V.S. Naipaul Writes an Enraged Letter to His Publisher After a Copy-Editor Revises His Book, A Turn in the South

Pho­to by Faizul Latif Chowd­hury, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

There are many ways for trav­el writ­ers to get their sub­ject bad­ly wrong. Per­haps the worst is sole­ly rely­ing on unin­formed obser­va­tion rather than seek­ing the wis­dom and expe­ri­ence of knowl­edge­able locals. To his cred­it, cel­e­brat­ed Nobel prize-win­ning nov­el­ist V.S. Naipaul—who passed away on August 11th at age 85—met, min­gled, and spoke freely with indi­vid­u­als from every walk of life (includ­ing Eudo­ra Wel­ty) in the process of writ­ing A Turn in the South, a trav­el­ogue of his sojourn through the much-mythol­o­gized and maligned South­ern states of the U.S.

Naipaul’s voice alone might have over­whelmed the work with the extreme­ly harsh, some have said big­ot­ed, judg­ments he became known for in nov­els like A Bend in the Riv­erGueril­las, and The Enig­ma of Arrival. Instead, he won praise from review­ers like South­ern his­to­ri­an C. Vann Wood­ward, who wrote that Naipaul “brings new under­stand­ing of the sub­ject to his read­er.” Wood­ward also not­ed that Naipaul “con­fess­es to ‘writ­ing anx­i­eties’ about under­tak­ing this book on peo­ple unknown to him.”

Though he con­sult­ed and quot­ed local voic­es in his sur­vey of the South, it is ulti­mate­ly Naipaul’s voice that orga­nizes the work, and his pre­cise, eru­dite prose the read­er hears. It was a voice he took great pride in, as he should. For his many faults, Naipaul was a mas­ter­ful lit­er­ary styl­ist. One won­ders, then, why a copy edi­tor at Knopf would feel it nec­es­sary to make exten­sive revi­sions to the man­u­script of A Turn in the South before its pub­li­ca­tion.

Copy-edit­ing is an essen­tial func­tion, writes Let­ters of Note, with­out which many books would go to print “pep­pered with redun­dant hyphens, need­less rep­e­ti­tion, mis­placed semi­colons,” etc. But it is also a task that should inter­fere as lit­tle as pos­si­ble with the mat­ters of dic­tion, style, and syn­tax that char­ac­ter­ize an autho­r­i­al voice. Like a con­sci­en­tious back­pack­er, a good copy edi­tor should endeav­or to leave almost no trace unless the text is full of seri­ous prob­lems.

Clear­ly, as Naipaul’s irri­tat­ed let­ter below shows, some­thing went wrong. Upon receiv­ing the copy-edit­ed text, he writes, he was oblig­ed to restore the orig­i­nal from mem­o­ry. Naipaul assures Knopf’s edi­tor-in-chief Son­ny Mehta that he under­stands the Eng­lish lan­guage and its his­to­ry very well, and knows that, unlike French, it has no “court rules,” and can be bent any num­ber of ways with­out break­ing. He implies it is the job of every “seri­ous or ded­i­cat­ed” writer in Eng­lish to use the lan­guage as they see fit, and the job of an edi­tor to most­ly get out of the way.

No doubt this rela­tion­ship can prove com­pli­cat­ed and frus­trat­ing for both par­ties. Still, though we only get Naipaul’s side of the sto­ry, it’s hard not to take it when he points out he had writ­ten 20 books by that time, all of them acclaimed for the qual­i­ty of their writ­ing. “My name goes on my book,” he declares. (So does the name “Knopf,” Mehta might have replied.) “I am respon­si­ble for the way the words are put togeth­er.” Read the let­ter in full below. And see Lit­er­ary Hub for Naipaul’s Ten Rules of Writ­ing if you’re inter­est­ed in his pre­scrip­tions for clear Eng­lish prose—advice he had earned license to take or leave in his own work.


10 May 1988

Dear Son­ny,

The copy-edit­ed text of A Turn in the South came yes­ter­day; it is such an appalling piece of work that I feel I have to write about it. This kind of copy-edit­ing gets in the way of cre­ative read­ing. I spend so much time restor­ing the text I wrote (and as a result know rather well). I thought it might have been known in the office that after 34 years and 20 books I knew cer­tain things about writ­ing and didn’t want a copy-editor’s help with punc­tu­a­tion or the thing called rep­e­ti­tion; and cer­tain­ly didn’t want help with ways of get­ting round rep­e­ti­tion. It is utter­ly absurd to have some­one point­ing out to me rep­e­ti­tions in the use of “and” or “like” or “that” or “she”. I didn’t want any­one undo­ing my semi-colons; with all their dif­fer­ent ways of link­ing.

It hap­pens that Eng­lish — the his­to­ry of the lan­guage — was my sub­ject at Oxford. It hap­pens that I know very well that these so-called “rules” have noth­ing to do with the lan­guage and are real­ly rules about French usage. The glo­ry of Eng­lish is that it is with­out these court rules: it is a lan­guage made by the peo­ple who write it. My name goes on my book. I am respon­si­ble for the way the words are put togeth­er. It is one rea­son why I became a writer.

Every writer has his own voice. (Every seri­ous or ded­i­cat­ed writer.) This is achieved by the way he punc­tu­ates; the rhythm of his phras­es; the way the writ­ing reflects the process­es of the writer’s thought: all the ner­vous­ness, all the links, all the curi­ous asso­ci­a­tions. An assid­u­ous copy-edi­tor can undo this very quick­ly, can make A write like B and Ms C.

And what a waste of spir­it it is for the writer, who is in effect re-doing bits of his man­u­script all the time instead of giv­ing it a tru­ly cre­ative, revis­ing read. Con­sid­er how it has made me sit down this morn­ing, not to my work, but to write this enraged let­ter.



via Let­ters of Note

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Kurt Von­negut Explains “How to Write With Style”

Cor­mac McCarthy’s Three Punc­tu­a­tion Rules, and How They All Go Back to James Joyce

Oscar Wilde Offers Prac­ti­cal Advice on the Writ­ing Life in a New­ly-Dis­cov­ered Let­ter from 1890

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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