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June 04, 2011

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there's an early Beatles song called "Run For Your Life". if you don't know it you should read the lyrics. i assume, after reading that, that you, Dr S, will no longer drag your mind through the rest of the Beatles' muck. right?

as TNC said:

"What Hilzoy is pointing to here is not an embrace of blindness or amnesia, but the crucial importance of not becoming a shallow reactionary."

@Cleek, we passed the message in your comment at least two turns ago. Try to keep up.

I don't know where I go with this. Somewhere in reading about the "right to not educate people who don't like you" (Sorry, that's not a quote, that's a paraphrase of a quote) --I ended up reading a passel of 101 and finding my feminist bone. So I've been host to a couple of dozen sudden point-of-view shifts to 'As a Woman' the past couple of weeks. It's kind of a weird thing to happen in middle age when you think you've got set in your ways.

So, when I read about Naipaul, no matter that I had never heard of him before, I was entirely loathe to pick him up. At least one degrading rape scene per book, you say? Well, whatever hilzoy got out of it, it's ruined for me. Today. For now. I might never read him. But TODAY, I know I'd go through it gritting my teeth and being afraid of enjoying it. I also know that's just a reaction. It doesn't make me reactionARY. It just makes me human.

But what I understand Dr. S. to say is that I can be liberated of feeling like I need to read him or Hemingway... what I might learn from them is not singular and unreproducible. I have the whole world of learning and literature to find something I enjoy that will also teach me, rather than forcing myself to eat boiled spinach all the way, PARTICULARLY if it's got special ground glass that is put there just for me.

Unworthy of you, cleek. The excerpts from hilzoy's post front-paged at TNC make it clear that the woman hatred isn't an occasional or tangential feature of Naipaul's work, so the "analogy" of one lyric in one Beatles song fails.

Hilzoy's also, characteristically, generous enough to grant that some readers might not be able to get past it, including her own self had she known more about Naipaul's whole body of work at the time of first reading. Implicitly characterizing all such readers as shallow reactionaries involves a lot of middle-excluding. It's not clear whether Ta-Nehisi Coates is doing that; it's clear you are trying to, at least enough to tag Dr. S. as such.

cleek:

If the Beatles wrote *every single song* like that, no, I wouldn't listen to them. Hilzoy said that woman-bashing happens in *every single* Naipaul novel (that she's read) -- it's not a sometime thing with him, it's a lifestyle.

Hilzoy said it was important not to be a shallow reactionary, but she also said, prescriptively and generally, that not reading Naipaul is a "mistake". I'm saying no, it's not.

Wrong of me to say "it would be a mistake", just like that. I was responding on TNC's thread, and should have said (what I meant): it would be a mistake not to read him because of what you see on this blog", which is what the person I was responding to said s/he was planning to do. I don't think, and should not have implied, that there is any such thing as a book that's good for everyone. (Personally, I am allergic to Wordsworth. I am reliably informed that I shouldn't be, but there we are.)

it would be a mistake not to read him because of what you see on this blog

But why not? There are too many wonderful authors to read so everyone has to cut their supply of reading material somehow....so why shouldn't what we read on a blog be one of the tools we use to filter?

If you think that what makes Naipaul's writing good is inextricably related to what makes his writing problematic, that might be a good reason to read him despite what I'm reading about him here. But do you really believe that? It seems that there must be many writers who do what good Naipaul does just as well.

@Cleek, we passed the message in your comment at least two turns ago. Try to keep up.

i have no idea what you're talking about here. though i do get that you're trying to be a smart ass.

I have the whole world of learning and literature to find something I enjoy that will also teach me, rather than forcing myself to eat boiled spinach all the way, PARTICULARLY if it's got special ground glass that is put there just for me.

Hilzoy makes it perfectly obvious (IMO) that the offensive parts are the exception, in otherwise "gorgeous" books. here, you've decided it's the whole meal. sigh.

If the Beatles wrote *every single song* like that,
a 2:30 song isn't quite analogous to an entire novel. and it seems clear that the entire novels are not "like that".

Dr S, Nell, scyllacat:

sorry, but i'm gonna take Hilzoy's word that Naipaul is worth reading - given that she has earned great respect over the years for things she's written here and elsewhere, and that she appears to have actually read him - over the reactions of a bunch of people who have apparently only read her summary and decided to take all the wrong lessons from what she (and TNC) wrote.

What Turb said. In the discussions at TNC's, I noticed two groups of commenters:

A. If I didn't read stuff by racists/sexists/jerks, there wouldn't be enough good stuff to read.

B. There's more good stuff to read than I can get through in a lifetime, and I get farther behind every year. Why *not* weed out the racists/sexists/jerks?

