Recently, someone brought to my attention a 2011 Guardian article reporting on a Royal Geographic Society interview with Nobel Prize Winner Mr. V.S. Naipaul. While the interview is a few years old now, Mr. Naipaul’s statements in it struck me as freshly as if the interview had been conducted yesterday. According to the article, Mr. Naipaul stated the following views:
1. that no woman writer is his literary match;
2. of Jane Austen, that he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world;”
3. that women writers are “quite different,” that “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;” and that this is because of women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world;”
4. that “inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes across in her writing, too;” and
5. that “my publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh.”
And of course, like any good bigot, in a preemptive non-apology apology, Mr. Naipaul apparently added: “I don’t mean this in any unkind way.”
For a Nobel Prize winner for literature, Mr. Naipaul seems to have an extremely narrow knowledge of literature, as well as an extremely narrow view of life. When he accuses all women writers of being sentimental or dismisses all women writers as writing sentimental tosh, one must first ask what he means by the terms “sentimentality” and “sentimental tosh.” He does not define them, so I take the liberty of assuming he means either that women write tear-jerkers (or, in American parlance, stories fit for the Lifetime channel’s made-for-T.V. movies), or that their themes are limited to women’s concerns. Taking this as my premise, I must then ask, has Mr. Naipaul ever read anything by Pat Barker? Muriel Spark? Margaret Atwood? Doris Lessing? Nadine Gordimer? Has he ever heard of them? (And as for “sentimental” tosh, has he ever read Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections? And if by “tosh” he means anything to do with what he considers women’s concerns or lot in society, is he familiar with the works of Tolstoy, Hardy, Dickens, Flaubert, or just about anything by D.H. Lawrence–all male writers? Frankly, for toughness, theme, and absence of “sentimentality,” I would set Barbara Kingsolver’s short story, “Why I Am a Danger to the Public” in her book Homeland above any of the stories in Naipaul’s Miguel Street.)
When Naipaul says of Jane Austen, that he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world,” he is baring an incapacity to make an empathetic leap into anyone’s world but his own. That is not the mark of a great writer, and certainly not of a great mind. (It is no wonder that, in Naipaul’s Miguel Street, a book of short stories about people living in poverty on Miguel Street in Port of Spain, Trinidad, not only are the subject characters of all of the stories male, but to the extent women are mentioned in the stories, they are entirely stereotypical, one-dimensional asides. The stories are quite entertaining, and Naipaul shows some sympathy for the men, but even the men are not given any depth to speak of. This was an early work, and perhaps one should examine Naipaul’s later novels to see whether he developed greater insight over time, but his public statements suggest otherwise.)
When Naipaul says he can tell within a paragraph or two that something is written by a woman, and that “…inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing,” he sounds a bit like the pot calling the kettle metal. In saying that a woman is not a complete master of a house, is Naipaul referring to women’s traditionally subservient position to the man of the house and to men in society? If one is not master, is one then a servant or a slave or–dare one say–subject to some form of colonial rule? On those terms, anyone–man or woman–who comes from an oppressed or colonized group or place and chooses that subject as a theme, and those people as characters–must have a narrow world view. This, then, must apply to Mr. Naipaul’s choice of themes and characters as well.
Finally, to bolster his universal dismissal of female writers, Naipaul pulls out his anecdotal view that his female editor is a good editor but, when she wrote, sure enough–she wrote “all this feminine tosh.” To that, I would say, first, that given his prejudices, Mr. Naipaul is hardly a reliable source for such an assessment. But even if he is correct, editing and writing are two very different tasks. Many people, male and female, can do one well and not the other. Many people, male and female, want to write but find they do not really have something of consequence to write about.
This gentleman won the Nobel Prize for literature. It is reported that some have dubbed him “the greatest living writer of English prose.” I have not yet discovered who so-dubbed him, so I cannot vouch for whether those proclaiming that greatness are giving a sincere assessment or are part of the usual publicity campaign found in the publication industry. But, considering that there are some other great writers, male and female, currently living, to dub any one of them the “greatest” seems a bit of puff. Still, I wouldn’t begrudge him as much claim as anyone else to the title, but for his using his position, standing on these laurels, real and/or manufactured, to dismiss as inferior all literature written by a gender other than his own.