Sunday, November 08, 2009

Naipaul on writing

Am short on time, so here are some quick quotes by VS Naipaul from this superb essay on being a writer. Who else, I wonder, writes such great prose, such charged sentences? (The elegance of his writing is in sharp contrast to his obnoxiousness in real life -- read Patrick French's biography if you need to know more.)
All literary forms are artificial, and they are constantly changing, to match the new tone and mood of the culture. At one time, for instance, a person of serious literary inclination might have thought of writing for the theater; would have had somehow to do what I cannot do—arrange his material into scenes and acts; would not have written for the printed page, but would have written "parts" to tempt actors and—as someone who has written plays has told me—would have visualized himself (to facilitate the playwriting process) as sitting in a seat in the stalls.

At another period, in an age without radio or records, an age dominated by print, someone wishing to write would have had to shape a narrative that could have been serialized over many months, or fill three volumes. Before that, the writer might have attempted narratives in verse, or verse drama, rhymed or unrhymed; or verse epics.

All those forms, artificial as they seem to us today, would have appeared as natural and as right to their practitioners as the standard novel does today. Artificial though that novel form is, with its simplifications and distortions, its artificial scenes, and its idea of experience as a crisis that has to be resolved before life resumes its even course. I am describing, very roughly, the feeling of artificiality which was with me at the very beginning, when I was trying to write and wondering what part of my experience could be made to fit the form—wondering, in fact, in the most insidious way, how I could adapt or falsify my experience to make it fit the grand form.

Literary forms are necessary: experience has to be transmitted in some agreed or readily comprehensible way. But certain forms, like fashions in dress, can at times become extreme. And then these forms, far from crystallizing or sharpening experience, can falsify or be felt as a burden. The Trollope who is setting up a situation—the Trollope who is a social observer, with an immense knowledge both of society and the world of work, a knowledge far greater than that of Dickens—is enchanting. But I have trouble with the Trollope who, having set up a situation, settles down to unwinding his narrative—the social or philosophical gist of which I might have received in his opening pages. I feel the same with Thackeray: I can feel how the need for narrative and plot sat on his shoulders like a burden.

And the best bit, Naipaul's advice for those who aspire to write:

Every serious writer has to be original; he cannot be content to do or to offer a version of what has been done before. And every serious writer as a result becomes aware of this question of form; because he knows that however much he might have been educated and stimulated by the writers he has read or reads, the forms matched the experience of those writers, and do not strictly suit his own.

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