The closer a writer comes to my own day & age, the more I'm in Camp B. If I'm talking about 18th-century lit, I'm in Camp A.

Hilzoy makes it perfectly obvious (IMO) that the offensive parts are the exception, in otherwise "gorgeous" books. here, you've decided it's the whole meal. sigh.

I think scyllacat covered this above: if you don't like horrific rape scenes and you read this blog post, then you'll know that one of them is hiding somewhere in each of his books. And that makes it harder to enjoy any of them since you'll spend the whole time tensed up in expectation waiting for the vicious rape. Or what have you.

sorry, but i'm gonna take Hilzoy's word that Naipaul is worth reading

So Naipaul's talents are completely unique -- there is not a single author who uses the same techniques that Naipaul excels at in the entire world? Really?

Because if not, there's no reason to read Naipaul; just go read that other author instead.

Though Hilzoy weighed in with a reasonable clarification of her comment, I don't think it was necessary. Or: Doctor, you've overthinking Hilzoy's comment. She's not saying that anyone must read Naipaul or any other writer. She (and Coates) are making the point that even loathesome people can still be worth reading, so don't refuse to read someone just because you find them loathesome.

if you don't like horrific rape scenes and you read this blog post, then you'll know that one of them is hiding somewhere in each of his books. And that makes it harder to enjoy any of them since you'll spend the whole time tensed up in expectation waiting for the vicious rape. Or what have you.

i dislike scenes of violence and rape and murder. but, guess what - i'm right now re-reading Blood Meridian. why? because Cormac McCarthy is a damned good writer, even when he's describing things that turn me off (which he does in nearly all of his books). i've already read this book, i know there are scenes in there that are hard to stomach, but i'm reading it again - because i like the way he writes.

and i'm not going to "spend the whole time tensed up in expectation", because there's more to the book than those few scenes.

So Naipaul's talents are completely unique -- there is not a single author who uses the same techniques that Naipaul excels at in the entire world? Really?

i doubt it, but how would i know? i haven't read him. have you? but someone whose opinion i respect in many other areas says he's worth reading. so i won't discount him out of hand.

I liked Dr. S's time distinction in the 3:17 P.M. comment, though I'd put the cutoff on feminism much later--I think men have been pretty clueless until quite recently. But anyway, the general principle is sound--you don't judge writers as harshly if they lived in a period where certain forms of idiocy were the norm. It'd be interesting to know what forms of idiocy are normal with most of us early 21st century types.

I also sympathize with the idea that you can learn useful things from moral imbeciles, but you aren't obligated to do so if you can learn those things elsewhere. Which is just repeating Dr. S's point.

Though I just read TNC's post and it was pretty good too.

I wonder if this debate comes from the tendency to treat literature as a form of religion. I used to feel this duty to read great works of literature and I read things I had no interest in reading on my own because of it. (I even read some SF classics that bored me to tears because of this.) Presumably it did me some good. At any rate, I no longer feel anything of the sort--if a novel doesn't grab my interest I put it down. (Darwin ended up worse than me--he used to read poetry, but in his later life complained that great literature held no interest for him. His mind was a machine for grinding out facts and if he read fiction it was just light entertainment. I'm not quite that bad.)

It'd be interesting to know what forms of idiocy are normal with most of us early 21st century types.

Factory farming and the horrific cruelty to animals it entails.

(Not an exhaustive list.)

I bring this up whenever someone starts talking to me about Thomas Jefferson owning slaves, fathering children on slaves, etc. Not to let TJ off the hook, but to put us (me) on it.

(I could add other items to the list, but it's a sidetrack from the main topic, so I won't.)

Something I didn't know about Naipaul, which may or may not shed light:

http://www.newsday.co.tt/news/0,77487.html

The writer Paul Theroux, who Naipaul took under his wing as an ex-patriot decades ago, broke with his master some time in the mid-1990s, calling him, among other things, a misogynist.

I understand they recently reconciled.

I haven't read Naipaul for years, but remember "A House for Mr. Biswas" as very impressive. I don't recall a rape scene, but maybe I'll re-read to see if it changes my opinion of the novel.

I lost interest in Naipaul himself, not necessarily his writing, because in interviews he came across as unpleasantly prickly and off-putting, if not a prick, of sorts, though, generally speaking, I agree with Hilzoy's assessment of his work. (Hello Hil!)

Oddly enough, I stopped reading Theroux as well, for the same reason ... if I remember correctly, after a series of articles in the New Yorker in which he basically libeled several well-known friends of his, under the guise of fiction, including, I think, Naipaul.

They both just seemed bitter, which now that I'm older and have tasted bitterness might send me back to them.

