Friday, June 3, 2011

On V.S. Naipaul: or How To Cope When A Celebrity Behaves Like A Twat

Yesterday, the Nobel Prize winning author, V. S. Naipaul, said a lot of very stupid things about women writers. As an English professor, as a woman, and as an author, these comments obviously pissed me off. I ranted a bit about them on Twitter, and they helped set the tone for what was a really bizarre day for me, yesterday.

That said, one of the things that bothered me was seeing tweets, Facebook comments, and online commentary in which people expressed the idea that they will either no longer read Naipaul, or that they will refuse to start reading him. In other words, they've dismissed him as a writer because, when it comes to women, he's a first rate twat.

And yet, he's also a celebrity--and not just a celebrity, but a celebrated intellectual, a Nobel laureate, even a knight! How can he get something so utterly wrong, and be right about anything else? And does that mean he's not worthy of anything he's won?

The fact is that really, really intelligent people can have enormous blind spots. They can be awesomely intelligent in many, many realms--but be ludicrously stupid when it comes to particular issues. Naipaul is a great example of this sort of shortfall: before he harangued women, he'd made offensive comments about Africans, various former colonies, former-colonials in general, and the overweight, to name but a few.

So what do we do with our celebrities, especially our intellectual celebrities, when they reveal their hidden depths of twatocity? Do we throw out the baby, the bathwater, the tub, the water, and the rubber duckie?

My problem with this stance can best be summarized in two points, which I think are mutualistic of one another.

First of all, Naipaul isn't saying anything that I don't hear, all the time, as a female writer and reader. Men and women constantly ask me, "Would a man enjoy your books, or are they just for women?" Think about everything that statement implies, people. Have you ever asked the ticket booth person at the movie theater, "Will a woman enjoy this action film?" And yet, in discussing Naipaul on Facebook, a very funny male writer friend of mine talked about how, upon buying tickets to a movie for him and his wife, the boy behind the cash register warned, "You know this is a chick flick, right?" On the other side of the cultural spectrum from the spotty teenager, meanwhile, Brett Easton Ellis warns that "women can't direct," as they lack "the male gaze."

In other words, across the cultural spectrum, women are dismissed every day as artists. We write "books for women" and enjoy "chick-flicks," and it's our own brothers, husbands, sons, friends, neighbors, and/or colleagues who are doing the dismissing. We even do it ourselves! I've heard myself saying, "Yes, it's written by a woman, but I think you'll like it," or, "I hate chick-flicks." I think I'm being either helpful or honest, but what I'm really doing is pandering to cultural stereotypes about the efficacy of female art (which such usages suggest is specific) in comparison to male art (which such usages suggest is universal).

So Naipaul isn't alone, and--at least to me, as a woman--he's not the scariest shark in the waters. Give me a hundred Ivory Tower academics making vaguely feudal pronouncements over the spate of active politicians in office, people with actual power, currently trying to strip away women's reproductive health rights or redefine rape.

Secondly, I think the stance of refusing to read Naipaul because we disagree with his personal politics means we cut off any insights we might gain into his character, empathy for why he's gone on such a silly path, and any understanding of how his particular prejudices are part and parcel of why he's considered a genius. We're never going to understand prejudices, be they racial, religious, or gender-based, unless we engage with those who embrace them. Nor are we going to understand how people benefit from having such prejudices in our society, unless we explore their thinking and how their thinking fits into the world they live in. Think about it: Naipaul has been given the greatest awards a man can win in Western society. Instead of assuming he's won them despite his politics, I think we're better off assuming he's won them because of his politics.

We need to understand how those politics work, if we're to combat them. And boy, are we living in a day and age where women have a shocking amount to combat.

Don't get me wrong: I can understand not wanting to financially support Naipaul. To be honest, I'm probably not going to put him on a syllabus, or buy his own work myself. That doesn't mean, however, that it's not available in libraries or on the shelves of friends.

Furthermore, as women and as rational thinkers, I think we owe it to ourselves not only to understand the enemy, but understand why that enemy is considered a genius, and how that "genius" is intertwined with his plethora of prejudices. For, while I wish Naipaul was just a kooky writer living in antiquity, as some have dismissed him to be, I think he's very much of his time. And while we've come so far, ladies, we can't assume we get to rest on our laurels.

Not least because those laurels keep getting given to men like V. S. Naipaul.


John (johnnie_cakes) said...

I hear people make comments like Naipaul all the time too.

We have a policy about Orson Scott Card. Matt loves his books, but Card is an extremely homophobic ass, so Matt can't buy his books new. He waits until he finds used copies. This way he can still read and enjoy his work, without giving him money that will likely end up going to the Mormon church to fund the next Prop 8.

Jaye Wells said...

While I agree with almost everything you said here, as an author I have a problem with the idea of promoting the idea it's okay to read an ass's work as long as you don't pay for it (or you get it at a great discount at the used book store). It's a conundrum, to be sure. If we avoided the artistic expression of people who we disagree with socially ,politically, etc., many of us would spend a lot of time sitting in dark, quiet rooms.

