For me, awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature to VS Naipaul has always been one of the big “what the fuck” decisions of the Nobel committee and one of the very few that I vehemently disagree with. Because by all accounts, Naipaul seems to be an extremely unpleasant person and not nearly good enough a writer to make up for his general unpleasantness.
Case in point: In a speech held at the Royal Geographic Society, VS Naipaul claimed that no woman was an equal writer to his exalted self, including presumably living female winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature such as Doris Lessing, Toni Morrison, Hertha Müller, Elfriede Jelinek and Nadine Gordimer. Indeed, even dead female writers are no match for Naipaul’s worldshattering talent, even Jane Austen’s novels are characterized by a narrow and sentimental view of the world according to him.
Indeed, Mr Naipaul claims that he can tell within a paragraph or two whether the author of a given text was a man or a woman, presumably because the women write such bland sentimental tosh. The Guardian took him by his word and offers a quiz with ten different short novel excerpts where one can guess whether the author is male or female. I got five out of ten correct, because while you can indeed sometimes guess the gender of a writer from a longer text, it’s almost impossible with single paragraphs. Unless one has Mr Naipaul’s god-given talent for flushing out feminine sentimentality, I suspect.
Indeed, the surprise here is not that VS Naipaul is a misogynist arse* (What is it with British identified male authors of literary fiction and misogynism anyway?), but that he repeats an argument that was already debunked by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own back in 1928 and then again by Joanna Russ in How to Suppress Women’s Writing in 1983, namely that traditionally masculine themes such as war, hunting or sports are considered to be of higher importance than traditionally female themes such as relationships, family, love, childbirth, home life, etc… Joanna Russ called this the “double standard of content and it’s alive and well in the words of VS Naipaul and the likes of him.
I also wonder why male critics and writers so often single out Jane Austen for special criticism. All the time you hear men complaining about having been forced to read Jane Austen at school or university and how painful it was to have to read such a silly and boring book (well, I had to read Moby Dick and All Quiet on the Western Front, both of which were sheer torture, and you don’t hear me complaining). Jane Austen’s novels are defaced with zombies or sea monsters to make them more palatable to male readers. Jennifer Schuessler says as much in this New York Times article on the mash-up phenomenon. And of course the “victims” of the mash-up trend are overwhelmingly classics written by women – Louisa May Alcott and Charlotte Brontë have been targeted as well. Where’s Moby Dick with Hot Gay Romance (come on, it’s obvious) or All Quiet on the Western Front with zombies or Daleks killing everyone in the first five minutes (actually, that would be a vast improvement)? No, it’s almost always classic novels by women given the mash-up treatment by usually male authors.
The list of great timeless writers of the English language includes lots of male names and maybe two or three women. So why jump on one of the few English language women writers that have made it to undisputed classic status? It’s as if certain male writers, readers and critics feel so threatened by even a single female author achieving undisputed classic status that they have to tear her down.
*Naipaul has got a Nobel Prize and his career is unlikely to be affected by what I think about him, so I can break my policy of not talking trash about other writers in this case.