Over at Salon.com, Laura Miller has an essay titled, “When bad people write great books.” Thanks to V.S. Naipaul having yet another public bout of assholery, the Literary World is concerned once more with the age old question, “Is it okay to like or even love an asshole’s art?”
If Dickens sometimes behaved badly, Naipaul is unquestionably a bad man, notorious for his floridly abusive relationships and bigoted ideas. Does this diminish his work? Naipaul’s fiction is not to everyone’s taste, but the grace of his prose and the power of his early books, especially “A Bend in the River,” is hard to deny; I admired much of that novel even as I gritted my teeth over its blinkered depiction of Africans. “A House for Mr. Biswas” is a veritable touchstone for New Yorker critic James Wood, a tough crowd if there ever was one.
Miller goes on to list a few more writers who had major flaws. Literature and the arts are filled with people who did miserable things to other human beings, but were brilliant successes at producing lasting art. Roman Polanski raped a 13-year-old girl. Hemingway was a notorious misogynist. While drunk, William Faulkner is reputed to have told his daughter, “Nobody remembers Shakespeare’s child.” Not to equate all of these actions (Polanski’s being by far the worst because it was criminal), but none of this bad behavior lessens the quality or power of movies like Chinatown or novels like The Sun Also Rises or As I Lay Dying.
A professor in undergrad once told me that it was often the case that the best thing about an artist was in fact their art. It’s a notion that has stayed with me all these years and one that proves to be the case most often.
Regardless of what a jerk Naipaul is, I still have a A House for Mr. Biswas on my TBR pile. It’s been on there for quite some time, years actually, and so I’m not sure when I’ll finally get a round to reading it. When I do, unfortunately, I’m sure I won’t quite be able to push out of my head the thought that Naipaul is a detestable human being.