I meant to post a few months ago about this lead piece in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. It is George Packer’s assessment of Patrick French’s biography of V.S, Naipaul, A Life Split in Two, it’s a rave, and very much worth reading (something I feel about a minority of efforts there, which are so often more about the reviewer than the reviewed).

Given the excellence of the piece, I was jolted by the banality of Packer’s closing sentence: “He had the capacity in his writing to pro­ject himself into a great variety of people and situations, allowing him to imbue his work with the sympathy and humanity that he failed to extend to those closest to him in life.”

Ho-hum. The “He” here, is, of course, Naipaul. But you run out of fingers in a hurry if you begin counting the writers it could apply to.

Writing is an act of ego, and much of it entails—requires—using people. Journalists do it by creating a false sense of trust and personal connection. Novelists do it by stealing the personalities, characteristics, conversations, and motivations of (among others) their friends and families. The only way to justify any of these betrayals is to plead the preeminence of The Truth, or The Work, or even The Art. This step, once taken, sometimes—often—leads to more direct abuse of others. The Artist and his Art come first, regardless.

Needless to say, I was never in any danger of becoming a great writer. I have done that journalist’s “soulmates” trick many times. But I have never had whatever it takes to bring myself to use the tragedies and eccentricities of friends and family as fodder for fiction, or to elevate creative needs over family requirements. Which may be why the project I’ve been working on mines the experiences of family long departed and circumstances too ancient to wound. (It may also be, I’m afraid, why I left this effort too late. I’m discovering to my surprise that this writer, like this athlete, has lost more than a little with age.)

This reticence—which I think is not altogether admirable in someone who wants to write good fiction—doesn’t, of course, mean I can’t be a monster in a dozen other cruel and dreary ways, any more than it means I can’t swan about in an old tweed jacket and a long scarf. It just means I won’t eventually be receiving what I once heard a professor call “the artist’s absolution.”


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