the story behind the book

Jamaica Kincaid on writing and critics

David Wilson

Jamaica Kincaid’s novel “See Now Then,” her first in more than a decade, concerns a fictional family and situation that in many ways parallel the author’s own (a black woman and her white husband, a marriage at its end, Vermont). In a telephone interview from her office at Harvard, she laughed heartily at the question of autobiographical elements in her fiction.

“Well you know,” she said, “no one has ever done that!” Reviews citing the book’s similarities to her own life, she suggests, mask other critiques. “What I think annoys people about this book is that it’s not a racial wound novel. It just is a black person speculating about the nature of the human existence. That’s all it is.”

Kincaid allowed that critics are correct to point out the book’s complexity. “The one thing the book is,” she said, “is difficult, and I meant it to be.” Still, Kincaid pointed out, “I’m not the first person to write long sentences,” citing the dizzying 190-word first sentence of John Cheever’s “O Youth and Beauty!” from a collection of Cheever’s stories she’s been reading.


Kincaid spoke rapturously of Cheever (“a genius”) and expressed in equally strong terms her negative opinion of many book reviewers. “If I respected these critics, the people who are not fond of my work, I might take them seriously,” she said, “but they’re really stupid people.”

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Young writers, Kincaid warned, should risk bad reviews. “One of the things that young people need to know when they go into writing,” she said, “is that they ought to stop writing these stupid books that please people. They should write as if they might fail at it.”

“To succeed at something mediocre is worse than to fail at something great.”

Kincaid will read as part of Brown University’s Writers on Writing Series at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday in the Martinos Auditorium, Granoff Center, 154 Angell St., Providence.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at