I'd have thought by now the world would be weary of the now-familiar orneriness of V.S. Naipaul. For years his sour statements have been the source of regular media attention. So when the Nobel-winning author's latest rant made its wildfire-like path through the Twittersphere, I think I may have yawned and kept scrolling down the feed.
For those who aren't familiar with Naipaul's transgressions, here's a quick recap. This latest, of course, occurred in an interview to the Royal Geographic Society in which, among other things, Naipaul derided "women" authors, spouting: "And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too," His disrespect was meted out to writers including Jane Austen and his onetime friend and publisher Diana Athill. Austen was accused of "sentimentality," subject matter of the small, non-literary sort, and of Athill, he said:
"My publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh. I don't mean this in any unkind way."
Well before this latest incident, the Trinidad-born writer of Indian descent was bashing not his friends, but post-colonial countries, calling them "half-baked societies." In a New York Times interview of 2001, he was charged with insensitivity and pandering to Western prejudices in his writings about Islam, comparing it to colonialism, arguing both had ‘a calamitous effect on their "converted peoples."
In 2008, Naipaul authorized his biographer Patrick French to include damning incidents of bigotry, arrogance, racism, misogyny and sado-masochism in The World Is What It Is. In fact, in the midst of that book's controversy, Naipaul headed off to Africa, then came home to his famed Dairy Cottage in Wiltshire and penned a memoir of his trip, A Masque of Africa. The descriptions in that book of Ivory Coast racist stereotypes triggered further accusations and set off a new wave of controversy.
This time around, Naipaul's comments targeted not a country and a people, but an author who happens to be female and well-loved on Twitter. As of last Thursday, there was a landslide of comments castigating the author, and just today, the New York Times ran this piece on literary feuds, citing, "The singer Roseanne Cash, creator of the popular Twitter hashtag #JaneAustenAtTheSuperBowl blasted back with a post adapted from "Northanger Abbey": "If Mr. Naipaul takes no pleasure in the happy delineation of the varieties of human nature, then he must be intolerably stupid."
It's doubtful that Sir Vidia is on Twitter, but as Jane Austen (or Roseanne Cash) might have put it, such upbraiding is unlikely to temper the author's infamous gall. In a recent post at The Daily Beast, Susan Cheever wrote that part of this fiasco lies in the current tendency to merge the writer's public self with that of his work:
"Writer and writing have become almost indistinguishable. Famous personalities now write bestselling books that sell because they are personalities and famous writers now sell their books on the basis of their personalities-this is good news for Snooki and bad news for Sir Vidia. The last thing we seem to consider about writers these days is their actual writing."
Which is my point, that Naipaul is a great writer--and a man whose views as those he recently aired are insignificant. As Cheever says, "Of course Naipaul is wrong; many women write as well as he does including Jane Austen. Luckily for him, fiction is not a competitive sport." What seems obvious here, but is less so perhaps because the vitriol spread so quickly, is that Naipaul's statements aren't fact. Jane Austen is a brilliant writer, and her sentiment and microscopic eye toward domestic and social features of her nineteenth century world is, in Cheever's words, "one of the things that make Austen so delightful to read."
The point Cheever's essay makes, and I agree, is that a writer should be admired for his work, not his personality. This also makes the inverse true, that a writer's work must stand in spite of his personal faults. In regard to Jane Austen's personal life I know nothing, and a quick online search reveals that her biographical information is "famously scarce," only a handful of personal letters exist. But if it were ever to come to light that she cheated the household help, was cruel to her nieces and nephews or a lout to her audience of readers, I'd still read her books. I'd read them because of passages like this, from Pride and Prejudice:
"I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Unfortunately an only son (for many years an only child), I was spoilt by my parents, who, though good themselves (my father, particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable), allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing; to care for none beyond my own family circle; to think meanly of all the rest of the world; to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own. Such I was, from eight to eight and twenty; and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased."
And I'll keep reading Naipaul for lines like these, from A House for Mr Biswas:
There were no street lamps, only the yellow smoky flames of flambeaux on the night stalls and the dim lights of houses coming through curtained doorways and windows. In the arcade of Hanuman House, gray and substantial in the dark, there was already the evening assembly of old men, squatting on sacks on the ground and on tables now empty of the Tulsi Store goods, pulling at clay cheelums that glowed red and smelled of ganja and burnt sacking. Through it wasn't cold, many had scarves over their heads and around their necks; this detail made them look foreign, and to Mr Biswas, romantic. It was the time of day for which they lived. They could not speak English and were not interested in the land where they lived; it was a place where they had come for a short time and stayed longer than they expected. They continually talked of going back to India, but when the opportunity came, many refused, afraid of the unknown, afraid to leave the familiar temporariness. And every evening they came to the arcade of the solid, friendly house, smoked, told stories, and continued to talk of India.
Let's briefly note that in these two excerpts, Jane Austen deftly conveys a male point of view, and Naipaul paints a poignant and, I think it can be said, sentimental view of transient workers in the small Trinidad city of Arwacas. That is, after all, what brilliant authors do best. They write.