The Damned Mob of Scribbling Women

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The distinction had perhaps been felt too strongly
--Jane Austen

A few folks on twitter and e-mail wanted to know what I thought of V.S. Naipaul's latest:

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." 

The author, who was born in Trinidad, said this was 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," he said. He added: "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."

There were a few comments in the thread dealing with Esquire's list which amounted to "What's the big deal? It's a magazine for a certain kind of man." I think that sort of response is rooted in a lack of context. Better people than me can detail the history of disregarding women's writing. But I know that it's an old story stretching back to the days when the novel was seen as a low form, fit to be practiced by women. The thinking man wrote poetry and philosophical treatises.

And then as the novel moved into respectability the contribution of women to the genre was often met with derision. Nathaniel Hawthorne sums up a feeling which, regrettably, remains with us today: 

America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash-and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed. What is the mystery of these innumerable editions of the 'Lamplighter,' and other books neither better nor worse?-worse they could not be, and better they need not be, when they sell by the 100,000.

This isn't a very good or detailed history. But my point is that before we dismiss the anger of an aggrieved party outright, it's worth considering whether this sort of exclusion constitutes a pattern.

And then it's worth moving on. 

I frequently mention that I am a product of black consciousness. One of the better lessons of my faith is that you don't waste your time trying to win over people who do not like you. I deeply believe in black people's right to ponder themselves and their place in the world, minus the burden of educating white racists. Likewise, I am convinced that people who construct their canon based on what is, or isn't, swinging between the author's legs must confront themselves. 

This is what I was driving at in my comments about women's lit being something more than a tool for convincing men to be less sexist. I'm looking to avoid a subtly demeaning subtext which holds that reading, say, Jamaica Kincaid is something you should do--like flossing or taxes or laundry. I don't want to speak for women writers, but I recoil at the idea of someone reading my book because they really should read a black author or two. I don't want to be an icebreaker at your corporation's Kwanzaa gathering.

I realize, as I put this down, that my message is really for young women who want to write. I remember when I was just like you. And as surely as Naipaul etc. piss you off, I used to get sick reading The New Republic. Put it out of your mind. Write, write, write and write. And then write some more. Don't get mad. Go kick his ass. 

V.S. Naipaul is not God. He's only a man.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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