Cambridge, Mass. — If there's one thing writers are not famous for, it's working together. So says Justin Kaplan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer. Not only are they ''chronic loners,'' he says, they tend to be ''prima-donna-ish.''
Mr. Kaplan offers this not-altogether-complimentary assessment of writers to show that, when they do band together, it's worth watching.
Recently a group of New England writers, ranging from the famous to the struggling, the prolific to the plodding, got together to express their concern for peace and human life.
The group, which included poets, novelists, critics, biographers, and playwrights, took turns reading aloud in the auditorium of the First Congregational Church here. Their words were aimed at halting the arms race.
One of the event's organizers, novelist Anne Bernays (who is Kaplan's wife), says, ''Writers don't know how to change public policy.'' But about three years ago, she continues, a group of them began to question what they could do to show their concern about the nuclear arms race.
One writer advocated compiling an anthology. Another suggested raising money for nuclear-freeze groups by sponsoring a literary evening where authors would read from their own works.
''These ideas didn't galvanize us,'' she says. But the thought of holding a reading to promote peace did.
Those writers formed an organization, New England Writers for Survival, and sponsored the first ''twenty-four hours for survival'' read-in last year. The group promises to make this an annual event.
Ms. Bernays says that, unlike some peace activists who ''scare the living daylights out of people,'' this group of writers is taking a more positive approach.
The read-in was ''an affirmation,'' she says. All of the texts, which were carefully selected by a committee, make the same point, she says - ''that life is precious and war is terrible.''
One writer, Bernard McCabe, read a short story, ''The Power of Light,'' by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Based on an actual event, it tells of how the light of one Hanukkah candle gave two teen-agers the courage to crawl through the frozen sewers of Warsaw to escape the grasp of the Nazis.
Other selections, such as ''Breathing Out,'' by Michael Herr, were much more grim, and some were coarse.
But Mr. Kaplan, a member of the text-selection committee, says they ''are not horror texts. They were chosen because they all seem to reflect the concern with love or life or war.''
The wide-ranging selections included excerpts from ''The Wind in the Willows, '' by Kenneth Grahame, and ''1984,'' by George Orwell; from ''Moby Dick,'' by Herman Melville, and ''Sophie's Choice,'' by William Styron. Others were from works of Thoreau, Carl Sagan, Mark Twain, James Thurber, Woody Allen, and from the Bible.
The poetry, from the likes of A. E. Houseman, Dylan Thomas, E. E. Cummings, W. B. Yeats, and Robert Frost, was about ''fundamental human emotions,'' Kaplan says.
The aim of all these diverse texts and poems is ''to enhance the sense of (the listener's) own humanity,'' he says.
A total of 96 writers took part in the read-in, which was held over the Veterans Day weekend. Each read for about 15 minutes.
No writer was allowed to read from his own work. Nor were there any selections written by those who took part in the program. Texts were chosen for them, and each reader was asked to show up only 15 to 20 minutes before his scheduled reading time. No homework was allowed, Kaplan says, because ''we didn't want people to come along with very dramatic readings.''
Over the course of the first four hours of the read-in, about 60 people sat in the auditorium, having braved a driving rainstorm to get to the church.
Bernays says more than 200 people attended parts of the event last year. But, she says, the number of people who attend isn't the point. ''We want to make a gesture,'' she says. Still, ''It is important that people see it, and are moved by it.'' She adds, ''People have always known that words are weapons.''
Last year she had planned to stay for only a short time after reading her selection. But, she says, she found it ''very inspiring'' and found that she ''couldn't leave.'' She stayed for almost 12 hours.