Generally speaking though, if I'm reading a work of literature and find myself cringing and deeply disturbed, it moves me to keep reading -- Cleek mentioned "Blood Meridian" -- I want to get a look at Kurtz up the Congo to see if I can handle the worst savagery the human race can deal up.

Some of the later Philip Roth, "The Stain" comes to mind, caused a considerable degree of wincing on my part, but I'm glad I persevered.

"Macbeth", "King Richard The Third" -- I'd still read them even if you showed me an interview with William Shakespeare in which he seemed to have a little personal "thing" about murdering young, rosy-cheeked heirs-to-the-throne in their sleep.

Hilzoy makes it perfectly obvious (IMO) that the offensive parts are the exception, in otherwise "gorgeous" books

If you find a live cockroach in the middle of your expensive entree, would it be stupid of you to be put off your feed? Surely, the cockroach is the exception to the wonderful taste of the meal? Can't you just, you know, eat around the cockroach? What are you, some kind of food reactionary?

I understand (and agree with) hilzoy's point that it would be a mistake to pass up a Naipaul book purely on the grounds that Naipaul, as a person, is an asshole. Nor is it the case that any scene of a woman being degraded renders a work worthless.

But when it means that the author is throwing in scenes or characters or events for no other reason than as an extension of the author's own personal problems, that's not a political problem; that's a problem with the work itself, and renders the work that much less worth reading.

I also think TNC and hilzoy are conflating a bit who "should" read a work. If you are a student of English-language literature, then yes, you "should" read Hemingway. If you're not, well, I think that it would be a fine thing to read For Whom the Bell Tolls, but you're not a failure as a reader if you skip him.

If you find a live cockroach in the middle of your expensive entree, would it be stupid of you to be put off your feed?

sure. but reading is not eating.

you will not get sick or die if you read something that upsets you. nor will you become a psychotic killer or a serial rapist from reading something distasteful. you will not further the spread of racism, sexism, or any other -ism, by reading a scene which depicts those things. in fact, you may just learn something about yourself or the greater world around you. and, if the author is any good, a scene depicting such otherwise distasteful subjects will make sense in the overall piece.

you can handle it!

and while a roach in a meal makes little sense (except in some Scottish takeaways), a rape scene can make sense. it's all in how the author uses it. and yet everybody here (except for the people who have actually read Naipaul) has dismissed what he writes as being beyond the pale.

bah

John Lennon, as a younger man, was a self-admitted lout when it came to women, although I suspect his loutishness was a little bit of a self-inflated myth, maybe like his roll as a bread-baking househusband might have been just a little, teeny-bit exaggerated.

The line "I'd rather see you dead little girl then to be with another man" in "Run For Your Life" was lifted verbatim from an Elvis Presley song called "Baby, Let's Play House", of all things.

Lennon, among his wonderful qualities, was also terribly insecure about women, as he let us all know, mother.

As a sidebar, (1960s Beatles trivia folks will know this) "Last Train To Clarksville" by the Monkees sounds very much like the Beatles' "Paperback Writer", with a guitar riff stolen from "Help" and lots of melodic similarities (and a guitar riff from) to "Run For Your Life".

There is a thick vein of misogyny running through rock and roll, with "my baby" getting shot over and over from the very beginning right down to rap and hip-hop. Johnny Cash, Neil Young, they all shot their baby at one time or another.

I think only Phil Spector took it personally.

Ted Nugent actually gets invited on FOX news to sock puppet his misogyny through Mike Huckabee's ignorant mouth.

Of course, Nancy Sinatra's boots walked all over her men.

I wonder when the girl bands we talked about a number of threads ago are going to start shooting back. Maybe they have.

And speaking of rock and roll and misogyny, it is a myth that Charles Manson was one of 400-something tryouts for the Monkees, although it wouldn't have made things too much more bizarre than they already were that long-ago summer to have "I'm a Believer" playing over every tawdy, disgusting newscast of the Tate murders.

It was bad enough that Manson and clan found hospitality from Dennis Wilson, the Beach Boys' drummer.

I would still watch "Repulsion" despite the fact that Roman Polanski is repellent, because, oddly enough, it reveals painful empathy for an abused woman descending into wrenching madness.

Or does it? I'll have another look.

This probably reveals some ignorance on my part, but can anyone suggest a good piece of literature by a woman who imports repellent scenes into her work that reflect some personal sick kink or value?

Besides Ayn Rand, that is.

I did request "literature", with pinky raised.

Naipaul is one of the numerous authors in English literature who was/is an outsider. In fact, I don't think that there are many or maybe any writers who were not, in some way, outsiders. That outside view is what gives these writers their power: they see things from the outside and are able to describe them in a way that insiders never really notice. That these outsiders can be subject to the stress of what anthropologists term 'going native' is not a surprise, nor is it a surprise that they can glom on to attitudes and views to in a way that, especially if those views change under their feet, can have the precise consequences that we are seeing with Naipaul.

