Saturday, December 27, 2008

V.S. Naipaul

V.S. Naipaul is one of my favorite writers.  His The Enigma of Arrival is one of my favorite novels.  He's a most meticulous prose stylist, absolutely precise.  A Nobel prize winner, he's no doubt one of the greatest writers of my time.  He'd say the greatest -- he's not a particularly modest man, nor is he, according to many accounts, a particularly nice man.  Today I finished reading this authorized biography:

Once, having changed publishers, the new publisher, Knopf, having advanced Naipaul "hundreds of thousands of dollars" dared have one of their copy-editors tinker with his submitted manuscript. It rather set him off:

I thought it might have been known in the office that after 34 years and 20 books I knew certain things about writing and didn't want a copy-editor's help with punctuation ... I didn't want anyone undoing my semi-colons; with all their different shades of pause; or interfering with my "ands," with all their different ways of linking.

It happens that English -- the history of the language -- was my subject at Oxford.  It happens that I know very well that these so-called "rules" have nothing to do with the language, and are really rules about French usage.  The glory of English is that it is without these court rules: it is a language made by the people who write it.  My name goes on my book.  I am responsible for the way the words are put together.  It is one reason why I became a writer.

Every writer has his own voice ... An assiduous copy-editor can undo this very quickly, can make A write like B and Ms C.  And what a waste of spirit it is for the writer, who is in effect re-doing bits of his manuscript all the time instead of giving it a truly creative, revising read.  Consider how it has made me sit down this morning, not to my work, but to write this enraged letter. 

Another time, on the phone, he "yelled angrily" at someone at Vogue about a piece they were set to print about him.  "'What is more,' [he] shouted, his slim frame trembling with irritation, 'I do not like the photographs taken by that jumped-up little photographer of the Sixties.'"

He was referring to Lord Snowdon, who had been Princess Margaret's husband.  I didn't quite know what the British term "jumped-up" means but have learned:  Full of self importance; arrogant.