The Ugly Side of Literature

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.

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    • Linda on June 11, 2011 at 10:44

    Well said, Wendy.

    • Laura on June 11, 2011 at 10:58

    Great post Wendy! I’ve been following these issues as well and like you, have been dismayed at the nastiness. I agree with you about voting with my pocketbook — I will never buy, or even borrow, another Naipaul book.

    • Jill on June 11, 2011 at 11:08

    Bravo! A wonderful post! Thank you so much for writing it. And like you, neither Naipaul nor Fowler will come across my bookshelves, computer screen or anything else again.

    • Wendy on June 11, 2011 at 11:08

    Thanks Laura and Linda…I just had to respond to all of this. I looked at Kip this morning and said “What is wrong with people?”

    • Wendy on June 11, 2011 at 11:09

    Jill: Thanks! I would hope most people would share our views on this…it is just so nasty.

    • Jill on June 11, 2011 at 11:12

    P.S. An idea: Any funds raised from your garage sale or the sale of Naipaul’s books could go to NOW or another women’s organization. =) Because he would love that so much.

  1. It seems we had an episode like this last year, when one author’s awful meanness inspired a few others to take the Mean plunge as well. I was just reading that teenage girls who have best friends who have had sex also tend to have sex soon, so maybe it’s sort of that peer pressure or peer encouragement thing!

    • Wendy on June 11, 2011 at 11:39

    Jill: LOL – I think that is wonderful – actually, maybe I’ll donate to my local women’s shelter 😉

    Jill (Rhapsody): It is so sad, though, isn’t it…that the people doing the “mean girl” stuff are actually NOT teens but adults who should know better! I have always been appalled at the nasty things people say and do…I wonder if they just lack empathy. All I could think of reading Fowler’s fowl post was that this young author was also going to see these words. How cruel.

    • Amused on June 11, 2011 at 11:55

    Your statements could not be better said! Well put!

  2. I can’t believe people would say you – You!- wouldn’t know good writing just because you are a woman. Ridiculous! I have no desire to read anything from Naipaul anyway. There are so many other great writers out there- male and female.

  3. My my, it DOES sound as though some body got some sour grape juice in her sippy cup, Ms. Huffington Post! I thought Tiger’s Wife was totally brilliant of my own accord. Nothing to do with the bit about it actually making the short list or the long list or winning the whole shebang. If I’d dubbed it total trash, I’d probably passed it off as a door stop and written an honest review but respected the voice of the Orange Prize board. I certainly didn’t like Room but didn’t feel the need to denounce its presence on the short list. Sigh, I’m with you; I just don’t like uglies. And I’m not even touching the man at the beginning. Just another dine a dozen, right? ;O)

    • Wendy on June 11, 2011 at 14:23

    Amused: Why, thank you 🙂

    Chris: It takes all kinds, doesn’t it? I have a goal to read all the Booker winners – but I won’t be picking up Naipaul’s book. I’m just crossing it off as not worth my time 🙂

    Pam: LOL – yes, sour grapes for sure!! I’m glad to hear you liked The Tiger’s Wife – I think the summary of the book sounds wonderful and hope I love it!

    • Megan on June 11, 2011 at 14:29

    Excellent post. Both stories leave a bad taste in my mouth, as well. Fowler’s piece is irrationally cruel, and Naipaul’s view of women’s writing as being “sentimental tosh” made me shake my head (as at the rantings of a fool) but also actually made me reflect on the Orange Prize as well. I remember reading an article, I guess when the Orange long list had just come out, observing (or perhaps complaining?) that the selections this year were particularly “dark.” At the time I wondered (and continue to wonder) if part of the reason for that darkness is this misguided notion that women are capable only of shallow sentimentality in their writing. It seems like women writers with talent who wish to be taken seriously might feel pressured (even subconsciously?) to delve into darkness lest they write a happy moment into their work that might be construed to be sentimental, girly drivel that would firmly quarantine their work in some lesser valued category of “women’s fiction.” Naipaul’s personal views sound to be utterly reprehensible, but I worry that his “tosh” comment is just putting a voice to a still lingering stereotype of women’s writing, however totally wrong it may be, that runs much deeper than I care to even imagine.

    • Wendy on June 11, 2011 at 14:34

    Megan: I totally agree. I don’t understand the cruelty of Fowler’s article – it just seemed bent on destruction (I actually wish The Huffington Post had just not published it…but it seems they have no censor there). I too feel dismayed at how women must always justify their work in publishing…it is one reason that I purposefully read more women authors than men; and also why I am much more liable to accept a book for review from a debut female author than not…it seems to me that we should be past all of this, but on and on it goes.

