I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Writers United

Alena Dvořáková

Unionisation is usually seen as meaningful primarily in those sectors of the economy where a great number of relatively powerless employees work for the same all-powerful employer – it is a way of righting an imbalance of power between capital and labour (or institution and labour), whether in the marketplace (the private sector) or in the public sector. But would unionisation be something desirable in the case of writers of the literary kind – as opposed to, say, journalists? Should novelists, dramatists and poets, who often struggle to make even a basic living selling the results of their labour in the marketplace, also be viewed as mass workers putting out a national “product” – who, even if not employed by a single employer directly, are really working for all of us? Wouldn’t the world be much better, individually and collectively, if writers could just unite and speak and bargain not in a cacophony of hundreds of individual voices but with one voice expressive of their collective power? But who is going to step in as the “employer” of this kind of “collective”?

That literary writers are workers of some kind, of that there can hardly be any doubt – they sometimes suggest this themselves, metaphorically, as when Seamus Heaney (in “Digging”) draws the analogy between digging with a spade and writing with a pen. Never mind that no potatoes are ever going to grow out of his kind of digging – perhaps the end result of his literary labours is equally, if not more, valuable for the society at large. Is it indeed possible that some writers are special – still workers, of course, but of a kind more precious as well as more vulnerable in the marketplace, who therefore deserve even greater recognition and protection than other, more ordinary workers? Should the state therefore step in as a kind of employer of last instance? How radical should this state support be?

In most European countries (including Ireland and the Czech Republic), the state already partly fulfils this role: it offers writers various bursaries, fellowships and grants, either directly (a major source of this kind of funding in the Czech Republic is the Ministry of Culture) or via an array of programmes and not-for-profit organisations (such as Literature Ireland, Ireland Literature Exchange and the Irish Writers’ Centre) – in Ireland, these would typically be funded, fully or partly, by the Arts Council. This support may occasionally be substantial and is always much appreciated by its recipients, as I can attest from first-hand experience – as a translator of Irish fiction into Czech I have benefited from funds provided by both Literature Ireland and Ireland Literature Exchange as well as the Czech Ministry of Culture and the Czech Literary Funds Foundation. (Inter-country comparisons of such support are notoriously difficult to make as the relevant budgets are not always structured in the same way. But for rough, illustrative purposes: the 2022 Arts Council of Ireland’s grant from the Irish Exchequer is €130 million; the corresponding chapter of the Czech Ministry of Culture budget for 2021 (the last fully available breakdown of expenditure to date, with the approved 2022 budget largely comparable on the expenditure side) represents the Czech crown equivalent of approximately €100 million, in a country with twice the population of Ireland – with only about €4.6 million euros of that going to “Libraries and Literature”, of which only about €1.3 million euros were actually spent on grants to Czech writers and on translations of Czech literature). But it should also be noted that this kind of financial support, at whatever level, tends to be highly conditional, provided to individual writers and translators (or writers/translators applying jointly with publishers) for particular, clearly delimited projects that have to be approved in advance, and remains subject to their successful completion.

Should the state step in much more broadly in its recognition of writers as (unionised) workers on the polity’s behalf? It could, for example, go much further and set up a generously funded state-owned publishing house that could afford (and guarantee) to publish selected writers in hundreds of thousands of copies; it could organise nationwide literary competitions with generous awards for young and upcoming writers and set up a state-funded school programme of writers’ visits; and, last but not least, it could establish a network of state-funded retreats for published writers in order to provide them with the required space and peace of mind to create (this regardless of whether they have a particular project in mind). Ultimately, the state could recognise literary writers collectively, as a special kind of labourer, and reward them for being writers by paying them a basic income – as opposed to supporting them piecemeal for the works they promise (and are bound to) to write and/or publish, not to mention sell in the marketplace.

It is good to know that this experiment, however strange it might sound to contemporary ears, has actually been tried before. Insofar as one can learn anything from someone else’s inglorious history, the history of writers’ unionisation in the Soviet Union and its satellites may be instructive when it comes to the potential benefits and the even greater pitfalls of state-sanctioned and state-subsidised writers’ unions. The idea that the world needs to be changed for the better (en masse, so to speak), that writers need to be at the forefront of that change and that they need to form a united front to accomplish this world-changing task was very much at the core of this history. In what follows I’m going to look briefly at the situation in the Czech Republic now, tracing its development all the way back to August 1934 when the first, seminal Soviet Writers’ Union assembly gathered in Moscow. My overall aim will be to urge caution as regards the idea of writers’ unionisation, especially if it is taken as something world-changing – as opposed to being a highly sensible but limited means of improving a particular set of working conditions for a particular set of workers.

