On Women Writers
So, this story broke while I was on holiday. Racist, colonialist, misogynist, Islamophobic and nobel-prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul declared in a Guardian interview that no woman writer was his equal (not even Jane Austen):
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."
When “Scent of a Woman’s Ink” appeared, it stirred up a storm of debate. I was denounced and discussed in many newspaper book sections that no longer exist. I will always be grateful to Harper’s for hosting a dinner party a few weeks later at which I could be pleasant to some of the editors whose publications, I’d noted, too rarely published or reviewed women—and thus could salvage what remained of my career. Now when the subject of “women’s writing” comes up, as it periodically does, the result is more of a dust devil than a typhoon. Women are distressed and disheartened all over again—and then the subject quietly, politely disappears.
I suppose a writer should be happy when a piece she wrote more than ten years ago seems as fresh and as pertinent as if it had been written yesterday. But in this case, I don’t find it a reason for celebration or self-congratulation. Honestly, I’d rather that “Scent of a Woman’s Ink” seemed dated: a period piece about a problem women no longer have.
Here is an excerpt from the brilliant original essay, linked to above:
How to explain this disparity? Is fiction by women really worse? Perhaps we simply haven’t learned how to read what women write? Diane Johnson — herself a novelist of enormous range, elegance, wit, and energy — observes that male readers at least “have not learned to make a connection between the images, metaphors, and situations employed by women (house, garden, madness), and universal experience, although women, trained from childhood to read books by people of both sexes, know the metaphorical significance of the battlefield, the sailing ship, the voyage, and so on.” Perhaps the problem is that women writers tell us things we don’t want to hear — especially not from women. Or is the difficulty, fundamentally, that all readers (male and female, for it must be pointed out that many editors, critics, and prize-committee members are women) approach works by men and women with different expectations? It’s not at all clear what it means to write “like a man” or “like a woman,” but perhaps it’s still taken for granted, often unconsciously and thus insidiously, that men write like men and women like women — or at least that they should. And perhaps it’s assumed that women writers will not write anything important — anything truly serious or necessary, revelatory or wise.
Of course, unlike small boys who don’t yet know better than to say that girls’ books are “sappy,” serious readers, male or female, would never admit to thinking that fiction by women is inferior. Male writers and critics have learned not to express every demented thought that crosses their minds, and besides, in most cases, they sincerely believe that they don’t esteem writing according to the writer’s gender. So one searches mostly in vain for current ruminations on the subject of “why women can’t write.”...
Another charge often leveled at women writers is that our work is limited to the rather brief run “between the boudoir and the altar.” Men write sweeping, phone-book-size sagas of the big city, of social class, of our national destiny, our technological past and future. They produce boldly experimental visionary fiction that periodically revives the moribund novel. Women write diminutive fictions, which take place mostly in interiors, about little families with little problems. And it’s no wonder, since our obsession with “feelings” blinds us to the larger sociopolitical realities outside the tiny rooms in which our theaters of feeling are being enacted.
How odd, then, that the Hemingway story should take place mostly on a cot outside a tent, between a man and a woman in the midst of an upper-class sports-adventure entertainment. Caught up in his feelings, unaware of the colonial fallout around him, Bwana can write home from the safari with zero awareness of how he wound up giving orders to his “personal boy.” There is talk of money, but the subtheme of economics doesn’t get much broader than a few insults leveled by the dying writer against the “rich bitch” who has supported him, the “destroyer of his talent.” At one point he tells her cleverly, “Your damned money was my armour. My Swift and my Armour.” For all his Big Subjects — men at war, men and peace, men without women — Hemingway wasn’t a Big Picture guy. It’s possible to read For Whom the Bell Tolls and remain clueless as to who was fighting, or why....
In the end, of course, it’s pointless to characterize, categorize, and value writing according to its author’s gender, or to claim that women writers fixate on everything that irritates gynophobes about our sex. The best writing has as little to do with gender as it does with nationality or with the circumscriptions of time. A novel such as Pride and Prejudice or Anna Karenina, a story such as Mansfield’s “Prelude” or Kleist’s “The Marquise of O,” transcends not only the facts of its author’s life but the manners and customs, the superficial gloss, of the era in which it was written. There will always be categories into which fiction falls, standards that have less to do with stereotype and preconception than with originality and revelation, with the ability to translate life — in all its simple and endlessly mysterious complexity — onto the printed page. But there is no male or female language, only the truthful or fake, the precise or vague, the inspired or the pedestrian. If, in the future, some weird cataclysm should scramble or erase all the names of authors from all the books in all the libraries, readers may have trouble (and progressively more trouble, as more women join the professions and the military and more men immerse themselves in the domestic) telling whether Emma Bovary and Hester Prynne were created by women or men. The only distinction that will matter will be between good and bad writing.