However, if you're seeking out the ideas and stories of someone you don't like as a person, it's a cop out to say, "I read it but at least I didn't pay the douchebag." Especially if you enjoy that person's books.

Your post was excellent and it's not my intention to distract from the broader conversation. But I worry that as a society we have some dangerous ideas about what we're entitled to read or experience without compensating the creator.

Nicole Peeler said...

John: So he gets his Card and you get your dolls. ;-) I like it!

Jaye: I'm not saying that we should screw the creator by, say, pirating the book. I'm saying borrow the book from a library, which is a form of compensation in that, unlike my own books, Naipaul's books will be in libraries across the country because he's canonized. The more people check him out, the more libraries buy him. Meanwhile, by merely recycling this debate, I've fueled the forces that canonize people like Naipaul to start with.

And while you're right in that this wasn't the focus of my piece by any stretch of the imagination, I did bring money up on purpose because I think people do avoid reading things or watching them just because they don't agree with the person who wrote them, and they don't want to support that person with a tangible dollar amount.

That doesn't mean I think we should try to sucker punch that person by pirating their work, or putting it up on a pirate site ourself. I'm saying borrow it from a library, or borrow it from a friend, both things I encourage for readers who are hesitant to try out my own books.

Jaye Wells said...

Libraries are a fantastic compromise. Money is always a tricky topic for any art, and I guess my comment was probably a knee-jerk reaction to the challenges of being an author in general versus this author in particular. Clearly, he's very good at getting press for himself by being controversial. Anyway, thanks for the great post.

Mysti said...

1. the kid behind the counter said that because he's had to refund money to a hundred men who were not satisfied with "the chick flick." Don't blame him :)

2. I won't pick up a Naipul because he beat his mistress, not because of what he says or how egotistical he may be. And not as a form of protest, but because I won't be able to enjoy it or learn anything from it. His worlds are not interesting to me. I'm under no obligation to read every Nobel-winning author :)

I don't consider Naipul an enemy, merely another egotist who happens to be a good writer. The system that rewards men more frequently than women (are you listening, MWA?) is a far more subtle, and frustratingly unintentional, thing to fix.

Supporting writers who aren't egotistical and misogynistic is a better use of my time than exploring the ins and outs of publicity, ego, and the false concept of canon :)

That said, I loved your post, thanks!!!!!

P.S. Easton hasn't said much since Kathryn Bigelow won an Oscar :)

Nicole Peeler said...

Jaye: I totally understand that we live in a money conscious society. Plus, as consumers, ourselves, and as authors, we are definitely often caught between two worlds. But I do think libraries are an eminently acceptable compromise, for everyone involved. ;-)

Mysti: Life is definitely too short to read everything we want to read, let alone things we actively don't want to read. That said, I do personally feel I've learned more about the sort of ideologies that animate people like Naipaul by reading him than I would have, otherwise. But we can't read everything, so if it's not your bag, no worries.

~*¨`*.~*¨*.¸¸.~*¨`*. said...

This was an awesome post! Funny that OSC was brought up, because I instituted the same policy for myself after I found out about Card's penchant for supporting things like Prop 8. I still recommend his books to my friends-- I really love the Ender's Game and Shadow series-- but I actually warn them about him, and recommend they borrow the books from me or from a library so as to avoid contributing to a fund that will be used for evil & hateful purposes. I don't recommend book piracy to anyone, and I do think Card should get credit for his work, but I'd rather be deprived of his work entirely rather than give him another penny. It's like not buying diamonds that have been mined by slaves. I can still think diamonds are pretty, but I'm just not going to give my money to support that practice. (Maybe that's a poor comparison-- A)I don't have a chance to buy diamonds regularly; and B) I think it's still considered bad form to buy them secondhand.)

As a corollary, I *will* go out of my way to support artists whose work I enjoy and with whose politics I do agree. I see this as ethical consumerism.

If encouraging people to not purchase Naipul's work will prevent even one woman from being mistreated for one night, I will support that.

Fluffy said...

I don't buy Orson Scott Card or other writers I find personally offensive because I would rather spend my reading budget on authors who don't make me feel sick. There are enough talented, fascinating writers out there to keep me busy reading for more than a lifetime.

And Dr. P., I agree with you about female authors - J. K. Rowling wanted to put her name on her books but the publisher knows boys are unlikely to read books written by women (thus, also, Rob Thurman and S.E. Hinton.) I wonder if Rowling's success made any difference in guys' perceptions?

One of your fans, Bobbee G.

Juliet Blackwell said...

This is a smart, insightful post about a really difficult issue. I've always felt vaguely guilty about loving Gauguin's paintings -- the art is incredible, but knowing that he was screwing the fourteen-year old girl in the picture, after abandoning his wife and children, makes it harder to enjoy. *Still*...the paintings are masterpieces. Difficult to reconcile. But I think your point is well taken, that there is genius there, whether separate from or interwoven with the twatocity (great word!)

And I *love* this line: "We're never going to understand prejudices, be they racial, religious, or gender-based, unless we engage with those who embrace them." So true. And so very, very difficult.

Nicole Peeler said...

Squiggly Line Person ;-) : Thanks for commenting and I like your line about "ethical consumerism."

