Saturday, June 4, 2011

some thoughts on V. S. Naipaul, female writers and Jane Austen

So, the latest mudslinging match in the literary world: V. S. Naipaul's comments about himself, about women who write, about his former editor Diana Athill, and about Jane Austen.

(Naipaul won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001. He has written books like A House for Mr Biswas. I have not read any of his books so I will not be commenting on his literary talent. I understand he is a skillful writer with an off-putting personal life.)

The Guardian's summary
is pretty good, but for your information, here are some of the things he said:

- No woman writer is his equal, in literary value or skill.

- People like his former editor, a successful writer in her own right, and Jane Austen are good examples of a "feminine" style which he labelled "feminine tosh". He can always pick up a piece of writing and assess within a few minutes whether it was written by a man or a woman.

- Jane Austen in particular wrote books out of "sentimental ambitions" and had a "sentimental sense of the world".

- This is because women inevitably are not "complete master[s] of a house", and so they have a "narrow view of the world".

I think my first response to these comments was confusion - I felt like laughing uproariously but I also felt rather horrified.

Here are some of my bullet-pointed thoughts in response.

1. Jane Austen? Sentimental?!
Have we been reading the same novels?
If you're going to pick an example of a sentimental female writer, surely Austen is one of the most bizarre choices to pull out of one's hat.

2. My theory is that he secretly identifies with Jane Austen's most ridiculous characters. The vain Sir Walter Elliot, the pompous Mr Collins. It's clear to me from this brief encounter with V. S. Naipaul that Jane Austen would have had a field day with him. She would have skewered him. And so he feels threatened.

3. Naipaul's blatant sexism is disturbing, to say the least. I suppose it's not surprising from an unsavoury misogynist who beat his wife, but, as Diana Abu-Jaber writes, his comment about women failing to be "master" of their own homes is chilling.
It is also horridly ironic, coming from someone who criticises women who fail to write about the evils of Western colonialism, but who does not notice his own ruthless male colonialism of the home.

4. Naipaul is so absorbed in himself that he clearly values no literature except his own genre and only a few within his genre. As Roxana Robinson said:
I suspect that, actually, Naipaul doesn’t think any male writers are his equal, either, nor any Jewish writers, nor Chinese or Arabic ones. I think Naipaul thinks no-one is his equal, and, in terms of hubris, he may be right.
It is, in fact, tempting to ignore him entirely. Except that I feel so furious.

Here is some more comment:
Diana Athill on Naipaul's attack on her
The Guardian's test: can you tell if the author is male or female?
"Sense and Sentimentality"
Jennifer Egan's response
The response of the Tribune (India)

I leave you with a quote from Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. The author is dead, but she still manages to speak for herself:

She agreed to it all for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition.

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