Furthermore, writing, or really any artistic endeavour, requires a certain belief in oneself. I don't know if that it required as a matter of course, but there are 1000s of examples of various artists making statements about their worth vis a vis others. Gunther Schuller once claimed something to the effect that it was just him and Beethoven. Joe Zawinul (pianist of Weather Report) said something similar about him being the greatest jazz pianist/composer. Follow that question up with an request to list all the female composers who were on the same plane as him would have probably gotten the same response.

cleek, you're doing that thing of addressing arguments nobody actually made (but which are easy for you to dismantle), rather than arguments people have actually made.

Nobody has said "a rape scene has no place in literature". Nobody has said "if you read a book that contains an example of a woman being brutalized, you will become a sexist."

And you contradict yourself. First you say that Naipaul's fixation with humiliating women is an exception to the greatness of his work, then you say that it's integral and part of the overall whole. Well, which is it? Is it the hideous bug that should be quietly disposed of, or the surprising but actually delicious foodstuff that everybody should try even though it's unfamiliar? It really can't be both.

It also seems a little silly to complain "nobody has read Naipaul" given that the point of hilzoy's comment is to encourage people to read Naipaul. You're bah-ing at those who say, actually, the description is having the opposite effect.

In fact, I don't think that there are many or maybe any writers who were not, in some way, outsiders.

I dunno if I can agree with this. I've definitely read some writers whose corpus consists of a collection of cliches and stereotypes held together with spit, bailing wire, and bad grammar. Such works give if anything an insider's view of their subjects, insofar as they use the intellectual shorthand of the subject matter to describe it. While someone reading it might get a sense of exoticism or alterity from reading it if they themselves are outsiders in relation to the work's subject, the author need not be anything resembling an outsider.

Well. I'm thinking about 'great' authors, which is obviously subject to taste, but I left out the adjective because people are having problems with any praise of Naipaul here and I've only read two novels and some of his travel writings. The back and forth between Naipaul's travel writings and Said's dismissal of them is quite interesting in relation to this discussion.

sure. but reading is not eating.

you will not get sick or die if you read something that upsets you.

Nor will I starve, be physically uncomfortable, or be likely to suffer in any significant way if I don't read a given author or work of literature. I spent much of my young adult life reading things because I was required to read them, because someone else had decided these were things that a person who wished to study text, writing, literature, and similar topics would benefit from reading. And in turn, I assign certain stories to my students because I generally feel that any student who has completed an Intro to Fiction course should probably have read at least one story by Poe, can learn something about POV from "The Lottery," etc. I am all about the principle that education requires moving outside one's comfort zone.

But as others have said, just as I must choose among many foods to eat, I require some criteria for filtering what I read. I reject the notion that those criteria either can or should be apolitical. Choosing to read an author whose works regularly degrade women is no more neutral than choosing NOT to.

And "regularly degrade" is the salient point here. We're not talking about this one book that has a rape scene, but a recurrent, ugly theme throughout the author's work that seems to stem much more from his real-life attitudes than from the necessity of the story itself.

cleek, you're doing that thing of addressing arguments nobody actually made (but which are easy for you to dismantle), rather than arguments people have actually made.

i disagree, but i have a feeling you're about to show me how it's done...

And you contradict yourself. First you say that Naipaul's fixation with humiliating women is an exception to the greatness of his work,

no, i didn't. i was referring to Hilzoy's reporting about his works. i have never read Naipaul. Hilzoy says that the offensive scenes are the exception to the overall works and that he remains an exceptional author despite them. in fact that seems to be a rather important part of her initial posting.

and i'm comfortable taking her word for it.

then you say that it's integral and part of the overall whole

again, no. i haven't read him. i said good writers can make horrific scenes integral parts of their works. my main example was Cormac McCarthy.

It also seems a little silly to complain "nobody has read Naipaul" given that the point of hilzoy's comment is to encourage people to read Naipaul

step off your high horse and read the thread. two people (Hilzoy and Countme-in) here have said they've read him. everybody else - all the people complaining about him have either explicitly or implicitly - said they haven't. and the two that have read him are not among those declaring him anathema.

so, um, no.

So there's a science fiction author I found a while back. I read a trilogy he wrote, and freaking loved it. Then I read a second trilogy, and loved it too... but things were starting to crop up in my mind as I read them. Nothing definite, but I was starting to get a vague impression that the author might be crazy.

Sex was portrayed in one of two ways. Either a life creating act of one-ness with the universe, or as evil. Sexual desire was the same way. WITHIN THE BONDS OF MARRIAGE FOR PROCREATIVE PURPOSES ONLY OR ELSE YOU'RE DIRTY!

