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V.S. Naipaul Just Doesn’t Understand Jane Austen

Not this again. After the success of “Bridesmaids” seemed to finally sound the death knell for the whole “women can’t be as funny as men” canard, we’re right back to hearing “women can’t write like men.” The culprit this time? Acclaimed novelist V.S. Naipaul, who dissed all women writers, and said none were his match. He even declared that his own editor churned out, in his words, “feminine tosh.”

Naipaul, prodigiously talented as he is, has not only earned my wrath with these blanket generalizations he shot off in an interview, as reported in the Guardian, but also for his singling out of Jane Austen for criticism, thereby raising both my feminist and Janeite hackles (and these are, essentially, my two main sets of hackles):

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.”

How to even begin with a response? First of all, given Naipaul’s record of literary feuds and outspokenness, it would seem that this is the kind of attention-seeking, stirring-the-pot comment that’s designed to get people like me fulminating on blogs like this. He probably should be ignored by all of us.

But since there’s a fat chance of that happening, let’s dive right in to his critique of Jane Austen as “sentimental,” which reveals a misreading of her work so basic and elementary that it leaves me wondering if he’s even read her prose, or if he’s a major Kiera Knightley fan who’s going by the Hollywood version. After all, if he doesn’t understand Jane Austen, the lady who basically invented the modern novel, how can we take his word about these other books by women being “tosh”?

Because the truth is, Austen is perhaps one of the most unsparingly unsentimental writers in the history of the novel, and it’s her sharp to the point of being cutting view of all her characters (yes, even Elizabeth Bennet) that makes the very few emotional moments in her novels resonate so strongly with readers. Perhaps W.H. Auden put it best, in verse, when he famously wrote of Austen:

You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Besides her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of `brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.

Austen’s “sober” and “frank” dissection of her society is the thread that runs throughout her complex, multi-layered writing. My husband and I have spent the last few weeks trying to figure out just how far Austen goes in sympathizing with the heroine of “Mansfield Park,” and we can’t quite pinpoint it because the novel is so brilliantly crafted as to be readable from multiple angles. I’ve always maintained that it’s Austen’s gender that has led to her being misread and dismissed as a romance writer, or a sentimental one, rather than simply the greatest at what she did.

There are other responses to Naipaul’s assertions in more contemporary forms than rhyme, too. Social media gave us a comeback from Ayelet Waldman, who tweeted: “V.S. Naipaul, alas, happens to be the author of one of my favorite books, A House for Mr. Biswas. It’s no Jane Austen but it’s pretty great.”

If we had to line up literary zings for their efficiency and wit, I think that Waldman’s one-liner would beat Naipaul’s bridge-burning rant quite handily, thus proving once more that women are both funny and talented at crafting prose, thank you very much.

Finally, let’s go back to the whole “men reading women” question, which after many months of writing for the Sisterhood, I believe to be the essential issue in the whole range of gender-related literary flaps. Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic has been writing about his awed exploration of Austen and Wharton, and recently explained why best-book lists that ignore female writers are a problem with an exhortation to men that I think Naipaul would do well to heed:

Put bluntly, if you call yourself a reading man, but don’t read books by women, you are actually neither. Such a person implicitly dismisses whole swaths of literature, and then flees the challenge of seeing himself through other eyes…. Do not read books by women to murder your inner sexist pig. Do it because Edith Wharton can fucking write. It’s that simple.

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