Why do writers write?

by Lev Tsitrin

Leo Tolstoy

Somehow, the recent NER post,Sally Rooney refuses to allow new novel to be published in Hebrew over views on Israeli-Palestinian conflict”  left a nagging feeling in my mind that there was more to it than just a display of wilful ignorance that is rooted in antisemitism. While I can understand why one would want to restrict adversary’s access to information or materiel that could shore up its military, the desire of an author to not be read by someone she detests strikes me as odd. There are many reasons to write, but to write so as not to be read? To me at least, that’s something utterly new.

The explanation “that Rooney supports the cultural boycott movement on Israel and therefore does not approve translation into Hebrew” implied that she writes to contribute to culture — a reason for writing which I never encountered before.

What I did see, was people writing because they needed to share their thoughts — share them at least with a piece of paper. This is why people keep diaries — to have a companion to talk to. After my father passed away and I had to clean up his apartment, I found a bunch of little notebooks filled with his tiny Russian handwriting: the diary he kept when we lived in the Soviet Union, in the late sixties and seventies. It was a poignant, sad read: I never realized how utterly lonely he was. The diary was the only venue for him to express his thoughts — thoughts on Soviet antisemitism (what especially roiled him was avoidance of any mention of Jewish names when commemorating war-time heroism or scientific achievement — in the lists of people who distinguished themselves, Jewish-sounding first names and patronymics were simply dropped and replaced by the initials, while the ethnic Russian names were fully spelled out; as to the word “Jew”, it was simply non-existent in the public vocabulary); thoughts on his job, on his managers and on his utter disinterest in what he did to earn the living; thoughts on his emotional relationship with my Mom, toward whom he acted in a truly knightly, devoted manner, and was constantly wounded by her domineering temper that left his deep devotion to her unnoticed. Talking about politics instead of committing one’s guarded thoughts on this dangerous subject to the private diary, even if he was talking at a dinner table, was very risky, too. As the Yiddish saying I frequently heard when growing up had it, “what the grown-ups chew, the kids spit out” — as a kid, I would  not have understood what can, and what cannot be said in school or to the friends and would have exposed my parents to huge trouble by repeating what was said in the seeming privacy of the home. So I think he kept a diary simply to be able to have at least some venue for expressing his feelings and thoughts.   

And that is, I think, what motivates any writer — the need to release the accumulation of pent-up thoughts. John Milton, who was totally blind by the time he composed his great epics, would wake up every morning with a dozen lines of verse sitting in his head, and kept asking “to be milked” until an amanuensis, or another literate visitor, would put down the lines on paper. To not “be milked,” to not share, to enjoy the verse in proud solitude, was to let that verse go to waste. It was simply unthinkable. Sure, Milton talked of “though few but fit” for whom he wrote — but he had no desire to artificially limit his readership to the “few.” That those “fit” to understand him were “few” in number was an unfortunate fact of life, not the proud indicator that he, Milton, was so much more “cultured” (as Ms. Rooney apparently imagines she is).

The varieties of the Soviet experience (to borrow a phrase from William James) offers instances of writers seemingly writing just for the sake of writing — but invariably, such was not the case. Michail Bulgakov’s masterpiece, “Master and Margarita” — a social satire whose plot line revolves around Satan’s brief visit to the post-revolutionary Moscow, which in addition to being a thriller, offered deep insights into faith in conflict with statecraft, into love struggling with the death, into mediocrity triumphing over genius, into the very meaning of life (and which eventually, when its abridged version was published during Khrushchev’s “thaw,” had a cult following) was written in the darkest years of Stalin’s rule without any hope of it ever getting published. Like so many other good books of the time, it was written “into the drawer,” as the Soviets put it. Why did Bulgakov care to write what he was sure no one would ever read? Apparently, he simply had to. He had no choice. The book possessed him. It was not a calculated contribution to “culture,” it was not a commercial venture — it was simply something he had to do, perhaps in the irrational hope that his book would eventually find a reader, in the hope that “manuscripts do not perish,” as his Satan put it in the novel. 

Another great Soviet writer Victor Nekrasov, exiled to Paris by the Soviet regime in mid-seventies, lamented that while he could now write anything he wanted, he had no access to his reader, who was left in the Soviet Union. Clearly, he was not content with just contributing to “culture;” he wanted to not only speak, but to be heard, too. The wider the readership circle, the better; he welcomed translations of his books into any language.

Great writers hardly thought of “culture” when they wrote; they simply needed to express what they had to say. They wrote because they had to; they wrote because they wanted as many people as possible to read what they had to say. And, without meaning to, they all contributed to culture. Those who ostentatiously wear culture on their sleeve seldom contribute to it — or for that matter, understand it. Adolf Hitler painted in watercolors, patronized painters and collected art; he religiously attended grand concerts featuring music by great composers like Beethoven or Wagner that was directed by great conductors like Herbert von Karajan. Was Hitler a cultured person, for all his much-publicized display of culture? I don’t think so. Even if he diligently read Ms. Rooney’s books (her subject matter, “teenage angst as they discover love and sex” likely being his cup of tea, by the way), he wouldn’t be. 

Simply put, Ms. Rooney’s desire to keep her books away from the Hebrew-reading audience, limiting it, so to speak, to the Aryans of thought — to those uncontaminated by sympathy towards Israel and Zionism, makes me suspect that whatever she wrote, was not written from the heart, and so it does not contribute to literature, or to culture.There is plenty of commercially-produced fiction whose only function is to turn dead trees into cash for the book publisher. The bulk of what is passed for literature is of that nature — an unabashedly commercial product that helps a reader kill the time, while making one neither better nor wiser in the process. If Israelis are familiar, through Hebrew translations, with Shakespeare and Milton, with Melville and Mark Twain, the efforts by Ms. Rooney to keep them in cultural darkness through withdrawal of her literary productions is vain. She might as well go to the beach and ladle out the Irish sea in the hope that Mediterranean will recede, leaving Israel without beaches, and Israelis without places to swim and enjoy beach volleyball.

Hardly anyone who actually contributed to culture did so because they deliberately tried to contribute to it. Hardly anyone who contributed to culture was a bigot.  Hardly anyone who contributed to culture tried to wall it off from the “other.” Genuine artists will never follow in the footsteps of Ms. Rooney. Her attempts to keep Israelis uncultured will fail — as will her highfalutin, self-serving, and self-congratulatory attempts to contribute to culture.


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