So I checked out his blog. Maybe I was making too much out of a few small matters, and a poorly written ending to an otherwise awesome trilogy.

Nope. Dude's crazy in that "more Catholic than that commie who think's he's Pope" kinda way.

And now I can't enjoy his books. I tried! He's got other books, but... every time the plot touches even remotely on one of the author's many hobby horses, I can see now what I couldn't see clearly before. I know now that he's not just taking advantage of a few minor but crappy tropes of science fiction and fantasy, he really believes some freaking weird things about sex, and in particular about women. Its utterly disrupted my ability to enjoy the books, because I'm literally not reading the same books anymore.

There's a whole extra set of subtext that I can now decode. And the subtext is terrible. Terrible politically, terribly written, just generally terrible.

So... I probably won't be reading Naipaul now. I hadn't really planned on it, but I can be confident I'll pass him by if given the opportunity. Because now I'll see a subtext I might have missed before.

Let me propose an alternative approach to this dilemma. We (the ObWi commentariat) will promise to read something by Naipaul if Hilzoy will promise to return to blogging here.

I for one would take that pledge.

I think the whole debate could be relaxed a bit if we dropped the author as teacher metaphor. I personally don't approach literature (or the arts in general) with a sense that the artist is going to teach me something.

I lost interest in Naipaul himself, not necessarily his writing, because in interviews he came across as unpleasantly prickly and off-putting, if not a prick, of sorts, though, generally speaking, I agree with Hilzoy's assessment of his work.

I think Countme-in is making an important point here: it is importanat to separate an author's personal self from his work. To take an example from my own experience, I am quite fond of the SF works of Randall Garrett (under all his many aliases). Notwithstanding the fact that Randall was one of the most pathetic excuses for a human being that I have ever had the misforture to know. (Admittedly, that may be partly a commentary about my luck in meeting people.)

In a way, you could look at this as a foreshadowing of the no-privacy world. I've heard it suggested that one of Shakespeare's strengths is that we don't really know who he was, so we don't have to be horrified that he spent his time doing bear-baiting. It also makes me think that Salinger was prescient in this regard.

Horrific violence should be enough to get anyone to swear off the daily newspaper.

I have absolutely nothing on-topic to say.

i was referring to Hilzoy's reporting about his works.

As was I. Having read the comment and TNC thread in question, hilzoy was pointing out that an ugly part of Naipaul's personality seems to have seeped into his work, such that in every frickin' book he has to include an I Hate Bitches scene that isn't really required by the narrative. In hilzoy's opinion, Naipaul is a good enough author that he is nonetheless worth reading - or at least, that his earlier works are worth reading.

The problem that Doctor S. notes is that hilzoy is generalizing from her experiences with his work to everyone's likely experience.

Your response to this has been to play catty with anyone who doesn't go along with "hilzoy said it, I believe it, that settles it" and to move goalposts as necessary to make that point. Is that really supposed to be persuasive?

Patrick:

Let me guess. Fred Saberhagen?

saberhagen? really?

hilzoy was pointing out that an ugly part of Naipaul's personality seems to have seeped into his work, such that in every frickin' book he has to include an I Hate Bitches scene that isn't really required by the narrative.

and even still, she finds him worthy of reading.

he has to include an I Hate Bitches scene

hilzoy didn't say that. and you've never read him. you're just making stuff up, now.

The problem that Doctor S. notes is that hilzoy is generalizing from her experiences with his work to everyone's likely experience.

not really.

the problem i note is that neither Dr S nor you have read him. yet you feel OK summarizing and dismissing his entire body of work based on a second-hand account which praises him as much as it criticizes.

to move goalposts as necessary to make that point

why would i have to move the goalposts if i'm making the same point, over and over ?

Doctor Science: John C. Wright. He's not very well known. He wrote the Orphans of Chaos series, which had just enough AMAZING moments in it to turn all the absolute crap into fridge moments for me (stuff that was stupid, but it doesn't occur to you that it was stupid until you've put the book down and walked away), and he wrote The Gold Age series, which was some incredibly creative post-singularity sci fi, with yet again more fridge moments. Its B science fiction in a way, but its really, really good B science fiction.

The fridge moments added up, each one making the previous ones more difficult. Eventually I looked up his blog, and it turns out he's crazy. And when I went to read War of the Dreaming, it just didn't work for me anymore. Now the fridge moments aren't fridge moments, they're in my face.

McK:

I only guessed Saberhagen by looking at a list of Catholic SF writers and seeing who'd written multiple trilogies. It's been years since I read anything by him, so I didn't know if he'd changed.

yet you feel OK summarizing and dismissing his entire body of work

Again, cleek, when you feel like discussing arguments that people have actually made, it would be interesting to hear what you have to say.

