A group of 13 prominent American novelists and playwrights have ended a regular meeting with members of the Soviet Writers Union in Lithuania, and several of them reported that disputes over literary, racial and gay-rights issues between writers from the two countries marred the four-day conference.
Tensions nearly snapped when American playwright Arthur Miller asked for the release from prison of several Soviet writers during one of the meetings last week in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, according to several of the American writers.
Nikolai Fedorenko, who headed the Soviet group, and most of the other Soviet writers bristled, denying that the persons mentioned were writers at all, according to several of the Americans.
"They said that the people named had been convicted for drugs, or something else," said novelist William Gass. Miller, author of "Death of a Salesman," a drama frequently performed on the Soviet stage, left as soon as the conference ended last weekend and was not available for comment here.
Miller was preparing to read out a long list of imprisoned Soviet writers to the Soviets present, "but he got stonewalled," Gass said.
Fedorenko, secretary of the Soviet Writers Union, could not be reached either.
But in an article in the official Soviet weekly newspaper Literary Gazette, Fedorenko called the conversations with the American writers "frank and constructive." He added that the conference gave writers from both countries the chance to "deeply understand existing problems."
Poet Allen Ginsberg did not list the writers he and Miller had in mind, but said they included several well-known poets and authors who had been jailed "for several years."
"We were just interested in pushing for more liberalization in the literary scene here," Ginsberg said. "Everyone knows that things are miserable for some Soviet writers."
"The Soviets at the conference were officials, not writers," said Ginsberg. "They were only interested in the party line."
Gass said he felt that the eight-month-old government of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had brought no relaxation of strict Soviet censorship on writers and no encouragement of avante garde trends on the Soviet literary scene. "Things have not changed at all," Gass said, "and it looks like it's not on the horizon."
Louis Auchincloss, the author of more than 30 books, criticized Miller and Ginsberg for their "heavyhanded approach."
"I wouldn't have tried to tackle the problem" of literary repression here so directly, Auchincloss said. "You can't expect to solve all the world's problem's overnight. This was a writers' conference, not a political meeting."
Fedorenko and Ginsberg, an avowed homosexual, also clashed over the situation of homosexuals in the Soviet Union.
"We have no use for homosexuals in this country," Fedorenko said to Ginsberg, according to three of the American writers present during the discussion in Vilnius.
"I tried to put a plug in for gay rights," Ginsberg said in an interview, "but that didn't go over too big." He added, "They claim there that homosexuality is not a part of the Russian culture."
Charles Fuller, a black American playwright with the Negro Ensemble Company, a New York theater group, said that during a visit to a school in Vilnius several of the Soviet pupils who apparently had never seen a black person jeered at him. They "stared and pointed," Fuller said. After a while it got to be too much.
Fuller said that he was offended that various schools in the Soviet Union offered "Uncle Tom's Cabin," a racially provocative American book, as required reading.
"I don't belong in any country that has that book on its required reading list," he said.
Despite the disputes, Fuller, Ginsberg and several of the other American writers said they found some of the theater performances they saw in Vilnius "first rate."
Present also at the meeting, which began Nov. 18, were Norman Cousins, Jerome Lawrence and Harrison Salisbury.