When we launched our book on V S Naipaul following his death in August, V.S.Naipaul – the Legacy, it provoked some of the strongest arguments that I have seen about an author. Branded a misogynist, a racist, and a right wing grump on the one hand, there was an extremely polite but nonetheless strong series of arguments between those who thought that he was, those who thought that he wasn’t (a minority at the launch) and those that said we had to look beyond what he said to his actions. There was of course a serious consideration of his literary output and his non-fiction on the other, but what is clear is that he was – and remains I suspect – a seriously divisive figure.
When I approach the question of whether someone is a seriously great writer, there are a number of considerations that I bring into play. None of these are unique to me, but sometimes enumerating them can provoke further thought. I start with something that I think is important but not the most important element, look at a second which is significant and then look at what I think is the most important element. I look at them in this order because I am moving from the more objective to the more subjective – notice that I say in each case more. It is also not entirely true because the last one is also capable of real objective analysis – but at the end becomes subjective.
There is for me a question about how well the prose is actually constructed. For me ease of reading is quite an important element in assessing whether anyone is a great writer. It seems to me self-evident that if you make a piece of prose difficult to read, it may flatter your intellectual self-esteem, but it hardly makes a great writer. For some people the more opacity there is the better the intellectual enjoyment but that’s a rare pleasure. There is a classic Tony Hancock sitcom – he was a UK comedian or comic actor in the 50s and 60s – where he attempts to read Bertrand Russell’s philosophy and is stymied by every other word. I don’t think this suggests that Bertrand Russell was not a great thinker, but it doesn’t help in constructing an argument that he was a great writer. (My own Bertrand Russell is the French philosopher, Louis Althusser – where I would puzzle over his sentences for days.) I do know that accessibility is sometimes derided – one of my own books on India is criticised by the Financial Times reviewer for being too simplistic, and when I discussed it with the critic, he accepted that he had mistaken simplicity of language for simplicity of ideas. So how does Naipaul match that? Let me leave that answer to you.
My second, more important criterion is engagement – does the author engage me with his story and his characters. The trouble with the criterion is that it does become more subjective, but the real advantage is that most people can tell whether they are engaged relatively easily. Just asking the simple question do I want to read more is one way of engaging with that. I’ll answer that for Naipaul – yes I do. (I am aware of how difficult this criterion can be in real life. I wanted to read Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley – yes, I know but we all have peculiar desires . . . The first hundred of so pages were sheer torture, and I forced myself to read it, thinking that it must be me as he had been so successful and his work is still read. Once I got into the story and some of the characters, I just bowled through the novel and I was absolutely engaged. War and Peace, which I also wanted to read, was for me really easy to read and yet it rarely engaged me. This is where the subjectivity enters.
My final criterion for determining is someone is a great writer is on the quality of the ideas – not whether I agree with them, but whether they are a challenge to me. You can see how this is both more subjective than the previous two, but also is capable of being subjected to more objective analysis. We can for example ask pretty objectively whether there are serious ideas in the writing, whether those ideas are well constructed, whether the logic is evident and whether there are further insights about the human condition that mean that the writing is seriously enlightening or just trite. The subjectivity is evident when I apply my last test in full – so not only whether there are ideas there, but whether those ideas challenge me.
On those criteria I suggest that Naipaul is a great writer – but I do bow to the writers in the collection of essays in our book – and don’t want to suggest my views are significant. I do hope my criteria are useful, however.