Andrei Platonov is well known to contemporary readers of Russian, but has not yet found his place among an international readership as one of the great writers of the twentieth century. His deeply strange but unrepentant Marxism kept him from being assimilated to the canon of ‘dissident’ authors. He was that rarest of things: a proletarian writer who is modernist in style.
Unfortunately, the English translation of his major work, Chevengur, has long been out of print, although a pdf of it is readily available. Most of his novella-length works and some of his classic stories have been carefully translated by Robert Chandler and various collaborators, and are available in excellent editions from New York Review Books Classics.
In ‘Factory of Literature’, (1926) Platonov writes about the method of composition he first used in the story ‘Antisexus’, (1925-26) and probably used in the composition of his later masterpieces.
‘Factory of Literature’ proposes a method of what Kenneth Goldsmith calls ‘uncreative writing’, and which one might recognize as a distinctive version of what the Situationists called détournement, or a kind of plagiarism-and-correction process.
Given its strikinglu bottom-up nature, one could even see it as a version of what Lev Manovich will call cultural analytics.
Platonov goes on to envisage a whole production process for a new kind of literature, collaboratively produced from the bottom up. It is among other things an intimation of what Bob Stein calls the networked book.
It is also a sort of dialectical inversion of what would become the Soviet literary industry of socialist realism, where all stories are cut to fit the template of a communist horizon, determined from above by state literary administrators. ‘Factory of Literature’ shares an interest in productivist culture that was common at the time, although Platonov’s idiosyncratic version takes its distance not only from nascent socialist realism, and from the commodified culture industry satirized in ‘Antisexus,’ but also from certain features of the Soviet avant garde.
— McKenzie Wark
‘Factory of Literature’
[Translated by Anna Kalashyan]
On fundamental improvement of literary creativity methods
Art is organically an essential part of life, just like sweating is part of a human body and motion is part of wind. However, in passing within the subsoil of a body, in geological layers in areas with narrow coverage of human collective structures, art is not always visible and publicly accessible. It is about making it visible and bringing it out of the geological layers onto the surface of everyday life.
They say – write stronger on a big canvas, show the essence of construction in the new era, illustrate the transformation of everyday life and present the new type of human with new spiritual and emancipatory equipment, etc. The writer gets overwhelmed but the amount of cognitive elements remains the same. He sees the rationale behind this smart advice and it’s justice, and acknowledges the practicability of these plans and projects, however he lacks the bricks to build this novel.
Real literati travel to provincial communities in the Urals and Donbass, to irrigation works in Turkmenistan, to state farms, to hydroelectric stations and finally, just become activists in communities (in order to understand the everyday life, the elements and problems of apartment buildings, etc).
Writers open up their soul – in comes the life elements and the warmness of this era – and this becomes the architecture of literature, the truth of new characters and the signals of the weight of the new great class.
As a foreigner, this person walks around the factory and observes the electric junction boxes, gets terrified of these ordinary things and then writes extensively, with exaggeration and lies, being concerned about the pieces of life observed and realizing the potential existence of a big Korovai bread of much nourishment. It becomes a travelogue rather than creative writing. It turns out to be a subjective philosophy about, rather than an essay on, what is real and alive in the landscape of the unavoidable destiny of that ‘alive.’ In order to whip the ‘alive’ and possess it not inside yourself but rather in front of you.
Modern literary work divides into two types: dialectics of the author’s soul in a social setting (Babel and Seifullina); or honest social novel (dialectics of events) – genuine effort of a kid to construct a bus by himself, etc. And does such a good job so that people admire his bus.
Leyland – life, a baby with iron – writer. Whereas we need in literature dialectics of social events that sounds like the contradiction of the living soul of the author.
Take a look at where the electronics of aviation, chemistry, astrophysics is today. People are basically the same as ten years ago but they make things better than their ancestors.
Where is literature in terms of quality in comparison with Shakespeare? Obviously now they write about mechanics rather than sons of kings, but this is a quantitative element rather than qualitative. Shakespeare would write in a positive manner about mechanics if he lived now.
