VS Naipaul: Proud and prejudicial
“It is the best for all tame animals to be ruled by human beings. For this is how they are kept alive. In the same way, the relationship between the male and the female is by nature such that the male is higher, the female lower, that the male rules and the female is ruled.”
This is what Aristotle said hundreds of years ago. It is a less than comforting thought that man has only evolved so much in the years following Aristotle.
I say this after reading VS Naipaul’s latest attention seeking rant in Amy Fallon’s report in The Guardian. This report talks about Naipaul’s interview to the Royal Geographic Society, in which he reduces the whole of the literature produced by women as being sentimental and following a very narrow view of the world.
Amy Fallon writes:
“He felt that women writers were ‘quite different’.”
“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,” and “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.”
While it is true that men and women write differently, owing to their different roles and different perceptions of society, it is not true that one can be deemed inferior to the other. Sweeping statements like those made by Naipaul can only be read as uninformed, sexist and egotistical. His deluded and smug assertion of superiority to Jane Austen is ridiculous. Even those who find her novels to be showing “her sentimental ambitions, and her sentimental sense of the world” cannot deny her sharp and cutting wit, her clever use of irony and her immaculate prowess of characterisation to be in a league which all together eludes Naipaul.
However, as another female writer Susan Cheever puts it, luckily for Naipaul “fiction is not a competitive sport” because many women including Jane Austen write, as well as, or even better, than he does.
Naipaul adds about his publisher whom he parted ways with after she said that his novel Guerillas “did not ring true.”
"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 lady in question, Dianna Athill counters Naipaul’s slurs with great aplomb. She is quoted in an article by Alison Flood in The Guardian as saying:
"I was a 'sensitive editor' because I liked his work, I was admiring it. When I stopped admiring him so much I started being 'feminine tosh'… I can't say it made me feel very bad. It just made me laugh ... I think one should just ignore it, take no notice really. I don't think it is worth being taken seriously. It's sad really because he's a very good writer. Why be such an irritable man?"
When Naipaul calls the work of female writers ‘feminine tosh’ he is myopically dismissing what forms a significant and indispensible chunk of English literature. The works of Hilary Mantel and Margaret Atwood are as far from being merely ‘tosh’ as Naipaul’s statement is from making sense.
Sure, male writers out do the female writers when it comes to numbers, but not when it comes to the quality of work being written. Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, , Maya Angelou, Emily Dickinson are women whose writings are among the best written in their times, and without who’s contributions a great chasm would be created in world literature.
Perhaps Naipaul should take note of George Eliot when she says:
"Blessed is the man, who having nothing to say, abstains from giving wordy evidence of the fact."
Considering his history of squabbles and spats, it would be best to dismiss what Naipaul has said as the words of a chauvinistic old geezer who should stick to writing because talking is clearly not among his strong suits. And Mr Naipaul, I don’t mean this in an unkind way.