Two organisations now claim to unite writers and represent them collectively in the Czech Republic – it is telling that neither wishes to use the word “union” in its title, even though that’s what they both are. This fact is easy to explain. From 1949 to 1989, the unionisation of Czech/Czechoslovak writers was tightly linked to the history of communist party rule in Czechoslovakia. Even though more than thirty years have elapsed since its collapse, among writers the word union has retained the undesirable connotations of that era. The supposedly “united front” of Czechoslovak writers in the communist period was in fact deeply and damagingly disunited from the very start, belying the term. Certain groups of writers, among them major Catholic poets, would have been excluded from membership even if they had wanted to join; others who may have been long-term communists and founding members but who gradually began refusing to conform lost their livelihoods as a result and often ended up in exile; those among the non-conformists who stayed were often ostracised, barred from publication, or even ended up in prison. Others, barely tolerated and exhausted by persistent persecution, were readmitted to the fold after performing humiliating rituals of self-criticism. This is the background that one needs to keep in mind in any discussion on the subject.

The older of the two Czech writers’ organisations now active, the Community of the Writers of the Czech Republic (henceforth the Writers’ Community), was founded in December of 1989 as the successor to the state-sponsored Czech Writers’ Union (1972-1989), itself the successor – together with its Slovak counterpart – of the original Czechoslovak Writers’ Union (1949-1970). The Czechoslovak Union was forcibly liquidated after the Soviet invasion of 1968 as part of the suppression of all remaining reformist tendencies among writers and the re-establishing of comprehensive state censorship of all media. The downfall of the Czech Writers’ Union in 1989 was therefore one of the events that signalled the end of the Czechoslovak communist regime.

Its replacement (in effect a legal takeover) by the Writers’ Community was intended partly as an act of justice and restitution, however belated, marking the return of at least some of the dissident writers expelled or excluded from participation in the communist period. Accordingly, the Writers’ Community sees the defence of democracy and the writers’ right to freedom of expression as the main purpose of its existence, dissociating itself from the totalitarian practices of the past (expulsions, censorship, denunciations of non-conforming writers). It also claims there is a kind of underlying continuity that anchors its activity: it sees itself as the heir to both the democratic writers’ organisations in pre-war Czechoslovakia and the reformist wing of the Czechoslovak Writers’ Union active in the 1960s.

The other Czech writers’ collective, The Writers’ Association, was founded as recently as 2014, partly out of dissatisfaction with the “old guard” at the head of the Writers’ Community. In his opening speech at the Association’s first assembly in June 2015, the writer Jan Němec (born 1981) argued for the need to establish a parallel, rival organisation in two different ways. First, he emphasised the radical discontinuity perceived between the past (everything before the Velvet Revolution of 1989) and the present (starting in the 1990s) by the overwhelming majority of writers under forty. This divide (mostly but not completely generational in nature) seemed to him simply unbridgeable: most writers active nowadays would struggle even just to make sense of most of the speeches given at the writers’ union assemblies throughout the communist era, never mind seeing them as relevant to their lives and work. This is an important point that I will come back to: the very language used by the majority of unionised writers during the communist period – with the exception of a handful of poets and writers, inevitably speaking from the margins and soon enough silenced by the people in power – now makes it clear to what extent the communist unions failed to make the world better, certainly regarding the core of any writer’s creativity, that is their use of language.

At the first assembly of the Writers’ Association, Němec went on to argue (with a glance toward Havel’s essay “The Power of the Powerless”) that this discontinuity between the past and the present had come about because the sources of the current writers’ “powerlessness” were completely different. The problem was no longer the writers’ lack of the necessary freedom of expression but something more diffuse. Němec described the relative powerlessness of current Czech writers as follows: first, their voices are drowned out by the incessant clamour of marketing and commercialisation (as the writer Ondřej Horák once put it, “every cheese now comes with a story”); second, the information overload created by the media, including social media, diminishes the role of the writer as a pioneering anthropologist uncovering genuinely new territories and plumbing the unexamined depths of human experience (everything everywhere now gets instantly recorded and re-presented widely, if not worldwide); and, last but not least, current Czech society has become fragmented to such a degree that any writer wishing to write a complex “great novel” will be at a loss trying to imagine who exactly might constitute its readership. No longer writing for the masses in a fairly homogenous society, who do you write for?

