Can We Love the Books of Authors We Despise?

I’ve just finished the book A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul, a writer I always find deeply troubling. Naipaul is a Nobel prize-winning author; his esteem in the literary community is nearly unmatched; his books on post-colonial societies are clear, sharp, and devastating. And yet — based on numerous articles I’ve read about him, and the accounts of teachers who have personally met him — Mr. Naipaul is a frightening, truly malevolent human being. This New Yorker profile, even written by a Naipaul admirer, describes Naipaul’s complete arrogance, hostility, and haughtiness; but if those were Naipaul’s only sins, he would be in fine company in the world of writers. Naipaul apparently physically and verbally abused his wife and other women for years, and seems to express a systematic misogyny in all of his books. He condones the physical punishment of women in A Bend in the River, and erotically charges a brutal beating scene. His recent comments, stating that women writers are always inferior, only confirm the misogyny endemic to his books.

So what is a devoted reader (and a writer) to do with characters like this? Can we love the books of writers we hate?

Because, even entering A Bend in the River with all this foreknowledge, I found myself engrossed. It is a powerful book about a fictional post-colonial African country, and with startling realism (to my poorly educated perspective) the turmoil following the departure of European rule. At the same time, the book was unmistakably racist and imperialist. It depicted the Africans as primitive and animalistic; the Indians, as their rightful, more sophisticated, keepers. It was cruel, vicious, and unable to see life from the perspective of the women or the children, the truly subjugated. It was life from the perspective of the rulers and the powerful. Should we care when these slaveholders begin to fall?

How does the personal life of an author fit into your appreciation of a work of art? I love the movie Chinatown and think it is a supreme work of art — but it’s directed by Roman Polanski, notorious for his statutory rape. Perhaps we need to take this problem on a case by case basis. It might depend on the nature of the author’s crimes.

Or perhaps the only truly just way to read books and critique art is to judge the art as entirely separate from the creator. That’s what the goal amid intellectuals tends to be. But I find this approach equally troubling; it leads to the worst kind of apologizing for an artist’s heinous acts. More often than not, it is violence against or hatred toward women that is forgiven. Philip Roth, for example, is an author that continues to confuse and anger me, because many of my writer friends claim him as their favorite author. I appreciate his stylistic mastery of prose, but I would never be able to claim such a deeply misogynistic writer as my favorite. Roth is a fiery technician, but he has failed to capture what is human about women; he has failed to see me as a person with no more impurity or depravity than a man. How can I appreciate art that lacks the compassion and communication that art is supposed to be about?


7 comments

  1. Michael Washburn says:

    I know that when recapitulating comments one finds deeply offensive, one doesn’t always err on the side of accuracy. But according to the account in The Guardian, Naipaul said he couldn’t think of a woman who was his literary equal. The last sentence of your first paragraph suggests something quite different — that Naipaul believes “that women writers are always inferior” to male writers. I doubt that Naipaul or any educated person would take such a position.

  2. Jackie Rose says:

    Knowing the author’s bad character would probably have precluded my picking up the book in the first place. Since he devalues women, I could only conclude that he had nothing of consequence to say to me in the first place.

  3. Eva says:

    Don’t writers’ beliefs, biases and prejudices almost always seep into the work? If that is so, then I would think that his work might reflect those beliefs.

    Just a thought.

  4. I have thought a lot about this issue, and I have concluded I do not wish to support writers whose views I find run counter to my deepest values. Naipaul is one such writer, Orson Scott Card is another.

    My mother, on the other hand, loved Wagnerian opera in spite of his, and I, too, enjoy his operas.

    Perhaps it is a matter of degree. Is the author’s artistry enough to outweigh their “crime” in one’s eyes ?

  5. Michael Washburn says:

    A very interesting discussion. Incidentally, I just finished reading a critical study by Julie Ellam of Ian McEwan’s acclaimed novel Atonement. The final sentence of Professor Ellam’s work states: “…bear in mind that it is not necessary for the readers to like or admire the narrator (or the author) to be compelled by the writing.”

  6. mary brady says:

    Wow. This IS an interesting discussion. And two of my most-despised authors have already been mentioned. I’m sure it would be three had I ever read Naipaul, but I’d learned he was a pig before having the misfortune to read any of his books.

    I’m 60 & I’ve already had to live through enough sexism in life; I’m sure as hell not going to support any writers who dish out more of it. Life is too short & so is my temper.

    I could not believe I was required to read ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ in my first year of college. I mercilessly harassed the male professor by coming up with whacko interpretations of the book which nonetheless ‘outdid’ his criteria of ‘critique/analysis,’ i.e., accounting for the most points made in the story. I made a farce of his teaching style–but I still got an A! Guess why? I looked really nice in my mini-skirts…

    Sexism worked both ways & still does.

    I could not stand McEwan any longer after “Saturday.” I realized each book of his had been just another chance for him to ‘show off.’ When he wrote that he’d ‘sat in’ on eye surgery so he could write his techie bit at the close of that book, I got the distinct feeling he was saying, “Well, it’s really not all that big a deal…I’m sure I could have done it.”

    Same attitude permeated his long, technical description of the mental disease suffered by the character in another book who becomes obsessed with the main male character after they save a group in an air balloon. ALL the main guy had to say was, “There’s a nutty guy following me,” to his friends but he NEVER does! Instead, his friends decide the main guy is going nuts.

    I’m not explaining this well, but it’s a smugness that is repellent. Plus, McEwan’s females are just cardboard.

    I really like female authors, I’ve noticed. I never set out to read one gender over another, but that’s how it seems to be turning out. You really don’t find much overt anti-male sentiment in their writings. Usually, they’re just folks.

    L&K, MaryB

  7. Michael Washburn says:

    Actually, Professor Ellam was not raising or addressing questions about McEwan’s likeability as an author. The context here was a discussion of an unreliable narrator, i.e. Briony Tallis in Atonement. But the points stands regarding the ability of someone who has stumbled badly in life to tell a compelling story, whether that someone is a narrator (Briony Tallis) or an author (V.S. Naipaul).

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