obvious question. The answer is simple: these storytelling techniques are still valid and widely used forms. “Temporal transposition” — a technique Shklovsky investigates in the context of mystery novels — can be seen in any number of recent fantasy novels. The motifs and devices of Victorian-era adventure novels that he analyzes can be spotted in the latest offerings from Marvel Studios. And today’s experimental fiction still deploys such sophisticated structures as parallelism, illusion, sound pattern, exaggeration, renunciation, horror, confession, color, plotlessness, and other devices first clearly laid out by Shklovsky.

On the Theory of Prose isn’t some simple craft book, however. It establishes a unique philosophical perspective on art that continues to inform our cultural lives. Extrapolated far enough, it becomes a lens to hone our own perspectives, since so much of our lives is made up of the narratives we tell ourselves. In essence, it is a call to wake up.


For many who have read On the Theory of Prose, this is old news. The chief occasion, of course, to revisit this masterpiece is Avagyan’s new translation. Over the last 15 years, this translator has been responsible for revising older versions of Shklovsky’s works, including his experimental prose collection A Hunt for Optimism (1931), and three critical works, The Hamburg Score (1928), Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar (1970), and Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot (1981). While The Hamburg Score is a wide-ranging, pugilistic take on feuilletons, Bowstring and Energy of Delusion are large, charismatic, and spirited works of criticism that temper and expand on many of the theories initially put forth in On the Theory of Prose. Without Avagyan’s efforts, the English-speaking world would mostly be ignorant of these later key critical works. But let there be no doubt, On the Theory of Prose was Shklovsky’s proudest achievement, and he continued to revise it up until his death in 1984.

By comparison with Benjamin Sher’s 1990 translation — the only full translation of On the Theory of Prose before now — Avagyan’s is more than just house cleaning. Yes, there were errors in Sher’s work, but Avagyan’s approach highlights something different. Comparison of a key passage from “Art as Device,” as rendered by the respective translators, will show what I mean. First, here is the Sher translation:

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. Art is a means of experiencing the process of creativity. The artifact itself is quite unimportant.

And here is the Avagyan:

And so in order to restore the sensation of life, in order to feel things — to make the stone stony — we have something called art. The purpose of art is to convey the sensation of an object as something visible, not as something recognizable. The devices of art — ostranenie, or the “estrangement” of objects, and the impeded form — magnify the difficulty and duration of perception, because the process of perception in art is an end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a means of experiencing the making of an object; the finished object is not important in art.

In Avagyan’s version, we see outdated terms exchanged for more compelling ones, and she makes a lovely choice to offset “to make the stone stony” with em-dashes, but one of her significant choices is to break from Sher’s near-iconic neologism “enstrangement,” a word Avagyan doesn’t think fully conveys the duality of ostranenie. The term has been a struggle for Shklovsky’s translators because it doesn’t appear in Russian dictionaries. According to Sher’s translator’s note, what Shklovsky meant was something like “to make strange” by removing the object from its stereotypical perception. Sher opts for removing the foreign term altogether from the text, meeting one neologism with another of his own — “enstrange.” Unlike Sher, Avagyan had already wrestled with this word in her translation of Bowstring, where Shklovsky helps by giving its origins: “There used to be an old term — ostranenie or estrangement. It is often printed with one ‘n,’ even though the phrase originates from the word strannyi (strange). […] Ostranenie is the sensation of surprise felt toward the world, a perception of the world with a strained sensitivity.”

What makes Avagyan’s translation so authoritative is its effort to capture Shklovsky’s real voice, with its quirks, eccentricities, and lyrical patterns, and one way she does this is by keeping some Russian terms in the work. Sher’s translation tries to smooth out Shklovsky, to make him sound more English, as can be seen in the passage above. Instead, Avagyan tries to retain Shklovsky’s Russianness, writing that, “when it comes to the language of the translation, I usually tend to accentuate its foreignness.” This is not simply because Russian isn’t her mother tongue; it’s a deliberate rejection of the “quest for domestication” in the Anglo-American literary scene, something the prominent French translator Antoine Berman also argues for: a sense of foreignness, Berman says, is the “only way of giving access to the original work.” The overall effect is a version of On the Theory of Prose that attempts to work with Shklovsky on his own terms, and the outcome refreshes and enhances what is already a unique reading experience.

In a recent social media post, Avagyan called this translation a “labor of love.” And it does seem like a capstone achievement, one that might not have seen publication. Dalkey Archive, the press chiefly responsible for publishing Avagyan’s translations, lost its founder and director, John O’Brien, in 2020. The imprint has since been acquired by Deep Vellum, an influential indie publisher based in Dallas. It is with glad hearts that we should celebrate Deep Vellum’s continuing support of Avagyan’s efforts to bring the full magnitude of Shklovsky’s accomplishment to contemporary readers.


Jason DeYoung is the author of Waiting for the Miracle (The Cupboard Pamphlet, 2020). His fiction has appeared in Booth: A JournalThe Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, and Best American Mystery Stories. His reviews have appeared in a range of venues including Numéro Cinq, Music and Literature, 3:AM Magazine, and Quarterly Conversation. He is based in Atlanta, Georgia.

LARB Contributor

Jason DeYoung is the author of Waiting for the Miracle (The Cupboard Pamphlet, 2020). His fiction has appeared in Booth: A JournalThe Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, and Best American Mystery Stories. His reviews have appeared in a range of venues including Numéro Cinq, Music and Literature, 3:AM Magazine, and Quarterly Conversation. He is based in Atlanta, Georgia.


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