Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press
Windows 3
Sorrentino banner
In Progress

« A Wedge Between Writers and Readers | Main | Easier to Talk About »



Rohan Maitzen

This kind of rejection of an author's work on the basis of newly discovered biographical 'insights' got kicked around a bit a few months ago in the context of some painfully racist statements made by Dickens. In sorting through some of the issues that seemed to be involved here, I thought the only legitimate *literary* critical implications of such a discovery would be if you felt, on re-reading, that the bad attitudes (for want of a better term) were in fact aspects of the fiction as well. (See my post Dickens and the Limits of Anguished Humanism if you have time and patience...but the quotation from Wayne Booth is, I think, a good one in support of your position.


I am completely addicted to artist biographies and memoirs and couldn't wean myself off them if I tried. That said, nothing I have ever discovered about Naipaul has dimmed my love for Mr. Biswas. I want to proclaim that I always separate the work from the life with perfect equanamity, and indeed I do a great deal of the time. But not always--I don't get much pleasure from Michael Jackson's best songs any more and I probably never will. I think we all have some sort of line where an artist's turpitude affects our perceptions, some point where we can't look at the work in quite the same way. Alibhai-Brown has drawn it in a different area.

Also, while I have never in my life sought out anything biographical about Naipaul I still recall many unflattering things about him, things I gleaned merely by reading newspapers and magazines and reviews. In today's media-saturated world I think it's just about impossible to avoid all mention of an artist's life, unless s/he has helped us out by being a recluse.


Also, Rohan, thank you for pointing me to your Dickens discussion, as I also love Dickens (or what I experience when I read him) and agree that Bleak House is his best. Except your post also confirms Noggs, in that swearing off biography might make me happier. Certainly I would be happier never knowing about that awful letter to the Baroness.


Oh this personal worth business will all blow over. Just like it did for DH Lawrence and Philip Larkin . . .

I can't imagine that if you ever read Naipaul's nonfiction you could possibly believe him to be a decent human being anyway.


The composer Kyle Gann had an interesting aphorism on this topic: something like "Don't blame my music for my failings." The music itself is free from blame.

On Dickens: wouldn't you already assume that the majority of pre-1900 writers are racist and/or sexist by today's standards?

the wandering jew

It seems a boundary can be constructed between one's own personal taste, which will be informed by all sorts of contexts, and a critical assessment of literature. Disliking Dickens because of some racist remarks can't be helped. Deciding his work has no value is another matter. The Naipaul piece seems all over the map on this, informing a critical eye with a jumpy distaste.

The answer to "What would we do if we found Richard Branson beat his mistress and drove his wife to death?" seems clear to me: dislike Branson, continue to fly Virgin.


I don't care if my bus driver is a bastard.
I'm a bastard, too. Can he drive a bus?


Not that passing moral judgments over artists and writers as anything new, but I had to think about all of the "memoirs" in the past few years which turned out to be hoaxes (fiction). The same sort of outrage and moral disgust appeared. Granted, these aren't on par with most literary novels, but it's just interesting that authors have become such celebrities lately (albeit in a smaller way than actors, etc), trusted and expected to be pure speakers - or confessors - of capital-T Truth.

the wandering jew

Methinks the outrage over fictional memoirs stems from the mortifying realization that one has found meaning in the author rather than the text. I've never understood the "OK, so the prose isn't good, but it's a helluva story" argument.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)