Naipaul on Writing Fiction and Nonfiction

In the Guardian V. S. Naipaul looks back on his evolution as a writer.

I had no great love for [Trinidad], no love for its colonial smallness. I saw myself as a castaway from the world’s old civilisations, and I wished to be part of that bigger world as soon as possible. An academic scholarship in 1950, when I was 18, enabled me to leave. I went to England to do a university course with the ambition afterwards of being a writer. I never in any real sense went back.

So my world as a writer was full of flight and unfinished experience, full of the odds and ends of cultures and migrations, from India to the New World in 1880-1900, from the New World to Europe in 1950, things that didn’t make a whole. There was nothing like the stability of the rooted societies that had produced the great fictions of the 19th century, in which, for example, even a paragraph of a fairytale or parable by Tolstoy could suggest a whole real world. And soon I saw myself at the end of the scattered island material I carried with me.

But writing was my vocation; I had never wished to be anything but a writer. My practice as a writer had deepened the fascination with people and narrative that I had always had, and increasingly now, in the larger world I had wanted to join, that fascination was turning into a wish to understand the currents of history that had created the fluidity of which I found myself a part. It was necessary for me as a writer to engage with the larger world. I didn’t know how to set about it; there was no example I could follow.

The practice of fiction couldn’t help me. Fiction is best done from within and out of great knowledge. In the larger world I was an outsider; I didn’t know enough and would never know enough. After much hesitation and uncertainty I saw that I had to deal with this world in the most direct way. I had to go against my practice as a fiction writer. To record my experience as truthfully as possible I had to use the tools I had developed. So there came this divide in my writing: free-ranging fiction and scrupulous non-fiction, one supporting and feeding the other, complementary aspects of my wish to get to grips with my world. And though I had started with the idea of the nobility of the writer of the imagination, I do not now rate one way above the other.

via Arts & Letters Daily

When I finished high school I wanted to be a writer, and I studied journalism when I first started college (before dropping out). But I had already discovered that I couldn’t write very convincing dialogue, and my journalism professor told me I wrote in a very “scientific” style. So I ended up writing analytical essays, academic arguments, and—much later—travelogues. My youngest brother is the fiction-writer in the family, as was our maternal grandmother, who alternated between school-teaching and (mostly religious) writing.

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Filed under India, literature, travel, Trinidad

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