Thursday 9 June 2011

Why don’t you read my books instead?

VS Naipaul in conversation with Geordie Greig, Intelligence Squared, London, 31 May 2011

One of the most shamefully overlooked neologisms of recent years has surely been the phrase ‘The New Obnoxiousie.’ Used in passing by David Stubbs back in 2006 in reference to Jeremy Clarkson and Gordon Ramsay, it perhaps is too clever by half for a proper coinage: it hardly rolls off the tongue like ‘metrosexual’ or even ‘Twitterati.’ Certainly it has not been used since. It is a shame, because no other term denotes the very specific personality of the hyperregulated age: the professionally offensive commentator, filling the vacuum of public debate left by the decline of the proper public intellectual (and the likes of FR Leavis could be pretty crude) by ‘saying the unsayable’ or, worse, ‘saying what we’re all thinking.’ In a culture of genuine free speech and its progeny – robust intellectual debate – we would all soon realise that some of what we think should quickly be discarded, rather than celebrated.

VS Naipaul would surely be top of the guest list for any obnoxiousie dinner party. A public intellectual of the old school he may be – with a Nobel Prize to crown over a half century’s worth of novels, essays and journalism – but he enjoys a spot of liberal-baiting with a relish that would terrify Glenn Beck. Anyone following the increasingly desperate controversialism of Martin Amis must realise that the health of an intellectual culture can be taken by the strength of its enfants terrible and reflect that there may be a reason they don’t make them like Naipaul anymore. The confusion he generates among a postcolonialist audience with his rants in defence of empire and the destruction of indigenous cultures is almost worth the entry price alone.

The prospect of seeing him in action at a recent Intelligence Squared talk was therefore something to look forward to. Certainly, he shows no signs of going gentle into that good night: Naipaul would require that the dying of the light makes a bit of effort. ‘Is my sympathy for the human condition present in the humour of my novels?’ he pondered while answering a long, elaborate question from an avid reader in the audience. ‘No,’ he concluded, after a long pause. Asked his attitude to contemporary Indian society, he observed that his thoughts may be contained in the ‘three very long and well-written books’ he’d published on the subject, ‘so why don’t you read them instead?’ At least nobody dared ask him where he gets his ideas from.

Given his evident (and well-known) distaste for public discussions and soul-searching, the organisers will have been at least happy that he at least found the strength to lob one hand grenade into the liberal literati audience: on the shortcomings of female novelists. Starting by deriding Austen for her ‘sentimentality’, he declared that you can always tell a woman writer by her prose style and topped it off with the pronouncement that he considered no female author his equal. An obedient forefather to the obnoxiousie to the last, Naipaul probably felt he owed interview Geordie Greig something, given that he chose to end his notoriously bitter feud with Paul Theroux at Hay only a few days before.

It was a cunning ruse: a sharp-eyed and consistent defender of Western intellectual culture at heart, Naipaul has always thrived on picking apart the self-loathing tendencies of the liberal intelligentsia: the erudite colonial always ready to upstage his masters. The literary press and blogosphere lapped it up, pompously declaring Naipaul a sexist who had never heard of George Eliot. Forget Eliot: all that proves is that Sir Vidya has never had a sexually confusing moment of anagnorisis in an internet chatroom.

Somewhat more tellingly, no-one seemed willing to defend the charge against Austen, perhaps because it’s rather more difficult to take quick outrage at a piece of literary criticism, particularly if you’re part of the cultural studies generation who were taught her as proto-feminist anti-slavery campaigner, rather than pre-Victorian moralist. It was a cheap swipe, of course, yet you couldn’t help but wonder where the outraged literati disappear to whenever similarly preposterous claims are made about neuroscience’s ability to demonstrate why women don’t enjoy sex as men, or why men lack emotional intelligence. When one reads that Austen and Dickens are being increasingly dropped from the state curriculum because boys apparently struggle to get past the 100th page and need to be engaged with more books about football, everyone seems to forget about George Eliot.

The visibly frail demeanour and sheer exhaustion of his controversialism offered a reminder that, in the week of Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday, if it isn’t dark yet then it’s getting there. But, as he reminded us, Naipaul has written plenty of books over the course of his life and we would find richer rewards from reading and engaging critically with them, rather than getting wound up by the guy who produced them. If nothing else, the event left us to reflect on what will be lost when the last of the public intellectuals leaves the scene to be replaced by the obnoxious personalities.

Video and audio of this event available at Intelligence Squared

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