Did V.S. Naipaul Get a Pass on Calling Women Writers Inferior?

V.S. Naipaul's comments spark debate on whether talent can excuse misogyny

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In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society last week, Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul supplied a characteristically controversial statement when he was asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match. He replied: "I don't think so," according to the Guardian.

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..." [T]his 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 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."

The response to his comments was outrage from some quarters, but mostly derision and good humor. The Guardian offered a quiz, excerpting passages and asking if readers could figure out the gender of the author. And Naipaul's former publisher that he mentioned, Diana Athill, responded in an interview with the Guardian. “I don’t think it is worth being taken seriously,” she said. “It’s sad really because he’s a very good writer. Why be such an irritable man?”

Jennifer Egan, whose novel A Visit from the Good Squad won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year, told the Wall Street Journal:

"He is such a kook. It makes me laugh because he sounds like such a cranky old man...He may feel like he’s dealt a difficult and painful blow to women, but he makes himself look silly and outdated. And honestly, pretty vain. Of course, that doesn’t make him any less good of a fiction writer. But he undercuts himself...

Reading those comments you have no interest in engaging in this person’s sensibility. You wouldn’t think this person has anything to reveal. But as a writer he’s much more than that, so that contradiction is interesting. To condemn these comments gives them more weight, endows them with more authority. They just sound like one’s man cranky, outmoded point of view."

Furthermore, William Langley at The Telegraph posted a rather charitable profile of Naipaul yesterday. He wrote:

Naipaul’s putting down of potential rivals and extravagant praising of himself was fully in keeping with a literary tradition that goes back to the time of Shakespeare and Marlowe. The self-regard of an author is to be expected.[...]

While today’s cultural orthodoxy is to maintain a polite distinction between artistic achievement and private behavior – the Roman Polanski syndrome – Naipaul has pushed the limits further than most... Happily, the recognition – like the criticism – has done nothing to mellow him, or to shake his conviction that he’s top of the pile, and that no woman is going to push him off it.

But to some, this characterization of Naipaul as "just an old duffer," was less than amusing. His controversial comments opened up the debate as to whether an author with such a distinctive voice as Naipaul should be given a pass for also using it to make comments that undermine the efforts of half of the literary community. Does no one take Naipaul seriously, or rather is it just preferable to not take him seriously, in lieu of persecuting such an enormous talent? Jacki Lyden at NPR argues that while his comments are seen as silly by many, they should inspire more serious questions.

But I'm not laughing. As a young traveler and writer, I remember savoring the precision of Naipaul's observances and anticipating each new book. If I'd known then of his disturbing reputation with women at the same time — his wife, his mistress — he'd never have won me over. In an excellent essay, the novelist Roxanna Robinson asks why we should put with misogyny and contempt. She points at the truly disturbing gender imbalance in a raft of distinguished journals — like the New York Review of Books. This great gender imbalance in our best magazines and journals is actually more important than Naipaul's dismissals. So you have to blow the house down.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.