This last worry may perhaps seem quaint to writers in English. A similar kind of fragmentation might not hugely matter if you write in a major language, especially one with the potential of attracting readers worldwide (it might, in fact, be something taken for granted). But if you write in a minor language spoken almost exclusively by the population of a relatively small country, such fragmentation does limit your ability to make a living out of your writing, potentially severely. The only Czech writers today earning a reasonable living from their novels either write fairly low-brow stuff or have found readers in translation in much bigger countries, for example in Germany. (I don’t know of any Czech poet who can live off their poetry.)

Němec summed up his argument as follows: “The tight link between political power and literature that determined everything said during the previous [communist] writers’ assemblies, has turned, on the part of literature, into a state of chronic powerlessness.” Hence the purpose of the new Association is to help connect writers in order to empower them – by strengthening their position in negotiations with the Czech Ministry of Culture (on programmes subsidising translation of Czech literature into other languages, on annual grants to literary magazines et cetera), by helping writers secure wider readership through library readings, by supporting the publication of non-commercial literature.

All of these aims are laudable. What is more dubious, however, is the sense of grievance underlying the very notion of the Czech writers’ powerlessness, which seems to be based on a lingering conviction that literature is something very special – and not just another product – and that literary writers are engaged in a more valuable task than other workers. That’s why they should presumably wield some kind of institutionally reinforced, collective power to make themselves heard over the general din of society; that’s why they should be helped to reach “the masses”, rather than be content with small circles of readers. But is such empowerment really a good thing? Isn’t this hankering after greater influence what had originally brought about the tight and mostly pernicious link between political power and literature?

To me there is something problematic about thinking of literary “writerhood” in terms of social, institutionally underpinned empowerment that Němec seems to miss, his aversion to the old writers’ unions notwithstanding. It has to do with the profound difficulty of answering a seemingly simple question. Can we really – and should we want to – tame literary (and artistic) creativity in such a way that its results constitute an unconditional social good? What is it really that even the best literary writers accomplish? What is a writer good for? What kind of workers are writers, what is it that they produce, if not obviously useful things like potatoes? What happens when they unite as a world-changing force to justify their usefulness?

The most instructive part of the history of writers’ unions in the Soviet Union as well as in communist Czechoslovakia has to do with the strenuous and ultimately disastrous attempts to answer these questions once and for all in a way that would firmly secure the role of the writer in a “workers’ society”. In what follows I draw extensively on Michal Bauer’s comprehensive work on the Czech writers’ union movement from the 1930s onward, published in his Souvislosti labyrintu (The Ramifications of the Labyrinth. Codification of the Ideological-Aesthetic Norm in the Czech Literature of the 1950s, Akropolis, Prague 2009) as well as on transcripts of speeches given and/or submitted at various Czech writers’ union assemblies in the period from the 1950s onward (as published by Bauer and others).

According to a famous phrase ascribed to Stalin, writers in the brave new world of socialism were to be “the engineers of human souls”: “We need engineers, who build foundries, we need engineers who build cars, tractors. But no less do we need engineers who construct human souls; you, writers, are engineers constructing human souls.” (I translate from the original Russian quotation given in Bauer. In Russian the verb used throughout is stroit – which can mean to build but also to design, to assemble, to construct, to produce.) This Stalinist idea of writers as producers of new and better designed/constructed human beings was the centrepiece of the opening speech by the main Soviet ideologue Andrei Zhdanov at the first all-Soviet general assembly of writers in Moscow in August of 1934. Importantly, Zhdanov linked the writers’ task (changing the world by redesigning humans, especially the “as yet unformed” youth) to the only correct method of accomplishing the task in literature,  that is socialist realism. This ideologically motivated move – linking a particular idea of what writers as workers should produce with a particular, “correct” way of doing it – may seem arbitrary. And yet history suggests some such move to be inevitable, if one is serious about changing the world in its material aspect and not content to luxuriate in free-floating metaphors the way poets love to do (speaking tongue in cheek). There are laws governing the behaviour of matter and materials – why should humans (as material to be moulded) and writers (as technicians of humanity, using words to hammer out new souls) be any different?

