Cranky old V.S. Naipaul is such an unpleasant bore that Paul Theroux even wrote a book about his lousy, misogynistic ways. Though the old friends-turned-enemies recently reconciled with a handshake. Now, the prickly Trinidadian has compounded his problems with women by telling a writer for the London Evening Standard what can be no surprise to anyone—that he thinks women’s literary work is not as good as men’s in general and his in particular. Women are “unequal” to him, and tend to write “tosh.” He particularly singled out Jane Austen because of her sentimentality.
Of course Naipaul is wrong; many women write as well as he does including Jane Austen. Luckily for him, fiction is not a competitive sport. The very characteristic he abhors in Jane Austen—her sentimental sense of the world—is one of the things that make Austen novels so delightful to read.
There is already outrage about Naipaul’s opinion, adjective-wielding critics defending the honor of Jane Austen and the rest of us. Why do we care so much? Aren’t we confusing the man and his work?
Knighthood or no knighthood, literary genius or no literary genius, V.S. Naipaul has no authority when it comes to women’s writing. I don’t care what he thinks about UFOs either, or animal husbandry or plumbing. The guy is a writer; I care about his writing. The man can seethe and fulminate about other things, but he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I won’t listen seriously any more than I would ask him to redo the bathroom.
Writers are praised for many things in this new age of the personality. They are praised for friendships and professional generosity. They are praised for good looks and being articulate on television. They are praised for being good parents or criticized for being too strict. Writer and writing have become almost indistinguishable. Famous personalities now write bestselling books that sell because they are personalities and famous writers now sell their books on the basis of their personalities—this is good news for Snooki and bad news for Sir Vidia. The last thing we seem to consider about writers these days is their actual writing.
Back in the early 20th century, there was a school of thought—led by I.A. Richards and Robert Penn Warren to name a few forgotten geniuses—that held writing should be read without any knowledge of the circumstances in which it was written. Imagine that! No websites or breathless biographical material; no trying to hunt down the “real story” in the life of the novelist; no gory details of the writer’s marital history or family background. Just the book and the reader and, with luck, the kind of delight and transcendence that can happen between a book and a reader. My father believed this fervently. When I pointed out that Saul Bellow had written a novel, Humboldt’s Gift, which appeared to be about his time at Princeton, my father was furious. You are reducing literature to gossip, he said. He was right, self-serving, but right.
Faulkner famously told his daughter her feelings didn’t matter because “no one remembers Shakespeare’s child.” Was Charles Dickens a great husband? Was Edith Wharton a good friend?
Talent is no indicator of character. A good writer is not automatically a good person or a good teacher or even a particularly good thinker. Faulkner famously told his daughter her feelings didn't matter because "no one remembers Shakespeare's child." Was Charles Dickens a great husband? Was Edith Wharton a good friend? Do we care? Bad men write good novels and so, alas, do bad women. I've known a lot of writers in my life and I can testify to the fact that their writing often seems to have been written by someone else—some kinder, empathic person who has taken up residence in their bodies.
Sometimes, in fact, it seems that the most talented men and women are often the most unpleasant, prickly and personally destructive. It’s only just! Would it be fair for someone with the extravagant talents of a Naipaul to also be blessed with the ability to be loving, intelligent, and astute as a critic?
I read A House for Mr. Biswas on a rainy weekend in East Hampton 25 years ago. I was hooked and quickly devoured The Mystic Masseur and the other novels in the beautiful two volume set that is still on my bookcase. I am not much like Mr. Biswas on the outside, but I knew a little bit about overbearing families. Mr. Biswas’ incandescent story expanded my view of myself and the others around me. I didn’t know or care whether the writer was short or tall, stupid or smart, hateful or loving. It was the book that suggested a new way to live.
As a writer, what I really wish is that people would focus on the work and try to forget the personality. As a reader, what I really wish is that V.S. Naipul would shut up about women writers and write another book with the power and deliciousness of Mr. Biswas, but I don't think he will.
Susan Cheever is the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, most recently Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography.