04 June 2011

V.S. Naipaul is a sexist toolbag

The Nobel Prize winner has been jamming his foot in his mouth like it was a delicious cake this week, telling the Guardian that he can tell within a few paragraphs whether something has been written by a woman, and that no female writer is as good as he is. According to Naipaul, women are inferior writers because they are "sentimental" and don't play the "master of the house" role in life, and that comes across in their work.

He also, in a spectacular piece of bridge-burning, specifically attacked his former editor Diana Athill for writing bad memoirs full of "feminine tosh." (I can't quite enjoy this Briticism due to context, but hopefully someday I will.) Sure, he singled out Jane Austen too, but she can't hear it! Athill says the critique was based on a falling-out they had over one of his novels she didn't like and that "I think one should just ignore it."

Ugh. Hint: whenever you say you can "just tell" something, you might as well be singing, "I Made A Sweeping Generalization (And I Liked It)." I believe Diana Abu-Jaber speaks for many when she writes in an NPR commentary headed, "From one writer to another, shut up." Mary Elizabeth Williams in Salon takes the more bemused tack, "How banal life would be without the feud-picking, egomaniacal literary blowhard."

What's chilling about his brashness, besides his apparent taken right to say whatever he wants without backlash, is contemplating how many writers of his generation could share his views, but just have the good sense not to broadcast them. (I'm not going to name names because I don't know, and would rather not speculate anyway.) Let's not pretend he's the only sexist person out there. One tends to drift into the mindset, as with other forms of bigotry, that it might be best just to wait for the bigots to pass of natural causes and stop putting their thumbs on the scale of international opinion.

Plus, it's a double-edged sword for women who write. I belong to a site on which I write and comment under a gender-neutral handle, and I've been mistaken for a male writer 3 or 4 times. I have always found this funny, as well as sociologically interesting -- absent the cues of photos or pronouns, how do people decide? -- but it gives me via Naipaul cause to wonder: Were they saying "You write like a dude" as a descriptor, or as a compliment? Should I not have been so amused to be divorced from my gender-nominatively-female name and appearance? (I assume the same would hold true for a male writer wishing to tackle a topics he fears would pigeonhole him as a writer "for women" -- whatever that means in that context.)

To test Naipaul's claim (and okay, probably to drive more clicks to the controversy created by reporting on the thing!), the Guardian set up a "Naipaul quiz" on which you can test yourself according to the "gender" of various texts. I scored a 70 percent, which is better than Roger Ebert, but I think it was only because I recognized a few of the passages. I would never claim to have this ability, but it's not because I am a dainty flower afraid of picking fights. It's because it's ridiculous.

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