The Screenplay-novel Manifestos

Less is more vivid

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Naipaul Again

There is an interesting post at The Reading Experience regarding a recent interview with V. S. Naipaul in the Literary Review. The main point made by Dan Green in TRE is Naipaul indulges in "he was a bad man" arguments, in particular against Henry James. As such, Green says, he should not be taken seriously as a critic.

While I have to agree that
ad hominem attacks have no place in serious literary criticism, to be fair to Naipaul the piece in question is an interview, not an essay written by Naipaul himself, and in this sense he should be allowed greater freedom to express whatever opinions he has. The truth is, writers (and, I suspect, editors and academics) indulge in this kind of conversation all the time. It's one of the dirty secrets of the literary world, and it's probably just as well that sometimes it's done openly.

More to the point, audiences tend to make connections between author and work on a subconscious level. Like it or not, when we read a writer, we have to be convinced that he or she has a certain degree of authentic connection with his/her material. I suppose the counterargument could be made that James is connected to his material -- it just happens his material focusses on the upper crust. But then, this is what seems to be bothering Naipaul: James, in his opinion,
isn't interested in the dirt and sweat (the work and poverty) of life. In other words, Naipaul has a point of view about James and in the interview, he explains why. His main obligation as an interviewee is to be honest about how he forms his points of view, not follow standards of critical rigor. And we, as readers, are just as free to dismiss Naipaul's opinions. The problem is, Naipaul -- saturated with prejudice as he can be (you should read him on welfare recipients) -- is interesting. His points of view can seem perverse. But it is fascinating to read why he has them.

I think a more pointed criticism can be made of Naipaul in the following regard: as people who follow the literary scene know, Naipaul has declared the novel is "dead". There was a now-infamous piece on him in by Rachel Donadio in The New York Times which garnered him a lot of attention. And again, one could defend Naipaul as simply expressing an opinion; it is, after all, an opinion that, as Donadio makes clear, is shared by others.

But Naipaul is not simply a commentator -- he is a writer. He seems to pride himself more on his non-fiction than his fiction these days, but it was fiction that really made his star. As far as I know, he hasn't volunteered to give up his Nobel Prize.

A taste for non-fiction over fiction is very common these days. I tend to share it myself, both in the material I read and what I write. One major reason why I started the Screenplay Novel Manifestos site is because I realized I'd reached an impasse in my fiction writing and needed a new approach. On the level of the philosophy of literary production, non-fiction -- both memoir and journalism -- seem so much easier.

But can we therefore discard fiction altogether? The answer is no -- we not only are entitled to both, we need both. Novels, whether conventional or screenplay in form, are as necessary to the health of our culture as all the non-fiction on the world. This may seem logical enough, it may seem reasonable enough -- but the world of cultural production is neither logical nor reasonable, and it's impossible not to feel pity for all the struggling writers in the current climate who are in danger of not even being published.

Furthermore, when Naipaul declared the novel is dead, he did a Very Bad Thing: he attacked the very literary form that constitutes of the foundation of all fictional art we enjoy today: movies, TV shows, Internet games and interactive stories ... all these things spring to a significant degree from the humble, now-taken-for-granted novel.

You cannot understand the novel unless you understand fictional narrative. And you cannot understand fictional narrative unless you understand that it comes in many forms. The novel is simply an older (but not the oldest) form of it. No one in their right mind would say that fiction in the form of, oh, say a Law and Order script, is dead. Yet as has been pointed out here
before, it is the printed-on-paper novel that, because it is relatively inexpensive to produce, allows the creative artist more real freedom than filmed and/or videotaped movie fiction and TV fiction.

By all means support the writing of intelligent non-fiction. As I've mentioned more than once, I'm writing a memoir myself, and good non-fiction interests me very much. But the novel -- no matter how its written -- is still vital. It's ironic that in an age when cartoonists can be perceived as blasphemous and arouse so much passion that people die, the novel can be given such short shrift (especially by a writer who prides himself on an understanding of the Muslim world, and should have a better grasp of the fact that ideas matter). And this is the ultimate irony of all: when Naipaul attacked the novel so categorically, he was, so to speak, blaspheming it. He was attacking something that is culturally holy.


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