Literature didn’t really go anywhere: the writer sits down and writes just with himself and his internal feelings. All the disciplines of knowledge know how to use the increasing amount of objective facts – their experience and others needs – and know how to reform subjective methods of activity. Meanwhile, the writers don’t know how to do these things, as if they are still primordial beings. They still make cars by themselves forgetting that there is Ford and Citroën.
Here no one likes Spengler but he was right when he said that in comparing the knowledge and intellect circulating in the world of manufacturers with circles of writers – the comparison is not in favor of latter. You cannot hide from this. Talk to an engineer, a big constructor or manager and then talk to a famous poet. While the engineer exhorts a healthy mind and the fresh wind of concrete life, the poet smells like the hospital or the psycho’s mouth.
We need to create a literary method that is equivalent to modernity, taking into account the experience of it. It is absolutely necessary that methods of creativity with words keep up with the pace of the revolution, if they cannot develop with the same speed as humans.
Writers bet on the talent of people without doing anything to actually develop new methods for their work. We live now in an era where we don’t respond to anything. The good news is that there is manufacturing and it’s inertia.
Today’s mechanics are using new methods – improved machines (that didn’t even exist a hundred years ago) make quality better and quantity ten times more while his grandfather didn’t even have one. While this mechanic is from the same era as us and has the same talent as us, he could have been more cheap and unskilled than his grandfather. But it’s all about the machine that the grandson posses now.
If this development took place in literature as well the modern writer would write better and write more than Shakespeare even if one had just 1% of Shakespeare’s talent.
We need to create not just novels but also methods for creation. Writing novels is the writers’ job, whereas the critics’ job and main mission is to develop new methods for writing that simplify and improve the writers work. Until now critics were busy observing their own shadows and assuming that it looks like a human shadow, which might be the case or not. In any case, the shadow resembles but is not equal to critics.
Critics need to become constructors of ‘machines’ that produce literature, and the artist will work on the machines.
There was Furmanov and Reisner and they correctly identified what needs to be there: living, fighting and traveling, they gained the gifts of life and they used it to give back to literature as if adjusting these natural gifts to their individual souls, without which a real art cannot exist. Therefore, art becomes a reality in the process of being enriched by the artists’ individuality. Furmanov was a military party official and Reisner was a revolutionary and traveler and then they became writers.
Chekov had a notepad, Pushkin worked in archives, Anatole France advocated the scissors instead of a pen, Shakespeare was broadly relying on the memoirs of his circle of aristocrats.
I would like to clarify that I am not supportive of life protocols. I am advocating for the smell of the authors’ soul in his writings and simultaneously for the real faces of people and groups in the same work.
The author’s soul should be united with the soul of collectivity, since without it an artist cannot possibly exist. But literature is a social phenomenon and therefore it needs to be developed by social collective force only under the leadership and editing drive of one person – the writer. The latter of course has a lot of rights and opportunities but he needs to construct the novel based on the social elements. That’s indeed the case, since words are social elements just like events and chapters, as well as motion patterns.
Words are just social materials and they are very manageable and reversible.
However, why would you even use these resources when you can have ready-made ingredients? From processed ingredients to the actual product is an easier path than from raw ingredients, since you wouldn’t have to spend as much effort, and there are savings on quantity, which can become a quality issue.
The modern writer usually relies on social resources rather than ready-made components.
What exactly are ready-made ingredients?
Myths, historical and modern facts and events, everyday activities and an ambitious or better destiny – all of these which are proclaimed by thousands of mouths and hundreds of dry and anonymous official papers will be ready-made components for writers, since all of these are made unintentionally, genuinely, for free and by chance and you cannot write better than that: this is a 100% equivalent of life that is enriched by a virgin soul. You can also consider as ready-made components the personal stories of authors, as long as these are real and genuine pure facts. Art is not just out there and objective but rather is the sum of social objective events plus the human soul. (Soul is an individual violation of a general trends of reality that is unique as an act and for that matter the soul is alive. I apologize for the old terminology – I developed a new meaning to it).
