How Chekhov pulled the trigger on creating the short story

See what I did there? My wit is lost on you people, I swear. An examination of how Anton got it on like Donkey Kong, and the legacy that created.

Chekhov is hardly a writer’s writer, but it might be said that short story writers believe, correctly or not, that they alone understand his true value. Carver is one of many who have learned the lessons Chekhov’s work teaches. On the cover of my copy of Carver’s Elephant (1988) a review quote describes him as “the American Chekhov”. “Errand”, the last story in the book and the last Carver saw published in his lifetime, describes Chekhov’s death. But the more important connection is his distinctively Chekhovian manner of dispersing meaning into apparently irrelevant details, and the pronounced open-endedness of his stories. Carver, however, was not the only American Chekhov: by the 1980s the appellation was threadbare with use. Addressing Cornell University’s Chekhov Festival in 1976, John Cheever told his audience he was “one of perhaps ten American writers who are known as the American Chekhov”.

The description isn’t unhelpful because it’s used carelessly, but because Chekhov’s influence is so widespread: most short story writers are Chekhovians, whether they realise it or not. Playwrights, too: asked about his influences Tennessee Williams replied, “Chekhov! As a dramatist? Chekhov! As a story writer? Chekhov!” Keeping to the short story in English, early disciples included Katherine Mansfield, Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway, and from here his influence quickly ramifies: AE Coppard, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Bernard Malamud, John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Yiyun Li and Joyce Carol Oates, who rewrote him with her “Lady with the Pet Dog”. This is only a sampling.

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