So this might be a long shot, but does anybody reading this know a way to contact V.S. Naipaul? The Nobel-Prize-winning author sometimes described as one of the best writers of the 20th century? Yeah, him. Do you know him? If you do, I’d love to get in contact with him. I need to tell him how awful he is.
No, that came out wrong. You see, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the kinds of unrealistic pressures we place on our favorite writers. It’s not enough that they wrote something that brought us joy or made us think or changed our lives. We expect them to write more! (I’m looking at you, George R.R. Martin.) It’s not enough that their last book was the best thing we ever read in our lives—we want the next one to be even better! (You hear that, Franzen?) It’s not enough that their writing transports us to one-of-a-kind worlds populated by unforgettable characters who glom to our hearts. We want them to take us there in person in real life, too.
Which brings me back to Naipaul.
For a long time, I’ve had trouble reconciling the fact the someone who writes such beautiful sentences could say such misogynistic and bigoted things. And then there’s the whole complexity of his relationship with our shared homeland, Trinidad and Tobago, which he has all but disowned as his birthplace.
That complexity is what inspired me to reflect on Naipaul in a piece I wrote recently for Essay Daily’s series on International Essayists. (And can we pause for a moment here to bask in not only what is probably my highest profile publication to date, but in the fact that they actually approached me to write it!)
In the piece, I focus on his essayistic travelogue, The Middle Passage, which is where many of his derogatory comments about Trinidad and the West Indies are derived. One thing you can never accuse Naipaul of is being coy, and his sometimes stark frankness in The Middle Passage offers a unique opportunity to drill deeper into the motivations that drive his more controversial opinions. I structured my piece as a pseudo-interview, letting Naipaul account for himself in his own words.
It turns out that he may have a point. Not that Trinidad is this barren wasteland where nothing of worth was ever created (yep, he pretty much says that), but that I, as a fellow émigré who fled the island almost twenty years ago for my own reasons, and who has been vocally critical of the country for its outdated and persistent laws regarding homosexuality, am not necessarily in a position to criticize Naipaul for his own feelings and criticisms.
On the one hand, I am grateful for the ability to read Naipaul’s text closely and be able to find some common ground, a way to understand and empathize and reconcile my personal conflict with him as a writer. On the other hand, who cares? Has Naipaul made some objectionable statements in his lifetime? Of course, but first, who among us hasn’t, and second, why should that make me appreciate him any less as a writer? He’s damn good. He owes me no more than that. No writer does. It’s a bonus when a great writer can also be a great person. But not everybody can be J.K Rowling. That’s a lot of pressure to put on any writer! Let this serve as a reminder to all of us as engaged readers—it’s okay to have high expectations, but maybe we should limit them to the page, otherwise we might be in for disappointment.
So if anybody knows (someone who knows someone who knows…) V.S. Naipaul, please tell him I have a message for him. It’s okay that you say silly things, sometimes. I get it, dude. Trust me, I get it.