Author VS Naipaul, who’s won the Nobel prize for literature, was interviewed by the Guardian recently and asked if any woman writers could be considered his equal.
No, “I don’t think so,” he said. But he wasn’t content to leave it at that; he specifically went after Jane Austen, saying he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world.”
Women writers are “quite different”. Naipaul states, “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.”
He opines that this inequality is 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."
Well. Lovely. Thank you, VS (you don’t mind if we call you VS, do you? Because the other things we might call you would be far worse).
Author arrogance is nothing new; consider Mark Twain’s various bon mots, including this gem, particularly also aimed at Austen:
I haven’t any right to criticise books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Everytime I read ’Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.
Poor Jane. But before you leap to defend Ms. Austen—who we bet could defend herself just fine, skewering Messrs. Naipaul and Twain with a few pointed sentences—consider that women writers have always had to deal with this accusation of sentimentality, of narrowness of perspective, because of the very societal constructs into which we are placed.
Talk about being hoisted on your own petard. And not in a good way.
Yes, there are some broad differences in writing between men and women, especially if you pit Ernest Hemingway, say, against Jhumpa Lahiri; but pick two other literary greats such as Henry James and A.S. Byatt and the line gets blurry.
So, in short, we’d like to tell all women writers—and by extension, women readers—we’ve got your back. You’re always going to have to deal with asinine comments such as Naipaul’s, and we’re always going to evaluate your work without regard to your sex.