Pride and Prejudice

I really hope Hilzoy will forgive me for digging this comment out of weeds, and pulling it up top. It's the closest thing we have to getting her to blog again. At any rate, in terms of advice to young writers who, for whatever reason, happen to feel the bite of this industry, I think the following is a really significant piece of advice:


It would be a mistake not to read Naipaul. He's a gorgeous, gorgeous writer. The Mimic Men, A Bend in the River, and A House for Mr. Biswas are the best (Biswas is quite long, though, and not the best to start with. But it's quite funny.) 

That said, he's also one of the best examples around of someone who is (imho) deeply worth reading, but whose treatment of both women and blacks (esp. blacks outside Africa) is just horrific. In the case of women: more or less all of his novels (before the mid-90s, when I stopped reading him) contain at least one scene in which a female character is subjected to some sort of extreme sexual humiliation. (I.e., male protagonist, who is her lover, is suddenly overcome with revulsion at her, hits her, and spits on her genitals. That sort of thing.) 

He's a good enough writer that in any single novel you can think: well, there's a reason that happened that has to do with the arc of the novel; obviously the fact that he wrote that scene doesn't mean he approves. It's only when you read them all and see that pattern that you really shudder and think: he finds a reason to write that scene in, every time.

But this is why I agree so much, and so deeply, with TNC about moving on from this kind of thing (by which I emphatically do not mean pretending it's not a problem; I mean: not letting anger at it wholly determine your response, or taking the fact that Naipaul completely flunks the 'treatment of women' test prevent you from seeing and learning from what he does right.) I completely understand why many women would not be able to get past this. 

I read my first Naipaul novel about six months after someone tried to rape me, and if I had known that the rape scene in that novel was part of the pattern mentioned above, I don't know that I would have been able to get past it. But I'm really glad I was. I would have lost so much had I just thrown the book across the room and never looked at Naipaul again. And in saying this, I'm not being nice to him, or something; I'm being entirely selfish. He's one of the writers I learned the most from, I think, and I would hate to have been deprived of that.

Damn right.

What Hilzoy is pointing to here is not an embrace of blindness or amnesia, but the crucial importance of not becoming a shallow reactionary. It's true that the The New Republic would piss me off when I was in college. But I read it whenever I could find the time, and I studied the people who wrote there, hoping to steal whatever secrets of the craft they brought to bear. And now I find myself somewhere even worse--studying the words of slaveholders. 

The fact of the thing is this: We don't get to choose our teachers. If you're going to be an artist, or a thinker, or even a full person, you better be able to make yourself into something more than the shadow of someone else's bankrupt philosophies. You better be more than an obvious and predictable reaction.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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