Nobel Laureate says there is no woman author he considers his equal

This guest blog post comes to you courtesy of Silpa Kovvali, a blogger for The Huffington Post currently residing in New York City and a Really Smart Lady. Follow her on Twitter!

Author VS Naipaul, affectionately referred to as “the grand bastard” by critic James Wood, out-bastarded himself at an interview earlier this week by casting aspersions on female writers. All of them. Via Gawker:

“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…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.”

Naipaul prefaced his remarks with “I’m not sexist, but…”

This isn’t the least bit surprising given Naipaul’s history of violent and abusive behavior toward women. From Wood’s 2008 New Yorker profile:

“[He] used and used up his first wife, Patricia Hale, sometimes depending on her, at other times ignoring her, often berating and humiliating her…In 1972, Naipaul began a long, tortured, sadomasochistic affair with an Anglo-Argentine woman, Margaret Gooding. It was an intensely sexual relationship, which enacted, on Naipaul’s side, fantasies of cruelty and domination. On one occasion, jealous because Margaret was with another man, he said that he was “very violent with her for two days with my hand. . . . Her face was bad. She couldn’t really appear in public.”

But, I don’t know that this sentiment, also from this week’s interview, is entirely wrong:

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

It’s pretty accurate to say that oppressive social norms, particularly gender ones, necessarily impact our thought process, worldview, and voice. But social norms aren’t just oppressive for the marginalized. Ernest Hemingway and Richard Yates were both notoriously misogynistic, but “Hills Like White Elephants” and Revolutionary Road both turn on its head the notion of restraint as a feminine ideal. These works poignantly convey how harmful it can be to both partners in heterosexual relationships.

I often find myself frustrated with the limits of non-fiction as a medium for challenging damaging social constructs. It’s just impossible to convey the visceral, tangible emotional impact they have on all of our lives by parsing them in the abstract. And it’s at those times that I’m most inclined to sit down and write that semi-autobiographical novel I talk about at parties whenever I want to sound toolish and cliché.

I’m not intimately familiar with Naipaul’s oeuvre, but I’m surprised someone who’s known for writing about the cruel nature of British colonialism would characterize disenfranchisement as an obstacle to producing a great literary work. More often than not, art is made all the more powerful by the subjugation of the artist.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is Executive Director of Partnerships at Feministing, where she enjoys creating and curating content on gender, race, class, technology, and the media. Lori is also an advocacy and communications professional specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health, and currently works in the Global Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Brooklyn.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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  • Sonia Rose

    I’m not surprised at all, Naipaul is from an extremely sexist culture (Trinidadian author). No excuse and downright disappointing.

    • Alison

      What culture out there, including British, American, and so, is NOT sexist? That’s really buying into the whole racist idea that only men of color are abusive towards women and not white men. And we should all know better than to think that’s true.

      • Sonia Rose

        I never thought about it like that, thank you for your comment.
        I am actually from Trinidad and now I live in New York, and seriously they are very different places – both are extremely sexist but Trinidad is much less PC about it. USA is very PC which disturbs me.

        I’m going to spend more time thinking about this thanks again Alison!

  • Brüno

    Literature isnt exactly an exact since. But still, if that is truly the way he feels, no need to rip into him. Should he have lied to be PC?

    • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

      No, he shouldn’t have lied, but maybe more than that, he shouldn’t have been so sexist in the first place.

      How’s this question: Since disliking sexism in any form is truly the way we feminists feel, since we truly don’t agree with his assertion, should we be expected to stay silent and not challenge him for fear of being accused of being (gasp, oh no!) PC?

    • SamBarge

      I agree with Bruno. Thank goodness that Naipaul was honest enough to display his ignorance to us all. Now we can scoff whenever anyone suggests that his work is insightful or that he has a message worth listening to.

      After all, we all know that this man is a fool, blinkered by his own hate.

  • Internet Loser

    “I’m not sexist but…”

    I always get ready to grunt when I hear that phrase.

  • Kathleen Lewis Greenwood

    I’ve been really happy with how quickly this has been dismissed in all media discussions I’ve read, I haven’t heard any credence given to the “serious intellectual male” trope this time round, even on comments pages which are normally a magnet for that kind of thing. Diana Athill’s response was witty and gracious too, and even if Naipaul hadn’t already discredited himself with an awful history of personal cruelty towards women, I think this would still have been easily dismissed as a cheap shot at controversy from an arrogant and largely unread writer.
    As a seperate issue, I’m interested in your assertion that “More often than not, art is made all the more powerful by the subjugation of the artist”. I think it’s reductive to read literature fundamentally as a form of protest against external forces of oppression, sure that’s one form it takes, and an extremely powerful one, but to take Naipaul’s example, I utterly failed to appreciate Austen when trying to read her novels as sarcastic denunciations of the Regency patriachy. Austen excells in portraying human character and failings in way that is simultaneously nuanced, sympathetic and extremely biting, and while her work shows very well the way that women can be reduced by their society, it’s just as easy to find many examples of her colluding with it.
    The experience of subjugation is a source of the sort of powerful experience that can lead to great art, but I don’t think one necessary proceds from the other, and, I would hold that disenfranchisment is a major obstacle to producing a great literay work, not to having the insight and talent that could produce it, but to having access to the time, equipment, literacy, self belief, patronage and cultural capital that would bring that raw potential to fruition.