Soul is always existent and in sufficient amount and quality. Meanwhile our literature is still not benign, therefore the lack of external and social material is the second part of ready-made components. However objectively speaking this material exists in huge amounts so why is it not subjectively enough for the writer? Because methods for identifying and understanding the social material are absent. The social material can only be literary ready-made components since the people’s fresh lips rarely formulate concepts and rather provide an image for its development, since people are alive.
I am going to turn to specific examples now. I bought a leather notepad and divided it into seven sections with the following headings:
3. Everyday Life
4. Personality traits
5. Discussion with oneself
6. Unexpected thoughts and findings and
7. Random and special.
I chose very general headings to just direct myself. I include into this journal everything that I find interesting and everything that can be a ready-made component for literary work, including excerpts from newspapers, separate phrases from the same source, pieces from different popular and not popular books, real dialogues from different sources, and I write my own ideas, themes and pieces. I am trying to live my life in a way that I notice everything that is valuable for the notepad.
The notepad is being filled by a variety of different life things. Of course we need a sharp eye and delicate taste, otherwise you will just end up filling the notepad with bullshit instead of actual bread. I flip through the notepad in the evenings and I focus on one specific note and I start working on that theme, also taking into account the next notes and sketches. I focus on dialogues, description of streets and other miracles that I slightly alter, depending on my goals and my capacity to connect these pieces by personal cement. You end up with an essay where your contribution is only 5-10% but it’s all about my edits and ambitions.
Editing is what brings us closer to the author since it is a very intimate spiritual individual corrector, that illustrates the presence of a real and passionate hand and personal passion, as well as the ambition and goal of a real person.
Borrowed from people, I give it back to them having thought it through.
You have to start writing, not by using words and copying real languages but rather with pieces of that real language then editing these pieces and putting it together in an essay.
The result is, or is supposed to be, truly fascinating because thousands of people worked on it and contributed their individual and collective reviews of the world.
Now you don’t have to remember, accidentally find and lose, the ready made components all the time. All you need to do is just take advantage of life itself. And this will go back to people in a more profound and nutritious way.
I am not advocating but rather informing. I have an experience and I am illustrating. I was comparing this to my previous method and got terrified. Now I write, play and I am happy, but in the past I would suffer and get upset. Now my ideas are exciting and in line with feelings.
People can say: wow he discovered South America. But this is what every smart artist is supposed to do, just like every citizen. But this isn’t what usually happens and authors disregard this method most times.
This isn’t easy and not easy at all.
You need to always mobilize your observation skills, your taste and vision need to extrude just like a predator’s and you need to always dig in central squares and other neighborhoods to find something. You need to know just like an experienced gleaner where you can find what and where you will just waste your time.
Maybe this isn’t something that a writer is supposed to do? I don’t know. But it’s really interesting and easy. You need to always leave your mind and soul open and the fresh wind of life goes through it and your role is to stop it every once in a while, in order for the wind to leave some footprints in you.
And then at night when women and children are asleep, you start editing and cutting depending on what you like. It’s easier for you to write this way and you are smiling to all the thoughts and ideas from the notepad. You write all kinds of things and improve.
Your friends will ask you where this is coming from. You smirk and I say that it comes from people themselves. A lot of writers do a better job in telling the story than writing it. I decided to experiment once and included my friend’s speech into my essay. He read it and got excited but didn’t remember since I edited it a bit. He still doesn’t get it that work that actually produces big results just requires manual dexterity.
I admit I wrote only one essay using this method and it’s called Antisexus. I started the notepad just recently so I can’t really confirm the new method and I can’t illustrate anything at this point other than what I just did. But you know I am speaking the truth.
The manufacturing of literary works and essays should be done in a modern way, namely, rational with guaranteed quality.
