V.S. Naipaul is without question or controversy one of the finest living writers. Yet the controversy surrounding his recent interview with the Royal Geographic Society, in which he effectively takes down the history of literature written by women with a British public schoolboy’s damning phrase, won’t affect what we think about his work, even as it might affect what some think about his views. Yet: is he right? And: even if there is no woman writer he thinks matches his talents, do his comments on the inherent “sentimentality” of women writers merit caring?
Perhaps, as some bloggers think, Naipaul’s comments will only dare and encourage future generations of women writers to challenge his assumptions. Or, to “kick his ass.”
From the Guardian:
In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society on Tuesday about his career, Naipaul, who has been described as the “greatest living writer of English prose”, was asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match. He replied: “I don’t think so.” Of Austen he said he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world”.
He felt that women writers were “quite different”. He said: “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.”
The author, who was born in Trinidad, said this was because of women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world”. “And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too,” he said.
He added: “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. I don’t mean this in any unkind way.”
The words that will remain from this are “feminine tosh.” This seemingly off-the-cuff shot across the bow will give writers and critics the ammunition that they need. But has there ever been a writer who changed the way that we think about writing—in particular, any great male novelist—who didn’t embed part of his literary identity with a lush and casual machismo? All the brilliance of all the exceptions aside (Tony Kushner comes to mind), “feminine tosh” is a phrase that might have been embraced by so many others. This is not to excuse it but only to highlight its fundamental absurdity, and wit, coupled with its narcissistically intact clarity of purpose.
Derision and attitude have been elements of celebrated male novelists’ arsenal forever. In a way, we should expect nothing less from Naipaul. What would have been shocking, yet much less fun, would have been to see Sir Vidia self-deprecate, or expand on the wisdom he has gleaned from reading Jane Austen. Let’s not hate him. Let’s not care about proving him wrong. Let’s love his adorably quaint Achilles heel: candor. Because what Naipaul said here is par for the course. A cliché, even. What some will consider a blind spot others will recognize as an admirable hewing to form on the part of a writer at ease with his reputation. We don’t want our brightest minds bowing to politics. We want them brutal, mad and unafraid. “Feminine tosh” is brutal, mad and unafraid.