“Beware of the man who denounces women writers; his penis is tiny and he cannot spell.” Erica Jong
The male writer VS Naipaul is in the news this morning – well, a bit of the news – because he was asked, during a recent interview at the Royal Geographic Society, if he considered any woman writer his literary match. His answer was “I don’t think so.” He went on to dismiss Jane Austen for being sentimental, claim that he could tell a woman writer within a paragraph or two of reading her work, and explain that women had a “narrow view of the world”. Perhaps unwisely, he also used the phrase “feminine tosh” to describe his publisher’s fiction. Topping it all off, he added “I don’t mean this in any unkind way.”
You know that feeling you get when you have a hundred things you need to say all at once and just end up standing there gasping for air and gesturing incoherently instead? That’s how I’ve been all morning with this story. And it’s not really worth paying attentuon to at all, in a sense. Male writer is arrogant misogynist: it’s hardly unheard of. But it brings up so much stuff! About the fact that women tend to read male and female authors more or less equally, but men tend to just read male authors, and why that is. About the fact that female authors don’t get reviewed as much as male authors. About the stupidity of the phrase ‘women writers’ in the first place – who says ‘men writers’? About the way that people use the term women writers to mean women who write about domestic life, and how writing about domestic life gets dismissed. About the enormous number of female writers who don’t actually write about family and romance and children, but about grisly murders, or aliens, or the nature of identity, or politics or, well, anything at all, just like men do. About the male writers who do write about love and marriage and children. About how none of these fictional subjects are necessarily more or less worthy of being written about than any other.
But when I stopped chasing all of that around – because one blog post can’t get it all in, and I hadn’t actually written anything but a series of half-formed angry sentences, and anyway my daughter just woke up – one more specific thought lingered.
Jane Austen? Sentimental?
The pejorative dictionary definition of ‘sentimental’ - and it’s fairly clear Naipaul meant the word in the pejorative sense – basically equates to over-dependent on emotions, mawkish. If Naipaul has read any Austen at all and has concluded that she’s mawkish, then I can’t really have any respect at all for him as a literary critic. If he hasn’t and is simply using her as a hastily selected example of the kind of writing he dislikes, then he’s sloppy and I still don’t have any respect for him as a literary critic.
And as a writer? Well, I haven’t read any of his books; maybe I will at some point. But I looked up a couple of extracts and here’s a sample from A Bend in the River:
I began to understand at the same time that my anguish about being a man adrift was false, that for me that dream of home and security was nothing more than a dream of isolation, anachronistic and stupid and very feeble. I belonged to myself alone. I was going to surrender my manhood to nobody. For someone like me there was only one civilization and one place — London, or a place like it. Every other kind of life was make-believe. Home — what for? To hide? To bow to our great men? For people in our situation, people led into slavery, that is the biggest trap of all. We have nothing. We solace ourselves with that idea of the great men of our tribe, the Gandhi and the Nehru, and we castrate ourselves. ‘Here take my manhood and invest it for me. Take my manhood and be a greater man yourself, for my sake!’ No! I want to be a man myself.
Without context, it would be unfair of me to comment on the sentimentality or otherwise of this passage. But from a man who’s claiming to write better than George Eliot and Virginia Woolf and Angel Carter and Isabel Allende and all the Brontes put together? Sorry, I’m not rushing out to buy your book.