The Writers Are Disappearing, But Is That Bad?

I was recently sitting in the restaurant of the Central House of Writers in Moscow. I hadn't been there in probably three or four years, and I didn't recognize the place. It used to be crammed with writers. And now -- it was empty. It was Sunday. I was meeting with a film director from St. Petersburg. We sat for four hours, and no one else came in. We were the sole visitors, joined only by a pianist who sat at his piano, playing the blues.

The waiters were bored, yawning as they stood against the wall. A sleek cat strolled about.

And I thought for the hundredth time: There are no writers left in Moscow. They disappeared along with the demise of the Soviet Union.

Is this good or bad?

Before the putsch of August 1991, there were around 3,000 members of the Soviet Writers' Union in Moscow and over 9,000 writers nationwide. Becoming a member of the Writers' Union was the fondest wish of any writer, but actually doing this was as difficult as a camel's squeezing through the eye of a needle. I tried to get in for seven years, going through the maddening system of selections, recommendations, criticism of my work. But it was worth it. When you became an official writer, you entered paradise; until the end of your life, you received a guaranteed piece of white bread with butter and a fat piece of ham on top.

The system of privileges for writers was unheard of in our indigent society: On the royalties from a scrawny book that no one bought and no one read, a writer could live comfortably for about two years. Top Union writers had wealth in the millions -- that is no exaggeration. Writers favored by the party kept a servant, chef, chauffeur, secretary and gardener at the dacha. They received gratis, for life, use of two-story dachas and beautiful apartments. For the rest of the writers, the privileges were also generous: an exclusive hospital with no lines, where you were met at the entrance by a pretty young woman who led you herself to the doctor's office.

And the writers' club! And the inexpensive restaurant, where it was impossible to get in without a reservation! And the writers' sanatoriums, where a writer could stay in a spacious room and write a novel about the working class or poetry about sunny weather while lolling on the couch. Poetry about bad weather and novels about prostitutes -- the atmosphere at the time wasn't conducive to writing about those. Socialist realism reigned.

There were special coupons for obtaining scarce items (automobiles, refrigerators, televisions) and a special store with French chicken, Moroccan oranges, Finnish cheese for half price.

Oh, it was a sweet deal, being a Soviet writer! The main thing was to eat your pineapple, sip your champagne, refrain from criticizing the authorities.

And what came of this absurdity? Only this: Our writers didn't know how to write. When I published my first book in Moscow, I argued with the editor over every line he wanted to change; I fought for every word. The editor said to me in surprise, "Tolya! You're an exception. Writers never argue with their editors. They don't know how to write; I myself rewrite whole chapters out of these fluffy novels and hear only 'thank you' from the writers."

The writer's role of prophet, of judge, had turned into the role of sponger.

Of those 9,000 writers, there were real writers, of course, whose talent and honesty were undeniable, but they were few and far between: Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky, Maximov, Galich.

The craziest part of this absurdity was that the Soviet writer existed independent of the reader. He was paid not for the quantity of copies sold, but for the quantity of pages written. The writer was insured against creative failure, against fate.

And then everything collapsed. As soon as the government stopped artificially supporting the Union, the house of cards crumbled in a heap.

So what are writers doing today?

The publishing houses have closed down. Writers no longer receive royalties for books readers don't want. The famous restaurant is deserted. The waiters are bored. The clinic's doctors charge fees.

At one time, the single Union fragmented into several dwarf unions, now bickering over what remains of the Union's property, over the sanatoriums, the dachas, the mansions in the Crimea, the Baltics, on the Black Sea shore. The state has decided -- while the writers try to sort it out themselves -- to take control of the property under the State Property Committee.

What are my writer friends doing? One sells ice cream. Another rents out his apartment while he lives outside of town in a hovel. A third left for Germany, where he lives on public assistance. A fourth flies once a month to Turkey and brings to Moscow clothes to sell at the bazaar. Not one of them writes books anymore; all are embittered, irritated, ill.

How do I survive? It's tough, but I continue to exist professionally -- that is, living off of royalties from what I write. There are only a few of us left. Now everything has changed -- they've got to want to read you, they've got to buy your books. The writer once again depends on his talent, on his creative success, on the luck of the draw. Though this is bitter, frightening, sickening, it is nevertheless fair.

Who would claim that serious writers in the West can live off of their royalties? By even a modest estimate, I can barely name 10 people. In America, I can only think of J.D. Salinger, Saul Bellow, Arthur Miller ... .

The same fate awaits us, too. There can't be a lot of writers; in fact, there always were and always will be few. A writer is a singular commodity and a genius -- a rarity. A writer is not supposed to be rich or healthy -- he's a lone bird, flying over the sea in the fog of life, and only God observes his flight.

I recently stopped by a book counter on Novy Arbat and leafed through the books, talking with a young salesman. Demand reigns, the market is king, he said. You get all you want of thrillers, mysteries, prostitutes' ramblings, murderers' adventures. The kings of the book counters are writers no one has heard of: Dotsenko, Gursky, Abdullayev. They sell books by the hundreds of thousands. And they write quickly, a few novels a year.

Is this good or bad?

I think it's natural. This is the reaction of our readers to decades of boring socialist realism. Now there is a healthy competition, the competition of horses at the track, not the competition of sick spiders in a jar. But does all this hinder the success of serious literature? The salesman thinks not. Readers still buy Nabokov's masterpieces, Pasternak's wondrous poetry, Bulgakov's brilliant novels. Great literature will always find a market.

Writers, you should write masterpieces. And if you don't, you're not a real writer. And if you do, there will be very few of you, because a masterpiece is always the lone bird flying above the sea.

Anatoly Korolyov is a writer whose most recent novel, "Eron," will appear in French translation this fall. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.