Remember the controversy last summer over whether white male writers like Jonathan Franzen were being favored by book reviewers? Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner said, in an interview, that it is “irrefutable that when it comes to picking favorites…the [New York Times] tends to pick white guys.” The ensuing debate, conducted mostly online, over whether women’s writing (often dubbed “chick lit”) is taken less seriously died down last fall, but it may just have been reignited by V.S. Naipaul, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and one of the most acclaimed writers in the English language.
When asked by an interviewer for the National Geographic Society whether any woman could be his literary match, he replied, “I don’t think so.” He added, when queried about Jane Austen (certainly one of the most celebrated writers in the English language), that he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world.” In what must have been an attempt to be as offensive as possible, he continued, saying that men’s and women’s writing is “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.”
As the news broke, others rightly pointed to the fact that this may speak as much about Naipaul’s egotism as his sexism. He recently made peace with venerable travel writer Paul Theroux, who wrote about his friendship with Naipaul in a scathing memoir, recounting Naipaul’s more unflattering traits. He even said that he was forced to be too nice in the memoir, writing in a piece published a few years ago,
“I wanted to write about his cruelty to his wife, his crazed domination of his mistress that lasted almost 25 years, his screaming fits, his depressions, his absurd contention that he was the greatest writer in the English language.”
So is it simply that Naipaul can’t imagine that any writer could be his equal, not just women? In the Telegraph, literary journalist Alex Clark is quoted as saying, “It’s absurd. I suspect VS Naipaul thinks that there isn’t anyone who is his equal. Is he really saying that writers such as Hilary Mantel, A S Byatt, Iris Murdoch are sentimental or write feminine tosh?”
But what disturbs me — and suggests that this is more about gender than the responses are willing to admit — is Naipaul’s claim that Jane Austen is more “sentimental” than he. After all, one of the central parts of the debate over Jonathan Franzen’s fame hinged on the notion that women’s writing about issues like family, romance and relationships are taken less seriously than similar books written by men.
So even though Naipaul may be an outrageous narcissist, let’s not dismiss these disheartening new comments as simple evidence of his self-obsession. And perhaps his words will remind us that literary sexism isn’t just limited to the New York Times.
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