    • Lahni on June 11, 2011 at 14:39

    I know nothing about Naipaul (and it sounds like that’s a good thing) so I can’t comment there but I did read part of the article from the Huffington Post. But I couldn’t finish – it was just too awful. She sure is bitter, isn’t she? It’s one thing to state that you don’t like a book and why but to attack the author personally – that’s just uncalled for. Ouch.
    I’m with you here. I hate the meanness!

    • Wendy on June 11, 2011 at 17:17

    Lahni: I agree – it was just awful. It went on and on and only got more vicious as it continued.

  4. Hear, hear!

  5. I agree with you 100%, Wendy. They don’t seem to realize that they’re turning others off to anything with their names on it. I felt the same way about Laura Miller after she bashed NaNoWriMo last year. Great post.

  6. I read your review and all the comments. Those men had a lot of nerve, especially the one…you know who I mean. Your response was excellent.

    Regarding Ruth Fowler, I also had to go take a shower to wash off the grime. She really has nothing constructive to say and is actually spewing pure dreck. And did she really describe Tea Obreht as plump? Did she really? That little word speaks volumes of what kind of person Ruth Fowler really is. The terms “bully” or “mean girl” come to mind.

    Great post, Wendy. Thank you for sharing!

    • bybee on June 12, 2011 at 03:06

    Both Fowler and Naipaul need someone to pour them each a big steaming cup of something laced with insight and tact.

  7. I have read Naipaul in the past, but never, never again. Alienating one entire segment in the population is not a way to become popular, and from what I remember the book I did read from him was pretty awful anyway. But then again, I probably just can’t tell good literature from bad, because I am a woman, or some such nonsense. This was a great post, and the first I have heard about the Orbeht scandal, but I agree with you that there is just too much meanness going on in literature nowadays.

  8. Well said! I’ve never read Naipaul and certainly have no desire to do so now. When I first saw an article about his comment my jaw just dropped. I’m always surprised when public figures say such controversial (and mean) things.

    I love Robinson’s response about great writers needing compassion.

    • Amy on June 12, 2011 at 09:38

    Ugh, I’m with you. I very much dislike the meanness and think it is completely unnecessary. And I’m not even a little bit surprised about Naipaul, I read the same book you did and also disliked it, as well as a work of non-fiction which was ick, terribly racist and colonial.

    • Wendy on June 13, 2011 at 06:59

    Carrie K: 🙂

    Vasilly: I know – why is it anyone would think this would be a good thing to attach their name to???

    Michelle: Thanks for your support – and yes, Fowler really did call Obreht “plump” – you are right…just a mean girl. This is the kind of person who just revels in bullying.

    Bybee: I could not agree more!

    Heather: I’m glad you agree – Naipaul, I think, just does not care what women think at all. Maybe if it touched his wallet a bit, he’d think twice. Or not.

    Jill: Yes and yes. Naipaul is such a narcissist that I don’t think he has any concept of what other people might think of what he says.

    Amy: I had heard things like this about Naipaul…but it is always hard to believe the extent at which people will voice their ugly thoughts.

  9. All I can say is Mean People Suck. How sad that people have to resort to such mean-spirited behavior towards fellow artists/writers.

    • Andi on June 15, 2011 at 07:09

    Wow! I’ve been out of the loop and hadn’t heard about Fowler’s diatribe against Obreht. I started reading The Tiger’s Wife (will have to finish soon), and thought it was darn stunning. I’ve also seen several interviews with the author and she’s remarkably poised and articulate. Methinks Fowler does have some serious envy issues.

    • Anna on June 15, 2011 at 12:53

    Well said! I’d never heard of Naipaul until all this erupted, and I’m definitely never going to read one of his books.

  10. As you know I wrote about the Obreht attack. I wonder know if this sort of thing should just be ignored. This kind of public meanness has one goal: to attract attention. Even if we critique and decry it, we still give it currency by addressing it all. I don’t know if it’s better to just ignore it or try to combat it. I really don’t

    • Wendy on June 20, 2011 at 08:04

    Kathleen: I totally agree!

    Andi: The more I have learned about Fowler since this surfaced, the more I think envy played a large part in her attack against Obreht. I’m planning on reading The Tiger’s Wife next month.

    Anna: You won’t miss much to skip Naipaul!

    Reading Ape: You are probably right – ignoring this kind of stuff is probably what we should do – but, sometimes I think we also need to stand up and say “WRONG”…our best response is to vote with our reading habits 🙂

    • Steve Wimer on December 31, 2012 at 10:36

    I think you confuse literary merit with human values. Just because some fool is racist, full of hatred, and jealousy doesn’t mean they can’t write eloquently. Of course, they’re excellent reasons not to read their work or patronize their blog. And I certainly won’t be reading Fowler or this other fool, Naipaul, thanks to your observations.

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