Since we’re a little slow with updating the blog these days, no doubt most of our Gentle Readers are already aware of the current brouhaha created by novelist V.S. Naipaul with his comments about women writers in general and Jane Austen in particular. The media is all over it.

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.”

We do not think he deserves the compliment of rational opposition. Others disagree with us, however. Jennifer Egan, recent winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award (and who kicked up a bit of a dust last week for dissing chick lit), said:

He is such a kook. It makes me laugh because he sounds like such a cranky old man. It’s the classic case of how prejudice works – you feel like you see it confirmed all over the world but the prejudice is tainting your perception everywhere you look.

I would put money on the fact that he has not read Jane Austen in 10 years. She’s the most cool, mathematical writer to come along, male or female. It’s a word no one who’s familiar with her work would call her. . . . To condemn these comments gives them more weight, endows them with more authority. They just sound like one’s man cranky, outmoded point of view.

NPR’s blog The Two-Way has some other interesting comments from authors and critics (thanks to Alert Janeite Maria for the link).

At, Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote of the kerfluffle:

The wisest observers of human nature are the ones who can illuminate without bias. They’re the ones who can opine that “Your feelings may be the strongest but … ours are the most tender” without assuming that strength automatically has a greater value than tenderness. And to write them off would be to miss out on the genius of a Jane Austen, an author who knew that when it comes to men and women, “I will not allow books to prove anything.”

We were amused by this quiz in the Guardian, which asks you to choose whether the quoted passages are written by a man or a woman. (We actually recognized one of them, and got that right.)

5 thoughts on “Naipaulcalypse

  1. Naipaul is a good reminder of Proust’s belief that we’re better off to read what an author publishes and not to let public comments by an author taint the art that he or she makes. We shouldn’t be surprised if a writer of gentle, thoughtful prose is a brute in conversation.

    I can’t say, however, that I’ve read any of Naipaul’s work. I may get to him someday, but re-reading Jane’s oeuvre is way ahead on my list. And this incident of his garnering attention by being a cranky git has knocked him further down the list, on principle.


    • LeSpinster

      “And this incident of his garnering attention by being a cranky git has knocked him further down the list, on principle.”

      I know, right?

      I can’t imagine it’s a good idea for an author to potentially alienate an entire gender. Ladies be reading. But I guess he’s already got his Nobel Prize, so what does he care.

      And, on the Guardian quiz, I pegged the Naipaul passage as having been written by a woman. Whoops.


  2. I took the quiz and guessed that they were all women and got 50% correct. It is absolutely absurd to say that one sex writes better (paints better, fights better, bleeds better, etc) than the other. Kudos to Naipaul for placing himself in the public eye so successfully. Even negative press must be better than no press at all.


  3. DIH

    I would like to offer a more substantive reply. All of the novels have the same plot. (Opening: Girl can not possibly boy; mid section; girl really should consider marrying boy; end; girl marries boy). To many readers, particularly modern readers, marriage stories are inherently love stories, and inherently sentimental. Of course, with a tiny amount of historical, legal and economic perspective, one realizes that in early Victorian society, marriage was not simply about personal feelings, but the maintenance (or destruction) of social order, economic power and religious duty. (Yes, the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice is true; a man with large agricultural holdings “guaranteeing” him a specified annual income really did need to get married and produce a male heir; otherwise, his wealth, power and social responsibilities upon which his extended family and acquaintances would be dissipated).

    One can either read her novels as a conservative and sentimental union of personal love with the upholding of these traditions or a sly ironic criticism of how the social requirements could only be united with personal fulfillment in the fairy tale construct of the books. (Note that while Liza is able to win Mr. Darcy; her impoverished friend (more realistically) marries Mr. Collins, whom she can only tolerate by making sure that they spend their days in different rooms.)

    One can also read the novels superficially, and miss the extent to which alcoholism, illegitimacy, corruption of the Church of England and the rise of the commercial capitalism and adventures in Empire building all appear and form key subplots in the book. I suspect Mr. Naipaul failed to notice these themes.

    Yes, for some people a study of these themes, and a study of how young woman attain the wisdom to select (and attract) the husband with the right mix of personal wealth, good characteristics and physical attractiveness, is inherently sentimental. Personally, I find Hemingway and John Wayne movies, with their celebration of physical male courage, as a sufficient basis for solving human problems, too sentimental.


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