two kinds of work

Almost forty years ago now, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote to a New York Times reporter to respond to critiques of his work and himself, most revolving around accusations of antisemitism. The whole article is interesting, but I am especially fascinated by the last sentence quotes from his letters:

My task is to write true historical research on the Russian Revolution, beyond that it’s not so important to me whether my books are accepted precisely in this decade and precisely in this country. 

Solzhenitsyn not only said this but, I think, truly believed it. He possessed a serene confidence that sooner or later his work would be recognized as both great and necessary, and if that recognition happened to come later rather than sooner — perhaps even long after this death — he didn’t mind. 

This strikes me as something that every writer ought to know about himself or herself: Am I writing for Now or for Keeps? Is it my role to shape my own moment, or to write primarily for those who might benefit from what I have to say even if they live after I’m gone? Of course, for many writers there’s not really an option: If you’re writing to pay your bills, then you have to write for Now whether you like it or not. 

I guess I’d like to have it both ways: To write for my contemporaries, to try to do my very small part to light candles and repair my corner of the world, but also to hope that I’ll have readers later on. But maybe you can’t have it both ways. (I wonder if there are examples of writers who thought that their work was immediate and ephemeral … but turned out to be wrong.)