What makes good writing? Empathy, conflict, a well-crafted and well-told story certainly. But what makes a great writer? There’s an ingredient that isn’t often discussed, which is why this jumped out at me in the latest literary dustup involving VS Naipaul’s attention-getting (seeking?) comments that no woman in history could hold a candle to him in the writing department.
Naipaul’s contempt reveals a meanness of spirit that eliminates him straight off, in my opinion, from the category of great writers. Truly great fiction is illuminated by compassion, not contempt. Truly great writers, of both genders, can inhabit the other gender, and the Other’s life. That’s what Shakespeare does, and Tolstoy, and Woolf.
I’ve noted this meanness of spirit before. I’m to the point of conceding that it is the dominant spirit of our age and no surprise that it’s in literature and other art forms. It may begin with a bit of innocent snark, but quickly turns corrosive. It’s no coincidence that VS Naipaul and I both referred to Jane Austen. I suspect what actually bothered him is not the quality of her writing, it is that she intended her novels for the very people she was satirizing. As a writer, you have to love people to have a prayer of pulling that one off.
It is challenging to keep a sense of generosity alive when people let you down or hurt you repeatedly, but whether or not a writer has a deep love of people seeps through every bit as much as another writer’s contempt for humanity. One way or another, you will choose and readers will know.
Related: When bad people write great books
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