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Aspiring writers are generally regarded as one of nature’s lower life forms, especially by established writers, most of whom seem to wonder whether the taxonomist who placed aspiring writers in phylum Chordata wasn’t perhaps claiming too much for them. From where they’re sitting, that’s an understandable view. Most aspiring writers are essentially symbiotic creatures whose interactions with the megafauna are of net benefit to the ecosystem, but there are some cases where the relationship looks more like parasite and host.

Still, I would not wish the following interaction on the lowest nematode worm. The boy in this story was granted an audience with Dostoevsky through the intervention of his father, a friend of Dostoevsky’s who wanted an expert opinion on whether his son had any literary talent. The boy, Dmitry Merezhkovsky, recalled the scene in his memoirs:

I remember the diminutive apartment in Kuznechny Alley with its low ceiling and cramped living room, piled with copies of The Brothers Karamazov , and the study, almost as narrow, in which Feodor Mikhailovich sat over galleys. Blushing, turning pale, stuttering, I read my childish, paltry verses. He listened silently, with impatient annoyance. We must have been disturbing him. “Weak, bad, worth nothing,” he said at last. “In order to write well, one must suffer, suffer!”

“No,” said my father, “let him not write any better, only let him not suffer.” I recall the pellucid and penetrating look of the pale blue eyes when Dostoevsky shook my hand. I never saw him again, and then very shortly learned that he had died.

Anton Chekhov was also approached by many aspiring writers, but unlike Dostoevsky, he always did his best to encourage them. If a manuscript showed the slightest bit of talent, he would write back with specific advice. This anecdote, from Memories of Chekhov, tells of one time his capacity for encouragement failed him, though his politeness did not. The narrator is a theatre director who put on some of Chekhov’s plays:

We had a stage worker N. who pretended that he was a leading actor of the Moscow Art Theatre. He also pretended that he was a great novelist. One day he asked me to give his manuscript to Chekhov for his opinion. I could not reject him, and so passed on the manuscript to Chekhov. A few days later, Chekhov returned the manuscript to me and said, “That novel by N.! Please, tell him that he should never write anything ever again.” Chekhov thought for a little while, and then asked me, “Please tell me, is this N. a woman, by any chance?”

“Why are you asking me this, Anton Pavlovich?”

“Women are hard working, and they can achieve anything with lots of work.”

“No, he is not a woman,” I replied.

“Then please tell him never ever to write anything else in the future.” Anton Pavlovich was right. When I read that lengthy manuscript by N., I was ashamed that I had passed it to Anton Pavlovich to read—it was complete nonsense.

Merezhkovsky later become a celebrated critic, and the delusional stagehand N. was never heard from again. But this should not be taken as proof of the superiority of Dostoevsky’s method over Chekhov’s.

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