So [ANY WRITER]'s talents are completely unique -- there is not a single author who uses the same techniques that [THAT WRITER] excels at in the entire world? Really?

Because if not, there's no reason to read [THAT WRITER]; just go read that other author instead.

Fiction isn't fungible.

If it is, ur doing it rong.

This comment, on the other hand, is a comment about writing and writers and how they function; it is not a comment about any specific writers.

Fred Saberhagen has been dead for four years, which minimizes his blogging. Which up until the age of 77 when he died, he never did do.

I was going to go with John C. Wright.

Mr. Farber- Bingo. Getting it right after I revealed the answer makes it look less impressive, but I guess I'll believe you given the post dated to two years past. :-) I'm not really tuned in to the fan scene, I'm just a reader... so your link is all new to me. And unsurprising given the ways his books go wrong, and what I found on his blog.

Following some of the links you posted, well, it explains a lot. I didn't realize he did a whole Objectivist -> Catholic transition. I figured he was always a sort of weird, freaky Objectivist/Catholic hybrid. He certainly talks about Catholicism the way an Objectivist would.

Before talking about books you have not read, please read the http://www.amazon.com/Talk-About-Books-Havent-Read/dp/1596915439/ref=tmm_pap_title_0>manual. ;-)
Warning: the author has installed tripwires for those that treat his book like the manual recommends ;-)

Again, cleek, when you feel like discussing arguments that people have actually made

you mean, instead of quoting you and responding to what you wrote?

guffaw.

Now that I'm (temporarily, at least) not on the receiving end of cleek's razor-edged retorts, I'm enjoying them quite a bit more.

Fiction isn't fungible.

Every work of fiction is a unique and special snowflake after all.

On the other hand, I don't care about "fiction" nearly so much as I care about my experience reading fiction. And the experiences I derive from reading fiction actually are, you know, fungible to some degree.

My take, given the comment Posted by: hilzoy | June 04, 2011 at 03:01 PM, is that Hilzoy was simply trying to make clear that her criticism of Naipaul was not meant to be taken to mean that Naipaul was not worth reading.

Also, the point that you might learn something, or simply enjoy something, by reading something (or taking in other types of work) from a somehow repugnant person or works that contain something repugnant to you, seems like decent advice. Keep and open mind to the extent that you can. You might find it rewarding if you try. No gun to anyone's head. No damnations.

(Maybe I'm just too open-minded.)

Dr. S, I just didn't recall reading Saberhagen (it's been a long time for me too) as having a Catholic perspective. I never read Walker. For an interesting take on religion(s) etc, is anyone out there reading S.M. Stirling's Change Series?

Here's a comment, from Hilzoy under the post of her comment on the original TNC post, that speaks to something that has come up on this thread:

I took 'we don't get to choose our teachers' to mean: there are times when there is some one particular thing that you have to learn -- something that you need to hear, to think about, to absorb. And it is not up to you which people will know that particular thing and be able to communicate it to you.

I'd rather have learned the things I learned from Naipaul from a nicer person. But that didn't seem to be on offer. My choices seemed to be: learn them from him, or don't learn them at all.

If the thing I had to learn were not deeply personal, the way many of the things I learn from writers are, I would be able to choose my teachers. Any number of people could teach me calculus, for instance. But when I learn from writers at their best, they are not replaceable by other writers, and I do not have a choice about whether to learn what I need to learn from admirable people or from jerks. (Though it is of course true that the odds of learning anything go down when you're dealing with certain kinds of jerks. I can only speak for myself and say: I learned a lot from Naipaul.)

But that didn't seem to be on offer. My choices seemed to be: learn them from him, or don't learn them at all.

I don't understand how anyone can possibly know this. What you learn from a work of fiction depends intimately on where you are when you're reading it. After you read it and learn something, you're in a different state, so you can't know if you would have learned the same thing when you read another work.

And this is the point I was trying to address when I asked earlier about whether Naipaul's writing is so unique that you can't get an equivalent experience from other writers.

If you can't even explain what it is about Naipaul's fiction that is so unique that it cannot be reproduced by any other author, then I don't see how you can claim that Naipaul taught you things that you couldn't learn otherwise.

If you can't even explain what it is about Naipaul's fiction that is so unique that it cannot be reproduced by any other author, then I don't see how you can claim that Naipaul taught you things that you couldn't learn otherwise.

Maybe Hilzoy can explain it, but didn't.

I don't understand how anyone can possibly know this.

Someone can't know how something seemed to her to be?

I wouldn't trust any fiction writer, if I were you.

