There must be something in the air. All week I have been reading articles which make me cringe. They are the ugly side to literature which speak to some of the worst aspects of human behavior: jealousy, anger, and bitterness.
Earlier this week, Roxana Robinson of the PEN American Center spoke to V.S. Naipaul’s trashing of women. She wrote:
Naipaul’s contempt reveals a meanness of spirit that eliminates him straight off, in my opinion, from the category of great writers. Truly great fiction is illuminated by compassion, not contempt. Truly great writers, of both genders, can inhabit the other gender, and the Other’s life. That’s what Shakespeare does, and Tolstoy, and Woolf.
And I could not agree more.
In case you missed it, Naipaul outrageously concluded that women writers were only capable of writing “tosh.” Of course, anyone familiar with Naipaul should not be surprised. He is perhaps one of the most controversial writers out there, having been accused of racism and misogyny among other things…all, I might add, supported by his published comments and Patrick French’s “authorized” biography which shows Naipaul eager for his first wife’s death from cancer so that he “could get on with his life.” Just do a quick Google search on Naipaul and you will find dozens of articles about his personal beliefs which are just plain ugly.
I rarely cross an author’s name from my list because of his or her personal life – but, with Naipaul, I have done just that. I think his contempt for other writers and his narcissism overflow into his work (how could they not?), and just to be fair, I read A Bend in the River in 2009 and was unimpressed with Naipaul’s writing. I don’t expect everyone to agree with my literary reviews, but in several comments beginning in April of this year, I was personally attacked for my views which made me angry. Apparently, these are male readers who agree with Naipaul’s shoddy view of women – one commenter actually suggested that I was unable to discern good literature because my mind is befuddled from reading “chick lit.” I assume he means that because I am a woman and read women’s literature, I must be too stupid to understand “good” literature. I left the comments up because I think this just underscores my point about Naipaul – apparently his biggest supporters also find women inferior and stupid.
But, although I was not surprised to read about this latest outrage involving an author who has long made his contempt toward women obvious…I was dismayed to read the recent trashing of Orange Prize winner Tea Obreht by Ruth Fowler on The Huffington Post (Fowler also attacks Junot Diaz and Zadie Smith in her vicious diatribe). Apparently, according to Fowler, a writer cannot really be a writer if he or she has an MFA or has not had at least ten good years of life experience. I don’t know a whole lot about Obreht’s life experience (she is 25 years old), but I know a lot of twenty-something year olds who have traveled and seen more of the world than I have at age fifty. I also know plenty of young adults who have experienced enough in their short lives to fill more than one book. So why does Fowler come at young authors with both barrels blazing? Fowler’s excessive use of profanity to make her point speaks of a deep seated anger and bitterness – perhaps she resents someone younger than her getting accolades, maybe she wishes she had an MFA. I don’t know – and actually I don’t care. What I read was ugly and mean. It made my stomach turn.
I haven’t read Orbeht’s book yet (I plan to in July), but if I end up not liking it, I won’t attack the author and I won’t be cruel in my review. I will point out what I think are the book’s strengths and weaknesses. I may link to other opposing views of the book in order to balance my opinion with other readers’ opinions. I think it is just human decency to be respectful and professional towards others. I guess Fowler, with all of her years of life experience, has never learned the lesson that what we put out into the world tends to come back to us ten-fold.
After this week, I find myself wanting to take more showers just to wash off the grime of nastiness being put out over the Internet. I love literature. I love books. I love discussions about books.
But I hate meanness.
I have decided to start voting more with my pocketbook. I’m beginning with Naipaul’s books – I have purged them from my library and they can be found in the 25 cent box at my next yard sale. I won’t be reading anything more from him or about him. It just makes me feel too slimy. And as far as journalists like Ruth Fowler, I won’t be following their tweets or reading their blogs. Maybe ignoring their attacks will make them go away.
I hope so.