I envision this type of literature factory in the following way.
In the middle of this factory is the editorial team – these are the literary editors, the writer himself who is working on a piece. This team is headed by a critic or a team of critics that are supposed to improve and develop new methods of literary work, just like the head of a big car industry is a construction team.
This department is always analyzing processes of production and categorizing the experience and studying the writer’s era to try to improve the quality and simplify the production process.
The factory is the place where literature is made. Other factories are in the country, in the body of life and their contribution needs to be spelled out.
I would do the following thing in the Soviet Union. We have got an all-Union literary journal. In every national republic or area and every territorial unit there is a network of writers and each one of them focuses on one specific theme.
In every national republic or area there must be at least seven literary factories. Maybe the story can be divided into sections and each factory works on one section. So these literary factories are primary workshops where ready-made ingredients are processed. And then this material gets delivered to national literary factories that are the most experienced ones, where actual writers work.
These units need to be very good observers since they need to identify and assess the material that is out there in the world.
However, it is not required that the literary factory have excellent editing skills – that unique capacity to add something to the ready-made ingredients and make an essay out of it.
The national literary factories need to have all the qualities listed above plus education. The material that is received from this unit gets sorted into different notepads, getting it cleaned of unoriginal thoughts and ideas that are not valuable for literature. However the rights of these units need to be restricted in that area so that they don’t loose important material.
The central literary factory needs to take it slowly or just drop the whole thing or just leave it, not even changing punctuation. Given the suggestions from the literary factory, the central literary factory needs to just leave the material. The national literary factory needs to know really well it’s audience and the people, as well as the literature, and needs to provide suggestions and support to other literary factories.
The national literary factory is a laboratory that controls the quality. They don’t need to add their own input to these pieces. For their own ideas there is another space called ‘accidental thoughts.’
The material that gets collected by the national literary factory are sent out to the editing department for creative production. Therefore you have got the following:
The experts are by the machines (literary factories)
The factory experts (national literary factories)
Editors (writers, and collectors of materials)
Directors – engineers (critics).
You can also have these units in different regions but these can be less useful for writers since it’s more diverse and the interests of literature are not in line with the interested of economics.
Honorarium should be the following:
50% – the writer
5% – critic
5% – national literary factories
40% – literary factories, for each piece published by this unit. The pieces are published under the writer’s name and with the insignia of the literary factory.
There are going to say that this is too hierarchical and bureaucratic. It is not true. This isn’t hierarchy but rather division of labor. This isn’t bureaucracy but rather a real creative volunteer factory for processing these materials.
There shouldn’t be any hurt feelings: all the staff members of literary factories are interested in this financially and morally. Every literary factory can potentially become an expert based on their capacity and energy.
At the moment I work just by myself so I doubt I will achieve the impressive results that would illustrate the advantages of this method.
The most important benefit of the factory is of course the division of labor and the fact that it covers lots of human lives, masses and territories, thousands of eyes.
In any case I will give it a try and illustrate the results of the publishing units.
I would love this experiment to be on a bigger scale that is more applicable to our era.
However we need a lot if qualified people for that.
Maybe then we will get closer to reforming literature (content, style and quality) and this will facilitate the process of collectivization of this field and will eliminate archaic methods of literary work and that will at least bring us closer to a bad factory that produces cars and weaponry.
I would like to kindly ask to write about this and provide feedback on the content rather than finding fault.
‘Factory of Literature’ is translated Anna Kalashyan from Oktyabr, No. 10, 1991, pp 195-202. Initially, the piece was supposed to be published by Oktyabr in 1926 but it was returned to the writer, and he ended up publishing it in the journal of Peasant Youth.
6 thoughts on “Andrey Platonov’s Factory of Literature, Uncreative Writing and the Networked Book”
The reference to ‘Leyland’ as far as we could determine, is to the fleet of buses built by the Leyland company of England that were acquired by the Soviet Union in the 1920s.
Has this translation been published anywhere else?