Literary Sketch

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Sketch, Literary


(ocherk,) one of the varieties of a minor form of epic literature, the novella, differing from another form —the short story—in its lack of a single, sharp, quickly resolved conflict and in a greater development of descriptive material. Both of these distinctive features of the sketch stem from the characteristics of the problems with which it is concerned. The literary sketch does not deal with the problem of molding the character of a personality in conflict with an inimical social environment—a matter that is essential to the short story, as well as the novel. Rather, it focuses on the problem of the civic and moral state of the “environment” (usually embodied in several personalities)—that is, it deals with the problems associated with slice-of-life literature. Thus, the sketch has a greater degree of cognitive diversity than the short story or novel. It usually combines the characteristics of belles lettres and journalism.

The sketch may be strictly artistic, presenting a creative typification of characters, in conformity with the slice-of-life approach. Examples of artistic sketches include I. S. Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches, which depict serf mores in the countryside; M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin’s sketches, which satirically expose the decadent mores of the gentry and bureaucrats; and sketches by K. G. Paustovskii, M. M. Prishvin, and E. Ia. Dorosh, which portray the social and ethnic features of life in various parts of Russia.

The sketch may also be primarily journalistic, expressing a topical interest in a particular condition or in developmental trends in social life, and reproducing the actual, typical traits of social life and often significant individual facts as well, but without emotionally transforming them and sharpening them (that is, without contrivance). Sketches of this kind frequently contain the general opinions of the author or of the heroes, who analyze and evaluate what is being described. Examples of the journalistic sketch include G. I. Uspenskii’s cycles of sketches The Peasant and Peasant Toil and The Power of the Soil, which depict and condemn the disintegration of the village from a Narodnik (Populist) point of view; and V. V. Ovechkin’s Raion Workdays, which elucidates the controversial issues in kolkhoz life during the difficult postwar decade.

In addition, there are purely documentary sketches, which reproduce actual facts and phenomena with an extreme accuracy and which often include a direct journalistic interpretation or evaluation by the author-narrator (for example, P. N. Rebrin’s Pages From Tiukalinsk). Such sketches are usually considered a genre of journalism. Some scholars regard only documentary sketches as true examples of the sketch, the specific criterion of which is, according to them, a documentary quality.

In terms of composition, sketches are highly diverse. They may consist of episodes depicting meetings, conversations, and the relationships between characters—descriptions connected only by an external, causal-temporal sequence. They may also be made up of descriptions of or opinions concerning conditions and circumstances in society and nature. To unify such diverse components, it is important that the author have an actively generalizing idea and that his language be expressive and colorful. A major role may be played by the introduction of a narrator, who conveys his observations and impressions, describing meetings and conversations with the principal heroes.

In the history of national literatures, the sketch flourishes as a form of creative work when the interest in slice-of-life genres increases sharply, in connection with a crisis in social relations or with the emergence of a new social structure. Thus, for example, in Great Britain during the first half of the 18th century, when the ruling strata became morally bankrupt, the satirical journals of R. Steele and J. Addison printed socially critical sketches of characters and scenes from everyday life. An analogous phenomenon emerged in Russia at the end of the 1760’s, when satirical journals (including N. I. Novikov’s Truten’ and Zhivopisets) were first published, exposing in literary sketches the vices of the landlords and officials under the conditions of an incipient crisis in the old order. By the 1840’s, when the crisis had grown deeper, progressive public opinion sharply posed the question of the condition of Russian society—the moral degradation of the upper classes and the oppression of the lower classes. During this decade both the belletristic and the belletristic-journalistic sketches became leading genres. In fact, the terms for these literary forms originated at this time. N. A. Nekrasov and V. G. Belinskii published three collections of “physiological” sketches by members of the “natural school” (that is, works studying the “physiology,” or inner processes, of public life).

Until the 1880’s, all democratic writers considered the sketch an attractive literary form. From the standpoint of composition, even Saltykov-Shchedrin’s satirical “surveys” and Nekrasov’s peasant narrative poems are made up of parts of sketches unified by the sociopolitical, slice-of-life problems treated in them. Later, all democratic writers followed the lead of V. G. Korolenko and Gorky in paying great tribute to the sketch as a literary genre.

In Soviet literature and journalism the sketch is an extremely popular genre inspired by continuous change, as well as renewal, in society, the economy, law, and everyday life. Soviet writers, who have developed various content and compositional forms of the sketch, particularly the journalistic ones, have in their best works perfected the basic cognitive function of the sketch: a strong interest in research, in investigating problems, and in exploring life. Examples of the sketch in Soviet literature include V. F. Tendriakov’s A Difficult Character, G. G. Radov’s Deinega Remains... Sketches of Village Life, V. M. Peskov’s Steps Through the Dew, F. A. Abramov’s Beating Around the Bush, and E. A. Dorosh’s Rural Diary.


Belinskii, V. G. “Vstuplenie k ‘Fiziologii Peterburga.’” Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 8. Moscow, 1955.
Agapov, B. “Uroki Gor’kogo.” In God tridtsat’ vos’moi: Al’manakh, no. 19, book 1. Moscow, 1955.
Zhurbina, E. Iskusstvo ocherka. Moscow, 1957.
Kantorovich. V. Zametkipisatelia osovremennom ocherke, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1973.
Shcheglov, M. “Ocherk i ego osobennosti.” In the collection Literaturno-kriticheskie stat’i. Moscow, 1965.
Glushkov, N. I. Ocherk ν russkoi literature. Rostov-on-Don, 1966.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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