The speeches on socialist realism at the Soviet writers’ assembly (especially those by Zhdanov and Bukharin) were closely followed by the Czech delegates sent to Moscow as well as the press in the then still democratic pre-war Czechoslovakia. The Czech avantgarde circles of artists and writers were mostly left-leaning after all – from Paris-oriented surrealists to Moscow-oriented communists. By the time of the first Czechoslovak writers’ union assembly in January of 1950 (after the Communist takeover in 1948), Zhdanov’s way of linking the social need for engineers of human souls with socialist realism as the only sanctioned mode of literary representation (with its subcategory of “revolutionary romanticism” that demanded the presentation of model, heroic worker characters) became firmly entrenched in the thinking of Czech literary ideologues and union functionaries. Nikolai Bukharin’s more nuanced approach, the favourite among Czechs in the 1930s, had fallen out of favour by then – Stalin had Bukharin executed in 1936 ‑ and Zhdanov later bolstered his position further by leading an orchestrated attack against the Leningrad poets Anna Akhmatova and Mikhail Zoshschenko in 1946.

Having read through the main speeches given at the Czechoslovak writers’ union assemblies of 1950 and 1956 (Stalin died in 1953) and some of the reformist speeches from the 1960s, it is easy to ridicule communist rhetoric with its overblown metaphors, stringent prescriptiveness and aggressive denunciations of non-conforming poets and writers. There is the tendency of communist ideologues to think about all human endeavour not just in terms of building a new world (hence all the engineering and construction analogies) but also in terms of militant (class) struggle and of pernicious illnesses infecting writers, readers and their works that require drastic literary-critical “operations” to restore the body politic to health. Communist writers united in their struggle do not so much write as “fight on the literary front”, aiming to crush the “class enemies” of the people; poetic forms are arms to be wielded in the struggle – “forms of expression are for a poet what a gun is for a soldier – a weapon he cannot do without”. Note that this kind of analogy is not far removed from Heaney’s substitution of the pen, “snug as a gun”, for the spade, it’s just a different kind of “field” one is talking about. Poems are judged by their “feistiness” or their “firmness of struggle” as well as on whether they are on the right side of history (showing a party bias is not a vice in this paradigm but an ideological must). Poets must be “fighters for the new socialist life”, a poet’s development is judged by how thoroughly they have “fought it through” within themselves and subjected themselves to the necessary (party or class) “discipline”. At the same time, poets and poems are also judged on the basis of how “healthy” they are. Incorrect methods of representation (for example ironic detachment, “sneering” scepticism or even such dangerous literary moves as “yielding to surrealism”) are seen as “maladies”, and sometimes highly infectious ones, which require critics to perform sharp “operations” to cure poets from their sentimental “bourgeois hangovers” etc.

It is precisely the institutional framework underpinning communist writers’ activities, the very source of their empowerment, that adds an ominous dimension to this kind of literary-critical judgment. A seemingly innocuous couple of sentences – “Loving the truth means being willing to fight. Jaroslav Seifert is not and was not a fighter.” (quoted by Bauer) – could turn into a “judgment” of the institutional, quasi-judicial type. In the worst case scenario, this could take the form of expulsion from the writers’ union (“he who is not with us is against us”), a publication ban (this is what ultimately happened in the 1970s to the insufficiently conforming Seifert, the only Czech poet to be awarded the Nobel Prize) and sometimes could even lead to a prison sentence if a critical interrogation of the text turned into an interrogation of its author by the secret police (as happened to Jiří Kolář and others). The communist state was particularly lethal in the way it “empowered” reading by literalising metaphors, for example by turning a (book) sentence into a (prison) sentence. But isn’t some such slippage of categories bound to happen, even if in a softer form, whenever writers rely for their empowerment on the institutional apparatus of the state?

The other important thing to note is this. At the bottom of all the militant and occasionally hateful metaphorising and literalising by communist ideologues nevertheless lies an attempt to create an image of the writer/artist as someone engaged in an activity that is indubitably good and socially useful in the highest degree – not just for the individuals involved but for some larger collective, from society envisioned as a mass of readers to the entire liberated humankind “victorious in its struggle”. Occasionally, there are striking illustrations of what kind of values are at stake here, in what way writing is to be made commensurable with other, more obviously, more tangibly valuable human activities. In one speech, for example, it is argued that Lenin, apparently in spite of his dislike of opera, let opera singers be paid the same during the civil war as workers producing hand grenades for the war front; in another argument, a critic expresses outrage at the fact that precious paper, produced by the hands of our workers, could be covered with such “outpourings” (the critic was referring to obscene verses by a “dynamoarchist” poet).