They make stuff up; everything, even the names of the characters, are made up of whole cloth.

Basically, every word out of a fiction writer's mouth is a lie.

Liars, all.

Unless, of course, one of them is a friend of yours or you're married to them and they obviously used some horrible character trait or event from YOUR life in THEIR book!

Next thing you know they're on Oprah and collecting royalties and attending book signings.

Then when you accuse them of using your life in their book and profiting from it, they say "no I didn't, I made it up!"

Again, a lie. Geez. Oh, and if you made it all up, so it's a lie after all? Huh!

Poets are even worse. THEY say something is like something else, or worse, one thing IS another thing. How can that be?

Hey, it is what it is.

Take the Bible for example. It is what it is.

Know what I mean?

And don't get me started on history.

Take Paul Revere, please.

God, what a traitor! First thing he does, instead of warning Americans about the approaching British, Muslim, socialist, yellow peril hordes, like he was supposed to, no, HE runs right to the Redcoats, making every noise he can, to tell THEM where everyone is hiding!

Cripes! And I thought Johnny Tremayne was the Alder Hiss of the time!

Hey, you don't believe me, check out Wikipedia. Well, give it a couple of days, while I get in there and set matters straight.


It was Alder Hiss, ya know.

Alger Hiss? Sounds like one of those made-up characters in those 700-page collection of prevarications by Dickens.

Someone can't know how something seemed to her to be?

I think we should differentiate between "it seems to me that X is true" and "X is true". I'm happy to concede that anyone who writes "it seems to me that X is true" is correct in describing their own perception. But that does not mean that I agree that X is always true.

If I said "it seems to me that the moon is made of cheese", I assume you wouldn't defend my comments by saying "you have no authority to challenge Turbulence's perceptions of his own thoughts". Right?

Right, but the substance of the moon is not a particularly subjective or personal subject.

Now, if the moon were made of spare ribs, would you eat it? I know I would, and I'd polish it off with a nice tall Budweiser.

There are frozen lakes of beer underneath the surface of Mars.

Now, if you take the current budget deficit and divide it into one thousand dollar bills and stack those bills, they would reach to the Moon, which we all know is made of spare ribs.

Climb the stack. It's a ladder to spare ribs. Bring your own napkins.

First one there gets free green cheese as well in the transmutable form of NO additional revenue may be raised, because to raise additional revenue might shorten the ladder and then, ipso fatso, no spare ribs, plus, how do you get back to Planet Earth?

Which would be a brutal rape scene under the raising additional revenue story, I'm told, so why would you want to come back anyway?

Internet discussions can be frustrating even as they enlighten. What's enlightening here are the many opinions expressed about how people respond to literature. What is frustrating is how few commentators seem to be aware of Naipaul's long history as an agent provocateur, his tendency to throw the cat among the pigeons by expressing views he knows will provoke outrage and ire. Read Patrick French's superb biography for a sympathetic portrayal and analysis of Napiaul's m.o. in this regard. More significantly, though, it's clear that most of the commentators have not read Naipaul and yet feel entitled to pass judgment on whether reading him would be worth it. Naipaul isn't some hack writer. He has been called the greatest living craftsman of English prose. Sure, all such statements partake of hyperbole, but when a preponderance of critics say something of this sort one might think it worth checking Naipaul out. There seems to be resentment against the very idea that some writers are better than others. All I can say is that my experience is the same as Hilzoy's. Naipaul taught me about sentences -- about how detachment is not the opposite of passion. And he taught me about how to strive for autonomy in the world even as his characters almost always come nowhere near attaining it. Perhaps he taught me that autonomy is a myth, albeit a necessary and precious one (both his books and his life seem to bear this out). Read Biswas, or The Mimic Men, or A Bend in the River. Or read An Area of Darkness or A Turn in the South. Naipaul is a writer who has enormous empathy for his characters while also having a keenly critical and judgmental eye. I wish the same could be said for most writing on the internet.

He has been called the greatest living craftsman of English prose. Sure, all such statements partake of hyperbole, but when a preponderance of critics say something of this sort one might think it worth checking Naipaul out.

Usually, when I hear, 'X is the greatest Y ever', I assume it is bullsh!t and that the speaker is either a crook who is lying to me or a hopelessly naive person. History has often borne out that impulse.

The arts, no less than Wall St, are subject to manias and panics and fads with all the emotional intensity of a group of middle schoolers.

There seems to be resentment against the very idea that some writers are better than others.

I don't think anyone has written that. Perhaps you can cite some specific comments?

I do think the very notion of the greatest living craftsmen of the english language is a bit silly, especially combined with the implicit notion that therefore, you must read his work. I couldn't tell you who the greatest living computer scientist is; I doubt very much there's any agreement on such questions in any field. But even if I could, I would not say 'therefore, you must read her work' because odds are, her work is in a different field than yours and it will be not helpful to you.

