VS Naipaul and Women Writers
infamous speech, quoted in the press. Naipaul doesn’t rate women writers at all.
“Women writers are different, they are 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." Asked to elaborate, he said this was due to their "sentimentality, the narrow view of the world".
He added: "And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too. 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."
So in what way did he mean it? Such dismissive cruelty can’t be masked by a qualifying phrase. I didn’t know whether Naipaul’s speech was so laughable it should be ignored, or whether it represents a residue of misogyny we still have to fight.
To say that women write differently to men is OK. We do. And we write differently to each other too. Every individual sees the world from a different angle. It isn’t always possible to tell who wrote what. There are men who write so closely from the inside of a woman’s head that you can’t tell which sex authored it (Brian Moore’s I am Mary Dunne for instance) and women who can write equally convincingly as men.
His main gripe seems to be that women are sentimental. Does he mean we’re more in touch with our emotions than men? But he’s such a concise linguist I don’t think so. He means we wallow, we go over the top beyond emotion into sentiment. That’s palpably untrue. I know a great many sentimental men. Anyone read The Notebook? Message in a Bottle? And there are a great many witty, unsentimental women authors - Barbara Trapido’s ‘Sex and Stravinsky’ comes to mind. I’ve also just read Carol Clewlow’s ‘A Woman’s Guide to Adultery’ - which is just about as unsentimental as you can get.
But of course, however well a woman writes she will never write ‘equal’ to him (or any other man is the implication). In his opinion.
On his comment, that a woman is not ‘a complete master of a house’, now that is just plain prejudice. Maybe not in his house, but the days when a man was automatically master of the house by reason of his gender are long gone. And a lot of women writers are single - very much masters of their own houses. Not to mention head of publishing houses, literary agencies, book-selling houses. But the man is 78 and doesn’t seem to realise that we are living in a new world, so perhaps I’d better forgive him. The trouble is, I believe there are many in the literary, and academic, establishments - still solidly masculine - who privately agree with him. Women’s writing is weak; men’s writing is strong. What do we have to do to convince?