In Koba The Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million (Vintage International, New York, 2002, pp. 230), Martin Amis writes (on Maxim Gorky‘s relationship with Stalin and his death following his return from exile in Sorrento to a period of ‘recantation’ and self-debasement):
Writers were pushed, sometimes physically, sometimes spiritually, into all kinds of unfamiliar shapes by the Bolsheviks….Some more or less genuine writers tried to work ‘toward’ the Bolsheviks. Their success depended inversely on the size of their talent. Talentless writers could flatter the regime. Talented writers could not flatter the regime, or not for long….In general, writers never find out how strong their talent is: that investigation begins with their obituaries. In the USSR, writers found how good they were when they were still alive. If the talent was strong, only luck or the silence could save them. If the talent was weak, they could compromise and survive. Thus, for the writers, the Bolsheviks wielded promethean power; they summoned posterity and inserted it into the here and now.
Amis’ description of the writer’s fate is romantic and optimistic in suggesting that a postmortem investigation into their lives and talents-by their erstwhile ‘audience’–is ever undertaken. Au contraire, sadly enough, even death does not rescue the writer from obscurity, it does not find the writer the readers he did not have while living. A great deal changes when a life comes to an end, but a writer’s anonymity endures. The few exceptions to this rule give us no reason to imagine that the stony silence which was the norm in a writer’s life will change to a clamoring reception in the graveyard; they merely highlight the fate of most.
This fact makes the possibility of an environment like the one Amis makes note of even more intriguing. It emits a reception so acute that it provides to the writer the most immediate, powerful feedback of all; it summons up the writer’s ultimate fate and makes it proximal. The proof of the writer’s talent lies in his ability to provoke a response, which such an environment provides: a gratifying confirmation–even if at some cost–that most other writers pine for. In such circumstances anonymity is precious, in ensuring the continuance of one’s life but it is also damning: every second of this stretched out existence is a perpetuation of a tale told by this world about your incompetence, your lack of talent, your inability to provoke a reprisal of any kind. Stick your neck out: this fame is the axe that does not fall. Imprisonment for the writer in such circumstances cannot be ‘enough’; he must be forced to stop writing, by death, or by solitary confinement. The restriction must be total; the freedom to be taken away must be the one that matters, movement of the mind, and not just the body, must come to an utter halt.
Here then, lies the most vivid confirmation of a writer’s greatness in his art: the enforced demand that it cease and desist.