V. S. Naipaul’s pronouncement—that no women writers are his equals—shows him as sexist, of course, as well as arrogant and absurd. 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.
Women writers write tosh: It’s breathtaking to make such a contemptuous and narrow-minded claim about half the population of his field. In Naipaul’s case, this feels like fear, as though he’s reached a place from which everyone else seems threatening. He doesn’t want to think about younger writers, or writers on other subjects, or those from other countries or other genders. For him to stay up there, on his very high pedestal, all other writers need to be demolished. (And let no-one pretend that writers are not competitive: My editor told me once that another of his writers said that he “hated thinking about all the other writers in the world breathing the air, and using it up.”)
But Naipaul focuses with startling animosity on woman writers, declaring that their work is simply to be dismissed. He shows an absolute certitude that male subjects and male attitudes are, by definition, superior. He wouldn’t dare say in public that all Chinese writers produce tosh, so why does he dare say it about women? And why do we permit it? Why do we celebrate someone who is so narrow-minded, so visibly discriminatory?
I’d agree that male and female writing is often different. I’d go so far as to suggest that men and women themselves are different. Surely we agree that we have different ways of seeing the world, different ways of solving problems, different goals. Only one of us bears children. Only one of us rapes. We have different experiences. But how can this possibly mean that one of us is inferior? That one of us invariably writes tosh, and the other, the real stuff?
Naipaul’s contempt reveals a meanness of spirit that eliminates him straight off, in my opinion, from the category of great writers. Truly great fiction is illuminated by compassion, not contempt. Truly great writers, of both genders, can inhabit the other gender, and the Other’s life. That’s what Shakespeare does, and Tolstoy, and Woolf.
Naipaul’s pronouncements are antediluvian. I won’t dignify with a response his comments on the mastery of the household; Diana Athill, the editor-turned-writer whom Naipaul denounces, is quite right to treat his maunderings as absurd. But if we can agree that this is absurd, then why do the numbers show, year after year, that our literary culture supports Naipaul’s belief? Why is it that men’s writing receives more prizes, more attention and more public acclaim than women’s? How is it that we accept this as a cultural norm?
All novels are flawed, they are all baggy monsters. There is no such thing as a perfect novel. But we forgive the male novelists for their flaws—bad prose, or flagrant misogyny, poor dialogue, the absence of real female characters, the absence of real relationships, disjointed narrative, or incoherence—we forgive whatever those flaws are, in the interests of celebrating their strengths. The names of those writers, despite their flaws, appear on prize lists.
This doesn’t seem to happen for women. Women writers are not forgiven for their flaws, whatever they are. Women writers have just as many flaws as male writers, and just as many strengths, but their names do not appear on the prize lists. Their flaws, whatever they are, are deemed serious and irreparable, and so their work is not considered worthy of acclaim.
We have a number of wonderful women writers working today—Jane Smiley, Jennifer Egan, Marilynne Robinson, to name just a few—who have justly achieved public acclaim. But the long lists of literary prize winners don’t show any sort of parity, and why is that? Is it because all women writers write tosh?
Writers are also readers. We should ask ourselves what flaws we’ll ignore, what strengths we demand, in the fiction we read. Contempt, misogyny, hubris—why should we put up with those? We don’t have to put up with them from writers of the past, from Tolstoy or Shakespeare, so why do we put up with them today? What, really, is at the heart of great writing?
It’s a question we might consider.