Something more universal seems to be at stake here: namely, the deeply uncertain nature and value of all creativity – of its obscure sources as well as its uncertain, unguaranteeble effects – which makes any dogmatic insistence on the communal, social, “mass” value of literature and art into a highly dubious, if not dangerous proposition. This remains a problem throughout the communist era in spite of all the unwavering rhetoric about highly skilled engineers and about human souls likened to machinery. And it still remains a problem today.

Whenever writers demand more societal recognition and power, they will be asked, directly or indirectly, to “justify their existence”. If they claim they can change the world for the better, there seems to be an underlying assumption that they also need to be able to do it en masse, to affect “the masses” for good. Writing for a few just won’t do (this is a repeated refrain throughout the communist era, but it is also something that is implicit in Němec’s complaint about contemporary Czech writers’ powerlessness, the fragmentary nature of their readership). This is, for example, how it was put by one Czech writer and ideologue in 1950, in a way that reveals the circularity of this kind of reasoning: “[…] in today’s society, poetry must carefully look to justify its existence. If it is not to become just a kind of greenhouse flower grown solely for other poets and two or three of their close acquaintances [which is how most Czech poetry survives today], if it is to be poetry which really steers and overpowers masses, then we also face the question of its very existence” (Bauer).

How does this justifying of one’s existence work in practice? Social and institutional empowerment of writers has a price, and its price is obligatory goodness or rather what passes for goodness (usefulness) “for all of us” in a certain place at a certain time, depending on the political regime in power and the prevailing culture. Unlike in communist societies, writers desiring greater recognition and financial support in a capitalist society, and unionising to achieve this, might not have to “fight it through” on the “literary front” with their metrically polished “weapons” while standing firmly on the side of the people, heroically engaged in their historically grounded class struggle. But they will have to “deliver the goods” in other ways. Not only might their poetry or fiction have to be redescribed in the form of all sorts of “measurable outcomes”, “demonstrable outputs” or “impact”. Their empowerment might also require a widespread monitoring of their language, style, even the contents of their writing – beyond what already happens in the marketplace now, in publishing and social media. Is there the required diversity of characters in the story? Does the writer draw authentically on their own lived experience or is someone else’s lived experience being culturally appropriated in an undesirable way? (Never mind that these two requirements actually go against each other; never mind that all literary translation is cultural appropriation by definition.) Are the politically correct racial adjectives and gender pronouns used throughout and if not, who is to blame? Is this suitable reading for our public libraries/nursing homes? And, last but not least, the killer demand: could one use this as the basis for an exam question on the Leaving Cert? The concomitant critical interventions would of course be fully and articulately justified, serving to ensure that all literary works “do the work” we want them to do ‑ whoever “we” are ‑ in exchange for “our” support.

It is no wonder, certainly to anyone familiar with the history of communist writers’ unions that whatever does not fit the prevailing idea of the value/usefulness of literature will have to be marginalised or even excluded (if not by direct censorship then by self-censorship backed up by social pressure). The erring writers will of course have to re-educate themselves. They will also have to show willingness to submit to several rounds of apology for their dire lapses of judgment, followed by a session of earnest self-criticism to make sure their contrition is sincere – or, as a communist critic would put it, that “they actually identify with the people and the working class in the deepest, innermost depths of their being” (Bauer). Perhaps the culprits will be able to console themselves with the thought that not even a writer of Bohumil Hrabal’s stature was able to escape such carefully orchestrated humiliations. And if they refuse, their access to publication will understandably have to be restricted. Let’s hope that re-education sessions in camp settings in quiet corners of the countryside won’t at some point become necessary as well.

