Naipaul must be judged on his literary output
Stabroek News
November 23, 2001

Dear Editor,

The Nobel Prize for Literature is similar to those Employee of the month competitions favoured by some companies - if you stick around long enough and don't screw up, eventually you will win one. And like most awards it is subject to human lapses of judgment, personal idiosyncrasies and the mood and vogue of the times. Which is why it is a conglomeration of the great (Yeats, Faulkner, T S Eliot), the not so great (Galsworthy, Kipling, Pearl Buck), the over-rated (Steinbeck, Hemingway, Solzhenitsyn), the inappropriate (Churchill, Bertrand Russell), the obscure and the downright undeserving.

And until a few months ago Naipaul belonged to an even greater list of writers - those who never did win the prize, among them the man who by general consent is the greatest writer of the twentieth-century, James Joyce. This list also includes such literary giants as Proust, Conrad, Nabokov, Borges, Auden, Chekhov, Rilke, Lorca, Ibsen, Brecht, Kafka, Orwell, Mishima, Malraux, Henry James, Graham Greene, Lessing, Ted Hughes, Dylan Thomas, F Scott Fitzgerald, D H Lawrence, Arthur Miller, Ellison, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Hardy, Robert Frost and Count Leo Tolstoy who was still alive in the first years of the award.

Another point to note about the awards committee - they seem to, of late, have a predilection for writers with left-leaning sympathies (Marquez, Gunter Grass, Jose Saramago, Nadine Gordimer). Naipaul, however, to the infuriation of his many critics, has been far less convenient to categorize. A very complex and deeply analytical figure, he has also stood outside of the various trends in writings and politics which together with his bristly personality have hardly made him the most fashionable figure on the literary cocktail circuit. It would appear then that given the paucity of great left-wing writers (Salman Rushdie excepted, but it seems he can only win it posthumously) and Mr. Naipaul's stubborn bad manners in remaining alive the Committee had no choice but to swallow hard and get it over with.

Some letter writers, one in particular, attack Mr. Naipaul because he does not share their limited Manichean world view - left/right, white/non-white, rich/poor, and, in essence, would have him stripped of his laurels because he is deemed a closet fascist, a crypto-colonialist, a white man disguised as a colored, etc. This to me smacks of not a whiff of repression and censorship. Are the works of Marquez and Gunter Grass, great writers both, any greater or less because they have a fondness for a failed ideology?

Very few have commented on the man's actual books - his craftsmanship, the characterization in his novels, the creation of his fictional universe, in short the very things that make up great Literature. Where, for instance, is the critique of such very good novels as "In a Free State" or "A Bend in the River"? Or the admiration for a writer who on one single topic, India, showed his range and development over the course of three very different books? In fact, Mr. Frederick Kissoon does not make a single direct reference to any of Mr. Naipaul's books, relying

instead for his opinion on the well-worn Naipaul media stories. Well, just to remind Mr. Kissoon and others, the prize is called Nobel Prize for Literature, not Nobel Prize for Political Correctness or Pseudo Intellectual Navel-Gazing. Perhaps in Mr. Kissoon's next letter he would be so kind as to illustrate with actual quotes from Naipaul's writings the offending curmudgeon's subversive pronouncements. I also look forward to Mr. Kissoon's preferred list of Nobel Prize nominees.

There are no two opinions on Mr. Naipaul's merits as a writer or his dedication ("has followed no other profession" is the quotation on every one of his jacket blurbs). He is probably not the sort of chap you would want as a friend, but then again it is not called the Miss Congeniality award. It is called the Nobel Prize for Literature and that he richly deserves.

Yours faithfully,

Robin Muneshwer