Lesson 13: V.S. Naipaul: Does The Sex of The Author Matter?

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.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

10 reasons to be optimistic in 2019


Rwanda is pioneering the regulation and use of drones - such as delivering blood

Photo: STEPHANIE AGLIETTI/AFP/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs

Even the optimists among us would have to admit 2018 was a challenging year. The fractured world that became the focus of our 2018 Annual Meeting a year ago came under further pressure from populist rhetoric and rising nationalist agendas. At the same time, the urgent need for coordinated global action in areas such as climate change, inequality and the impact of automation on jobs became more intense.

Keep reading Show less

Brain study finds circuits that may help you keep your cool

Research by neuroscientists at MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory helps explain how the brain regulates arousal.

Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP/ Getty Images
Mind & Brain

MIT News

The big day has come: You are taking your road test to get your driver's license. As you start your mom's car with a stern-faced evaluator in the passenger seat, you know you'll need to be alert but not so excited that you make mistakes. Even if you are simultaneously sleep-deprived and full of nervous energy, you need your brain to moderate your level of arousal so that you do your best.

Keep reading Show less

15 surprising life lessons from a highly successful 80-year-old

You can use these to get ahead, no matter your age.

Personal Growth

Blackstone's Byron Wien, Vice Chairman of Private Wealth Solutions Group, gave a speech laying out the wisdom he learned during his 80 years. Here are 15 of Wien's best life lessons, which teach us about improving our productivity, sleep, burnout avoidance, and everything in between.

Keep reading Show less