Bauer describes one of the more comical moments in the history of the communist Czechoslovak Writers’ Union which concerned the tentative return of “modernism” as an admissible style of writing as well as a topic of critical discussion in the 1960s. Whereas in the 1950s “modernist tendencies” would have been a typical example of “bourgeois decadence” and undesirable “cosmopolitanism”, to be resolutely denounced, in the subsequent decade writers like Marcel Proust, James Joyce and Franz Kafka became mentionable again in official gatherings, such as the 1965 symposium on The Sources of Modern Prose in Prague, if only as a negative example: “not even a socialist writer will be able to get on without learning from Joyce, even though he will disagree with Joyce on many things and will derive a lot from his work solely by way of negation”. One of the Czech translators of Joyce’s Ulysses was present at the symposium, and (perhaps unable to stand it any longer) made it clear that both English and Czech copies of Ulysses in the National Library were on the index and couldn’t be borrowed at all – which meant that most people present were talking about Joyce without having been able to read his novel (Bauer). But did Ulysses fare much better in Ireland before the 1960s? It took decades before Joyce could be transubstantiated from a morally dubious, intellectually pretentious, cosmopolitan exile into a truly Irish icon and a prime marketing brand. (For that matter, would the Irish citizens and taxpayers of the 1960s have been happy to pay basic income to John McGahern for his novel The Dark?) For certain powerful works of literature, it may take decades before “we” (whether in communist Czechoslovakia or in Catholic Ireland) are able to catch up with their way of seeing the world and fully acknowledge their value. The most one can say on that score is that the world has in the course of time changed in such a way as to retrospectively justify the work … but if one were demanding that the writer change the world, wouldn’t one have to blame Joyce or McGahern for failing to change the world faster? How long should one have to wait before the literary work justifies itself – not to mention pays for itself?

In retrospect, the history of the unionisation of Czechoslovak writers reads like a struggle between all those leftist surrealists, existentialists and other modernist “decadents” looking toward Paris (Baudelaire, Apollinaire, Proust, Breton, Gide) on one hand, and on the other hand, the post-1948 communists looking toward Moscow (Lenin, Stalin, Zhdanov, Gorky, Mayakovsky). “Not Paris, but Moscow” ran the slogan coined by the model poet of the communist side, S. K. Neumann – and from 1948 onwards, for most of the following forty years of Czechoslovak/Czech history, the Moscow engineers in the writers’ unions kept winning the fight and ruling it over the Paris dreamers. The communists took to arguing that the “decadents”, however working class by origin or left-leaning by inclination, were in the end incapable of shaking off their “rotten petit-bourgeois individualism”. But in fact these “individualists” did socialise keenly in small, ever changing literary groups, they met up in cafés and pubs and clubs for readings and discussion, they pooled funds to support poverty-stricken friends as well as struggling literary journals, and later supported each other in more surreptitious ways. However obscene their surreal dreams and nightly adventures, however tortured their dark existentialist visions of humanity, the one thing they proved to be mostly immune to was (with a few exceptions) the communist delusion of becoming the state-certified engineers of human souls on a mass scale in order to justify their writerly existence. As František Halas (1901-1949), one of the greats among twentieth century Czech poets and himself a dedicated communist, put it: what one most desires as a poet, is “to write such truth about oneself that even the paper will resist it”. It is not by accident that Halas’s poetry was repeatedly singled out by powerful communist ideologues as an example of how socialist poetry was not to be done.

Looking back and asking which of the two sides created the more enduring and powerful literary works, there is almost no contest. From a literary perspective, it is the powerless dreamers who were prophetic, whose ways of naming reality and picturing human experience live on – as opposed to the shrill yet mind-numbingly dull and now barely comprehensible jargon of institutionalised communist rhetoric. The disunited poets and writers – who at best struggled to conform and at worst fell by the wayside, incapable of wholeheartedly joining “the struggle” – did not change the world according to plan. But in time the world, changed so drastically by the communist engineers of human souls, changed again and justified their fantasies.

One can understand how appealing the idea of institutional backing and guaranteed income may be for artists and imaginative writers whose works do not have sufficient mass appeal (not yet and maybe never) and who therefore either cannot make a living in the marketplace or barely scrape by (and in that number I include myself as a literary translator). And yet the more empowerment a union may get you as a writer (especially if it draws heavily on the state and its institutions), the more of a trap it might prove to be. If it is creative freedom and literary power you desire, then loose associations rather than unions, small cliques of similarly minded authors in cafés, bars and various “ivory cellars” (as one communist critic, quoted by Bauer, pejoratively put it) – together with long nights of powerless dreaming, constant money worries and a handful of “filthy books” – may be the better way to go. At least you won’t have to worry about whether in the eyes of the workers handling the books (or in the eyes of the taxpayer footing the bill), the writing isn’t desecrating the precious paper it is printed on.


Alena Dvořáková is a translator and literary critic from Prague, now based in Dublin. She has translated a number of acclaimed works of literary fiction from English into Czech, including Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane and Beatlebone, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled and Klara and the Sun, and most recently Don DeLillo’s The Silence. She regularly publishes reviews and essays in the Czech literary review Souvislosti (www.souvislosti.cz).



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