Bobbee G: I didn't know that about J. K. Rowling! How fascinating, and very, very sad. :-( I wish we could see a parallel universe where they were published under her full name, and see what became of them.

Juliet: I was thinking of Gauguin while writing this! He's such a great example of the sort of genius who did disturbing things. What I'm fascinated by is whether there's something about the cultural frisson in that discomfort that adds to the cache, or is somehow part of the thing we equate with genius? That's personally why I've sought out the controversial writers, and I see time and time again that they're described as somehow more honest, or as hard-hitting, or as more "realistic" than other writers, by those that give them the fancy awards. That's why I think it's so important to understand what we're rewarding, as a culture, and to look into its dark heart. I think what we often find are a lot of the -isms that we claim to abhor, being canonized and glamorized and Laureated. (I'm free and easy with the word making up, today ;-)
Anyway, my point is that while it's easy to point at, for example, the Tea Party and laugh, dismissing it as some culturally flummoxed aberration of those without critical thinking skills, we find a lot of the same founding or fundamental ideologies in those artists our greatest thinkers and critics agree upon as "great."

Devon Ellington said...

The conversation can go even further with "how much leeway does a great artist have to be a vile human being?"

When I was younger, I believed art trumped all.

The older I get, the less willing I am to cut people slack for causing harm simply because they are also able to create great art.

Of course, "great art" is in the eye of the beholder.

I don't have "the" answer, but I keep asking myself the questions.

I appreciate Naipaul as a stylist, but don't enjoy his work. And then, the more I found out about his opinions with which I disagree, the less I wanted to seek him out. I don't consider him "great", but it's not all up to me.

It's a tough issue, and, as individuals, we have to keep challenging ourselves on what constitutes "support" for someone's work when we disagree with them personally.

Nicole Peeler said...

Great post, Devon. And you raise some really great questions focused on this idea of "support," like "is reading someone's work really 'support'?" If so, does that mean we should only read what we agree with? I shudder to think about that. LOL Great questions that really helped me to think through what I'm trying to think through.

Fluffy said...

"Put bluntly, if you call yourself a reading man, but don't read books by women, you are actually neither. Such a person implicitly dismisses whole swaths of literature, and then flees the challenge of seeing himself through other eyes."
Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic There's also an interesting bit by another on Naipaul at the top of the page.

Nicole Peeler said...

Oooooo nice! I love that! Love The Atlantic, thanks for sharing!

Supriya Savkoor said...

Oh, Nicole, fabulous, thought-provoking post and excellent dialogue here in the comments too. As an Indian-American author who was a wannabe fiction for a long time, I collected Naipaul's book (mostly from used book stores) for years, thinking I had a lot to learn from this master writer and ethnographer, before actually reading any. (Don't ask.) Then one day, sitting here in Washington, D.C., I listened to Naipaul and his wife on a local NPR show (the Diane Rehm Show) in which HE asked the host why Indian women wore "red dots" on their foreheads. Diane took the bait, receiving the answer "target practice." If that weren't enough, he and his wife had a good, HEARTY laugh over their oh-so-funny joke. Wha? This is the Nobel-prize winner? The brother of Shiva Naipaul (whose work I have read and admire)? I was beyond appalled and grappled with the same issue we're discussing today. I still haven't read any of his work, but I kept a couple of them (gave away the rest). Truth be told, I'm so curious: what does this man have to say that the literary establishment sat up and took notice of? Something, right? A House for Mr. Biswas.... I haven't read it yet, but I know I have to. Not everyone will like my politics or even me, but does that mean they shouldn't read me? This man must have something important to say. Right?

Sophie Littlefield said...

sorry i'm so late to comment on this, but i've received an education not just from the post but from the comments. i'll admit to struggling in a monster wave of crabby outrage at the rampant sexism in our industry. One of my publishers is woman-run, and perhaps it's a coincidence that the people all seem thrilled to be working there and they have crazy-high retention rates - but maybe it isn't. I don't wish to become an unrestrained basher, and there are many delightful men (one of my editors included) who deserves flowers rather than a drubbing from my rage club, but that Gaugin-cloud (perfect examples) continues to drift far and wide and I long to shoot it out of the sky.

Shane Gericke said...

For the same reason I don't have to reward Mel Gibson for his obscenities, I don't have to reward Naipaul for his. There are simply too many worthwhile artists to read, watch and follow out there to waste time on ass hats. Naipaul falls into that camp, and I will not read him. Sometimes you just need to say, I don't care how brilliant an artist is, he or she is not worth supporting.

Nicole Peeler said...

Supriya: Thanks for the insightful comment! I am obsessed with Diane Rehm. Anyway, I think what I'm trying to say is not that Naipaul DOES have something important to say, but that what he says is DEEMED important, and I want to try to understand why that is by reading him. I think. LOL I'm still puzzling this all out, myself. Love you blog, btw, I went over and had a poke around!

Sophie: I imagine a Gaugin cloud is a bit like a mushroom cloud with nubile boobies.

Shane: I can understand that position, but I think what comments have brought up and what I'm trying to puzzle through is why do we think the act of reading someone is supporting them?

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