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V.S. Naipaul: No woman is my equal, not even Jane Austen.

June 2, 2011

V.S. Naipaul

Proving once again that literary achievement has absolutely nothing in common with empathy, virtue or common sense, Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul declared on Tuesday that he’s better than any female writer who ever lived.

Female writers, he said, are handicapped by “sentimentality” to a “narrow view of the world.” Not even Jane Austen escapes the harsh assessment of Naipaul, who “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world.”

“Women writers are different, they are quite different,” Naipaul said at Britain’s Royal Geographic Society in remarks reported widely, as in the Guardian and the Telegraph. “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.”

Naipaul’s comments ignited a predictable uproar, with critics asserting, according to the Telegraph, that he’s out of touch with the modern world. “Is he really saying that writers such as Hilary Mantel, A S Byatt, Iris Murdoch are sentimental or write feminine tosh?” demanded literary journalist Alex Clark.

Six-week summer creative writing course begins June 14 at the Florida Center for the Literary Arts.

This, however, is the wrong tactic, giving Naipaul more credit and respect than he deserves. It’s not as though his remarks are disputable propositions, subject to reason and debate.

No, Naipaul’s statements are insane, on the order of the earth is flat, or the moon is made of cheese, or fairies live at the end of the garden.

“[I]nevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too,” said Naipaul. I guess her petticoat and whalebone corset make it difficult for her to sit long at a writing desk, too.

Sadly, Naipaul appears to have been driven to lunacy by his well-documented virulent misogyny. Patrick French, in his authorized (!) Naipaul biography, The World Is What It Is (2008), exposes the great novelist “as an egotist, a domestic tyrant and a sadist,” according to this Sunday Times review, who subjected both his first wife and a long-time mistress to years of sexual and physical abuse.

Why should we care what this nasty little man has to say about women, or writers, or women writers, or anything else? Because, according to some critics he’s  “the worlds greatest living writer of English prose.” Several of his novels, including A House for Mr. Biswas and A Bend in the River are undeniable masterpieces.

Perhaps the best response, even though I have not been able to follow its example, comes from the Writer’s Guild of Great Britain, which, when pressed for a reaction, announced it did not want to “waste its breath” on Naipaul’s blather.

In case you want to test yourself against Naipaul’s claim that he can identify a woman writer by reading a single paragraph, the Guardian offers a quiz featuring ten excerpts from famous writers. I scored a middling five, which the test said means I need to read more books by men.

The point of the test seems to be that determining an author’s gender by a blind reading is difficult to impossible. But even in those cases where it might be easy,  I say what’s the point? It’s wearisome to the soul to have to state the obvious, but some of the world’s best writers are women — and sometimes being a woman is part of what makes them so good.

And here’s a secret, ladies, and I hoped I don’t get stoned to death for revealing it to you: Men are far more sentimental than women, generally speaking.

I always take great pleasure in pointing out that no one in literature is more sentimental than the tough boys — Hemingway and his followers. What a bunch of closet romantics! Barbara Cartland would blush to read the end of A Farewell to Arms— all that “darling” this and “darling” that and row, row, row your boat, and Oh, my God she’s dead! And the baby, too! Sob!

A certain flinty ruthlessness can arise when writing talent, intelligence, skill at observation and discipline come together in the soul of a woman.

Take Laura Lippman, the author of superior crime thrillers. On the one hand, her novels frequently have to do with women in domestic situations, like the mother and housewife in her latest, I’d Know You Anywhere. But I defy anyone to find a trace of sentimentality in Lippman’s story of murder, rape, deception, kidnapping and seduction.

Should we boycott Naipaul’s books? Absolutely not. Why punish the talent for the stupidities of the man? But let’s balance him by reading some damned good women writers, too.

In addition to the ones already mentioned, all of whom I endorse, let’s start with Beryl Markham, Pat Barker, Margaret Atwood, Jean Rhys, Muriel Spark, Patricia Highsmith, Mary Gaitskill, Maryse Conde, Clarice Lispector, Doris Lessing, Katherine Dunn, Flannery O’Connor, Joy Williams and Cynthia Ozick.

If Mr. Naipaul can squeeze more than a thimble of sentimentality out of that list, then I’ll eat my hat.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. Connie permalink
    June 2, 2011 1:32 pm

    Great column, Chauncey, and a very shrewd observation of the fact that Hemingway is about as sentimental as it gets. How anyone can think writers are sentimental just because they don’t pee standing up in this day and age is beyond me, but Naipaul’s misogyny is pretty well documented, so I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked. I’d also like to nominate a couple of other modern writers to the list of women who couldn’t write a sentimental sentence if you paid them: Jean Thompson, Jennifer Egan, Emma Donaghue.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 2, 2011 2:37 pm

      Thanks, Connie, and thanks for the additional recommendations. I’m sure there are many other tough-minded women writers we haven’t mention yet, if someone would like to make more suggestions.

  2. Sean Piccoli permalink
    June 2, 2011 1:42 pm

    I’m reading ‘Middlemarch’ and Naipaul can bite me.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 2, 2011 2:37 pm

      Be sure and disinfect the wound.

      • Sean Piccoli permalink
        June 3, 2011 12:04 pm

        Gauze for V.S.’ bite marks, and for all the cuts George Eliot keeps administering. I’m enjoying the heck out of the book, but man she is unsparing of human folly. It actually hurts sometimes to read her!

  3. June 2, 2011 2:09 pm

    So much for vive la différence. A man’s perception of the world is soooo superior to a woman’s, huh? Gimme a break, VS.

    Sometimes I wonder whether he says these things on purpose to create an uproar, but I know it isn’t that. This is who he is.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 2, 2011 2:39 pm

      He’s a raving egomaniacal woman hater. At least that’s the view from here.

  4. Connie permalink
    June 2, 2011 2:15 pm

    I think I might even say Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy is far less sentimental than A House for Mr. Biswas.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 2, 2011 2:40 pm

      Barker’s novels about World War I are pretty much the least sentimental things I’ve ever read.

  5. Candice Simmons permalink
    June 2, 2011 3:07 pm

    I gave up my petticoat and whalebone corset many moons ago. Which means I write so much better now. Hohum.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 2, 2011 4:13 pm

      You always did write purty.

  6. June 2, 2011 10:38 pm

    Thanks for this column Chauncey. At least there’s a modern man in the house!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 2, 2011 11:32 pm

      Thanks. I rather like the grand old term “humanist.”

  7. June 3, 2011 11:54 am

    What Naipaul does to “Jane” in GUERRILLAS exposes his misogyny more than any novel I’ve ever read in which a woman is used with utter contempt and sexually abused in every way you can imagine, including spitting in her mouth while screwing her. He’s a perverted, slimy little man. Hilary Mantel and Alice Munro are far deeper and more profound than Naipaul will ever be.

  8. Sean Piccoli permalink
    June 3, 2011 11:59 am

    Has anyone here read Lionel Shriver? She sounds sentiment-free based on the description of her work in this article, but I don’t know her at all.

    http://www.newsweek.com/2011/05/29/lionel-shriver-a-novelist-of-the-taboo.html

  9. Marlon James permalink
    June 3, 2011 1:59 pm

    He is better than Austen. But there’s a reason he attacked her, not George Elliot.

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