V. S. Naipaul has women writers the world over celebrating. After dedicating many years to the pressing question, “can a female author ever be his literary equal?” the famous author has, at last, delivered his surprising verdict: “I don’t think so.” He revealed his findings during an interview, last Tuesday, at London’s Royal Geographic Society.
As the leading authority on this subject, he has a finally tuned ear to the invariable cadences of the female wordsmith: “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.” For such an outspoken, controversial writer, such circumspection is a welcome change of tone, lending his conclusions added credibility.
His findings have led Naipaul, described in the New York Review of Books as “the greatest living master of English prose,” to a rueful acknowledgement of his own limitations: About Jane Austen, he conceded that he could never “share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world.” Ms. Austen was too busy polishing silver to respond, so British novelist and Man Booker Prize winner Hillary Mantel accepted the white flag in her stead: “Sir Vidia’s admission shows uncommon generosity of spirit.”
Explaining his remarks further, he said, “…inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.” Lest anyone question the science behind his investigation, he offered, as an example, the work of his former publisher, a woman: “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.”
Of course, no one is taking it as such. Canadian authoress, Margret Atwood responded, “I think I speak for women writers everywhere in saying Naipaul has lifted a great burden from our shoulders, releasing us from the wholly misguided compulsion to compete with him. What were we all thinking? Finally we can take a deep breath and return to what we do best. That is, feminine tosh.”
Atwood’s compatriot, Alice Munro, frequently mentioned as a Nobel contender herself, seconded Atwood’s comments, adding, “Really, it is a gift to us all, coming from a man with a reputation of such incredible size. When you consider the breathtaking length of his career, the sheer girth of his influence in the world of letters, it is remarkable that he would even take the time for this kind of thoughtful research.”
Two senior Nobel laureates, Doris Lessing and Nadine Gordimer, were eager to weigh in on the announcement. Tossing one of her cats from her lap, Lessing said, “Naipaul is the ideal male writer. Very forthright. He exudes such a strong confidence in his masculinity. Nothing at all to prove in this regard. No hidden pockets of insecurity. Which is why he comes so easily to terms with his superiority to women. Only a man who has superseded his own ego would so unselfconsciously frame the question of his ranking in comparison with other writers, whether men or women.”
Gordimer, famous for her novels depicting the human cost of the tormented South African political climate, has, at the age of eighty-seven, been feeling a particularly feminine need to stay at home. In a telephone interview from her residence in Johannesburg, she offered perhaps the most insightful response to Naipaul’s findings: “Since the early nineteenth century - really following Jane Austen’s example - women writers have been laboring under the belief that their job is to write truthfully about the world they observe. Naipaul has, effectively, put an end to such nonesense: We now understand that Literature is really just a pissing contest, and we women, well, we’re simply not equipped to compete.”
Naipaul’s only notable detractor was a man, Philip Roth. The American writer said he values many women writers. “There are at least a half dozen who are his equal. Two or three who are actually better than him. I’m the one with whom they can’t compete.”
Naipaul, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, was not available for further comment.