I propose that there are four groups of people (which could be further subdivided if necessary):

1. Those who read Naipaul and think the experience was worthwhile (i.e. got positive utility).

2. Those who read Naipaul and think the experience was not worthwhile (i.e. negative utility).

3. Those who read Naipaul and don't think it matters that they read Naipaul (i.e. no net utility change, though I guess opportunity cost would figure here but I'm momentarily ignoring it).

4. Those who have not read Naipaul (I started A Bend In The River and got bored, so I fall here).

I think Hilzoy and TNC were identifying as people from group 1, and claiming that most people who were in group 4 would, if they read Naipaul, end up in group 1.

Is Dr. Science saying "no, if you're in group 4 and you read Naipaul, you'll end up in group 2?"

I can't tell. If she is, then I disagree, because that's an error of the excluded middle. There are probably going to be some nonzero amount of people in every category. That's why Turb is reiterating the point that "you MUST" or "MUSTN'T" read someone is overreaching. Not ontologically knowable, Hume-style. Maybe a hundred people will read Naipaul and think it was a waste of time, and two will read him and be glad they did. What does that mean for the value of advice like you must or mustn't read him?

The picture is Paul Sérusier's "La Grammaire" (The Grammar). Sérusier worked closely with Gauguin.

Those who read Naipaul and think the experience was worthwhile (i.e. got positive utility).

I tend to think that timing has no small part to do with it. Like the lightest of taps that, if delivered at the right time, can knock you off of your feet, a writer can, if s/he catches you at the right moment, can do the same.

The fact of the thing is this: We don't get to choose our teachers.

Just wanted to chime in to say that this comment from TNC resonates with me.

There are lots of things that you can learn from lots of people. Or, at least, a lot of aspects of lots of things that you can learn from a lot of people.

But some things, not so much.

I think what puts something in the latter category is the degree to which the thing you want to learn or understand is bound up with the actual person who already knows or understands it.

Some things take tremendous personal effort and commitment to master, so much so that they can't be learned without subjecting yourself to some level of personal transformation.

Not everyone is going to be able to teach those things, because not everyone has made the journey.

Likewise, some forms of expressions of mastery simply cannot be untangled from the character and person of the practicioner.

Some forms of mastery are sui generis. Some things are just rare, and if you want to step into them, you go where you need to go to get that.

Sometimes that means apprenticing yourself to difficult, complicated, strange people.

TNC and hilzoy speak about Naipaul as writers. The only guy in the world who can really write like Naipaul is Naipaul, and if you find that his work resonates with you and you want to understand what makes his work tick, you have to hang out with Naipaul, whether in real life or on the page.

I've read Naipaul, but not that much, and not recently, and I'm not a writer, so I can't really say if he's one of the guys whose particular gift is so rare as to not be more widely available.

But TNC and hilzoy are writers whose work I admire more than quite a bit, so if they say he's the real deal, one of the cats, I'm happy to take their word for it.

In any case, Naipaul is a capital-w writer, which means it's highly likely that his work is not all that extricable from his person, with all that that entails. So if you want to experience what Naipaul is bringing, you probably have to sign up for the nasty bits as well.

If that ain't your thing, that's cool. If it is, likewise.

Some things just draw us, and if we want to be true to ourselves, we have to follow. If that means learning at the feet of difficult jerks like Naipaul, then that's the price you pay.

I've got nothing to add to the main point of this post. However:

Steven Brust is fun. I like me some Vlad Taltos.

What Patrick described sorta happened to me with David Eddings. I read the Belgariad/Mallorean when I was young and totally missed some stuff. Upon a blog post by someone else picking apart some pretty blatant stuff in there, the veil was torn so to speak. I'm still a little surprised I didn't pick up on it myself, though.

The writer whose agenda/hangups I figured out on my own was Terry Goodkind. His psycho right-wingnuttery didn't show up (blantantly, at least) until book 5, whereupon he conjures a society with one group of people lording it over another group who have voluntarily submitted to slavery because they were once the masters and have guilt about it. Hmm, whatever could he be referencing with THAT? [note: that's all from memory, from many years ago, so hopefully it's reasonably accurate]

It went downhill from there (big time cold warrior stuff where the eeeevil guys were all commies).

Debate topic:

EITHER "Resolved: that everyone should be required to re-read [annually?] the books that influenced them when they were young."

OR: "Resolved: that everyone should be prohibited from [ever] re-reading the books that influenced them when they were young."

Show your work.

Replace "everyone" with "no one" and I'll argue both.

Well played, hsh!

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