Sir Vidia, the great Trinidad-born, British novelist and travel writer is dead. You know he won the Nobel Prize, and the Booker, and I assume you’ve read his work. I admired it without loving it, but its importance is unquestionable: he’s one of the most influential of post-colonial writers. Paul Theroux, Sir Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis all owe him debts. I don’t know his entire oeuvre, so I’ll mention only his books that I do: A House for Mr. Biswas, A Bend in the River, and The Enigma of Arrival. More knowledgeable critics than I have eulogised his work, so I needn’t do so here. What I want to talk about is what you’ve also heard: that he was a cad and a rotter, to use the sort of quaint Edwardian terms his father might have used.
(Another Dyspeptic Powellian Rant)
The catchphrase of the hideously-named NaNoWriMo, ‘the world needs your novel’ is one of the more egregiously fatuous mottoes of commodified literature. Let’s dismiss it at once. The world doesn’t need your novel. There are thousands of brilliant ones already, far too many for anyone to manage to read all of them. So why should we need more? Are you going to outdo Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy? At best, if you’re immensely talented, you’ll manage to say what the greats have been saying for millennia, in a new or newish way.
That brings me to a concomitant lie: that every writer (every human being) is special, and has something unique to contribute. It’s true that each of us is slightly different, but the similarities between us are far greater, and growing greater all the time in this era of groupthink and social media.
A New Path for Literary Fiction
We need a revolution, not just in politics, but in literature. It’s long been apparent that most fiction writers are stumbling blind down one of two dead-end streets—either trying to rewrite the nineteenth century novel, or else writing so-called ‘experimental’ fiction, usually based on postmodernist principles, often cleverly enough, but for me most of them are unreadable, because they’re little more than cerebral and linguistic games. Obviously I’m generalizing, and naturally there are exceptions. Still, I stand by my thesis: most current fiction, especially in America, and especially if we consider the literary stars, is neither engaging nor significant, and I want to consider why that is and what can be done about it.
3/26/15 IN PRAISE OF WOMEN OF GENIUS After my last essay, “On Talent and Genius”, whose examples of genius were mostly or—ahem—entirely male, one of my readers archly asked if I might be biased, even subconsciously. Of course one can affirm confidently that one is not biased consciously, but the charge of subconscious bias is unanswerable. The only way I could disprove it is by taking a psychological test. (And even then…) However, I do have a couple of responses to the accusation: first, my examples were male not because I believe that no women of genius could have been exercising those arts, but that in fact few did, until quite recently, because of societal pressures.
TALENT or GENIUS?
What is genius? How is it different from talent? Is it a matter of degree, or is it something altogether distinct?
In the past week on Facebook—admittedly not the most elevated forum, though I like to think that most of my friends are fairly bright—I have read that the following people are geniuses: JK Rowling, Prince and Stevie Wonder. I also read that Taylor Swift is extremely talented: she must be, said my friend, an intelligent person, because she is so widely popular. (I had perhaps foolishly, and certainly thoughtlessly, given the opinion that she was ‘completely talentless.’)
For a number of reasons, these comments disturbed me, and forced me to consider—yet again—whether it is possible to make any objective evaluation of the talent of an artist—Aesthetics 101—and also, if it’s possible to discuss the subject without simply getting into a curmudgeonly rant about declining standards, whether there is such a thing as genius, and if so, whether we might be able to define it