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How I criticised VS Naipaul
Diana Athill Writer
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Q] There is another mistake… I mean, not a mistake, but it's an interesting story, it seems to me, about the time when you… with Vidiadhar Naipaul, where you did more than just say, 'Darling, you're wonderful'. You told him what you thought about a book.

That was a mistake, yes.

[Q] Will you tell me that story?

That was… that was a silly thing to do, really, because someone who is as good a writer as Vidiadhar, if one particular book, it strikes you that something is a bit wrong with it, really you shut up about it, because it's… I mean, you know, some Dickens isn't as good as other Dickens. But in this particular case, the novel was based on events that I knew about. It wasn't… it was not meant to be… I mean, he'd used these events for his own ends. It wasn't meant to be a portrait of those events, so it didn't really matter that they… the people weren't at all like the real people who were involved. But it struck me that the people were… the two main characters… one of them, anyway, was quite… so wrong. I mean, she was so completely unlike the real person was that she was actually… she didn't function well in… as a part of the story. You didn't care what happened to her. Because he had… she didn't… she was an invented character who hadn't come off, something which is very rare in Vidiadhar. And I said, I was unconvinced by this character, which is, after all, quite a big thing to say to someone about the main character in their book. And I shouldn't have done it, really, because he… it was pointless. We were going to publish the book anyway, because we weren't going to lose Vidiadhar because… not particularly liking one of the books.

[Q] What exactly did you do that you think was a mistake?

Hm?

[Q] What exactly did you do that you think was a mistake?

Well, that I criticised it at all. As an editor, I mean as a publisher. I wasn't there to be a literary critic, I was there to be his publisher, and I should have had the sense to have thought, well, I think myself this is not as good as it ought to be. I think there's something rather hysterical about this book and he's got it a bit wrong.

And I should have let it go by. And I didn't. And he just said, 'Oh, oh, I'm sorry. I'm sorry you don't like it, because there's nothing I can do about it. I've done the best I can do'. And left, quite gently and nicely. And I was rather relieved that he hadn't been angry, apparently, with me for saying it. But he went straight to his agent and said, 'I'm leaving Deutsch'. And did. And went to somebody else and very soon came back. The reason being, according to his agent, that the people he went to announced his book as being by the famous West Indian novelist, and Vidiadhar believed this sounded sort of regional. Vidiadhar, by that time, he'd been living and writing as an English novelist. I mean, he was just the famous novelist. I mean, no one in their senses would have made that mistake. That was really naïve of them. But anyhow, he wasn't having that, and he came back. And from then on, it was… in a way, life became easier, because we saw less of each other in a friendly way, but went on perfectly all right as editor and writer. And seeing him in a friendly way had been exhausting, because he gets terribly depressed, or used to get desperately depressed between each book. He used to go into a fearful gloom, and one used to have to spend so much of one's time trying to cheer him up. And really, people's depressions are very, very… taxing to other people. And I no longer had to bother with trying to do that anymore.

Born in 1917, Diana Athill is a British literary editor whose publishing career began when she helped André Deutsch establish his company. She has worked with many notable writers, namely Philip Roth, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Rhys and VS Naipaul. Following the publication of her memoirs, she is now hailed as an author in her own right.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: André Deutsch, VS Naipaul

Duration: 5 minutes

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008