Sexism and the City: VS Naipaul’s Offensive Comments on Gender & Female Writers

Originally published at The Opinioness of the World.

Oh yay…another sexism watch alert.  As you’ve probably heard, Nobel Laureate for Literature winner and royal asshat VS Naipaul said in an interview last week at the Royal Geographic Society that he didn’t consider any female writer his literary equal. Wow.  In particular, he criticized Jane Austen (what did she ever do to him?!), saying he:

“couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world.”

He then went on to say that female writers are “quite different.”  Um, how is that, you ask??  Oh, you know, because of their:

“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.”

Duh, why didn’t I think of that?!  We silly women just have silly ideas floating in our pretty little heads.  Sick. Of. The. Bullshit.

Now, I’m not exactly sure how Naipaul defines “sentimental” as I’m not sure what about Austen’s writing constitutes sentimentalism.  Oh I know, I know!  It must be because women are the protagonists.  Or maybe because people fall in love in her books, despite characters consumption with love in male authors’ books too.  And how are women not masters of their houses?!  Whoops, I hadn’t realized that we had traveled back in time to 1855.  And let’s suppose for a moment that he’s not referring to female authors who live in nations where women possess greater rights.  Shouldn’t we read and hear stories from myriad perspectives, including from writers not in positions of power??  I suppose this should come as no surprise from someone who’s denounced Indian female writers for “banality,” scoffed at gender oppression, been labeled “a racist and a misogynist” and been accused of “cruelty to his wife.”  Gee, sounds like a swell guy.

So is saying a person writes like a woman the equivalent to “throwing like a girl?!”  Well, both are certainly insulting and demeaning.  But what does writing like a woman even mean?  In response to Naipaul’s idiotic rant, The Guardian posted a quiz testing readers to see if they could detect an author’s gender solely based on a passage from a novel.  Think it’s easy to tell??  Nope…I only got 3 right!

Naipaul’s toxic words remind me of the same sexist crap that fueled Franzenfreude when Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner called out the NY Times for their lack of recognition for female writers as well as VIDA’s stats regarding the gender disparity of female authors reviewed in literary magazines as well as a lack of female critics themselves.  Yet again someone declares women’s inferiority to men.  Ugh.

I think it’s particularly interesting that this story comes out concurrently with journalist and Managing Editor Jill Abramson becoming the new Executive Editor of The New York Times, the first woman to serve in that position (woo hoo!) AND a feminist journalist!!  As Michael Calderone reported at The Huffington Post:

“Incoming Times executive editors often speak about standing on the shoulders of their predecessors (who all happen to be male). Abramson noted previous executive editors, but changed things up a bit to reflect the historical moment.

“I stand on different shoulders,” Abramson said in an interview shortly after speaking to staff. “I talked about the women at the Times who have fought to be considered for top jobs and those who have them.” She spoke of chief executive Janet Robinson, former columnist Anna Quindlen, current columnist (and close friend) Maureen Dowd, as well as journalists Robin Toner and Nan Robertson, who both died in the past few years. “I just kind of called out their names,” she said.

Women don’t automatically make better authors, journalists or editors simply because of their gender.  But due to the oppression of patriarchy, they are more likely to recognize other women’s efforts and accomplishments.  While no universal womanhood exists due to the intersectionality of gender, race and class, women are still more inclined to look at a story and see whether or not women’s perspectives are being shared and represented.

Naipaul demeans women writers saying they succumb to “sentimentality.”  That’s a slap in the face to female writers and women everywhere.  He clearly thinks that women’s lives and concerns are merely frivolous.  Gender influences and shapes how we see the world around us.  But that doesn’t mean that all women and men write differently strictly based on their gender.  And as a writer myself, I know the value of a little thing called imagination, which enables writers to envision characters’ lives who might be vastly different than their own.  Hmmm, perhaps Naipaul should remember that, since he happens to be a writer after all.  Women don’t merely write about other women.  And even when they do, how is that a “narrow view of the world” since women belong in society too?!  I would say Naipaul holds a narrow view himself from his fucked-up patriarchal perspective.

As Maryann Johanson at Flick Filosopher astutely writes:

“Here is the first problem with overcoming misogyny in pop culture, in all the storytelling we all enjoy: men have to acknowledge that their perspective isn’t the neutral, objective one, and entirely free of prejudice and bias.”

While tons of writers and bloggers have called Naipaul out for his chauvinistic comments, I know some may chock this up to some old dude saying stupid shit and won’t take him seriously; kind of like your curmudgeonly grandfather who says offensive things but maybe you just ignore because he’s old.  But that’s no excuse.  Sexism saturates society.  When we hear and see so much misogyny, people often become anesthetized, ignoring it.  Perhaps it’s part of the reason so many women and men think we’ve already achieved gender equity and parity.

Going further, statements and sentiments like Naipaul’s feed into the misogyny machine that churns out crap telling women they are lesser than men: less significant, less powerful, less valuable.  It stifles women, overtly and covertly telling men what they have to say carries far more weight than women’s views.  In a perfect world, only the quality of writing or a compelling story would matter, not a writer’s gender.  But with asshole chauvinist creeps like Naipaul spewing sexism, it proves we still have a long way to go.

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One Comment

  1. Posted June 8, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    “And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.”

    Love how he turns even a neutral statement into a negative to support his stupid misogynist idea. (And by “love” I really mean “want to stab something, set it on fire, and throw it off a cliff”) Yeah, in Jane Austen’s time it was not likely that a woman would be a complete master of a house, unless perhaps she was widowed and had no immediate male family to help. Now, the reasons for this would mostly involve patriarchal views of womens capabilities and in many places even LAWS stating that women could not own property. So here we have Jane Austen, a woman writing rather astutely about her society,a woman writing with a woman’s voice. But he deems it automatically “inferior” SOLELY because it’s not HIS voice, HIS paradigm, HIS place in the world. It’s as ridiculous as saying Maya Angelou couldn’t be an effective writer because she was never a plantation owner, or Sylvia Plath because she was never part of the American Psychiatric Association. He discounts voices that do not come from the seat of power.

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