V. S. Naipaul vs. The World, Or Why I Vacuum

Mad Woman Vacuums

(image via Dreamstime)

I’m vacuuming mad, thanks to V. S. Naipaul.

You know, that kind of mad that impels you to vacuum at 11 pm? Nothing will do but the vigorous thrusting with the handle and the vicious roar of the machine even though you should have been in bed already?

That kind of mad.

Have been ever since I read The Guardian article about the esteemed author V. S. Naipaul in which aforementioned esteemed author bashes women writers.

Oh, he’s not the first. Before him there was Dr. Samuel Johnson who, upon hearing of a female Quaker orator, compared her to a dog “walking on his hind legs. It is not done well,” he explained, “but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

Then there was Nathaniel Hawthorne who decried the emergence of a “damned mob of scribbling women.” Should I love The Scarlet Letter less? I confess I adore Hester Prynne, a writer of sorts, who said everything with her one exquisite letter—the A.

But back to Naipaul. He claims not only to be a great writer, to be above contemporary women writers, but also, crime of crimes, to surpass the stellar Jane Austen.

Let me consider that.

I began Naipaul’s first book The Mystic Masseur at my brother’s urging (Brian is a Naipaul fan), but I couldn’t finish it. The novel had its moments of clever satire, but eventually I grew annoyed and bored. In the interest of fairness, I checked out Goodreads to see what others had to say about The Mystic Masseur. Many readers commented on the satire and humor; many pointed to this debut novel as promising but immature, indicative of future talent.

Would anyone describe Austen’s debut work Sense and Sensibility as immature, merely “indicative” of future talent?

Probably not.

By the way, my current list of favorite ethnically Indian authors includes Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri, Thrity Umrigar. Turns out all of them are women.


Can we separate the author from the writing?

In my MFA program, we debated theories that a text may or may not be read as separate from the author, as in the author is absent. I wavered, ever the undecided. For instance, I cannot separate the arrogance from the author of The Mystic Masseur. Should I decide to read Naipaul again (and I actually think I shall), I will borrow the book from the library or buy it used (or pre-owned; don’t you love car industry euphemisms?) as I don’t want a penny of my discretionary income to fall into that man’s coffers.

On the other hand, I do separate Naipaul from his work to the extent that the work must speak for itself; ergo, don’t tell me you’re a great writer.

Years ago, PBS offered a children’s art program with historian/nun Sister Wendy. I’m not ashamed to admit watching this program even after my children had left the room. One of Sister Wendy’s profound utterances has never left me. As I remember, she said, “Don’t ask an artist what his painting is about. He can’t tell you. He can only tell you what he wanted it to be about.”

In other words, it is to the observer to decipher the work and its value, Naipaul’s “helpful” hints about his innate genius notwithstanding.

His genius, so he claims, enables him to determine in one paragraph whether an author is male or female, the premise being that male is superior. Naturally.

At the end of The Guardian article is a quiz you can take if you click here. The quiz consists of blind entries equally divided between male and female authors and allows you to test your ability to discern male from female writing.

I took the quiz. I scored 50% accuracy—the percentage of pure chance. The irony is that one selection I pegged as female was penned by Naipaul’s own hand. Think I should tell him?

It’s interesting that a decade ago Francine Prose explored this issue of gender writing in her essay “The Scent of a Woman’s Ink.” She also included writing samples—some by men of an emotive nature and some by women replete with tough talk. Prose’s point was that although the writing style is not inherently gender specific, the publishing industry is. And always has been. Why else would Jane Austen publish anonymously? Or George Sand and George Eliot assume male pseudonyms? As Francine Prose notes, male authors take up far more of the publishing ink than her gender-blind experiment would justify.

Regardless of how V. S. Naipaul justifies his gender bias, in my mind he has committed a transgression against the writing and reading community. It is only fitting that, like poor Hester, V. S. be made to wear a scarlet letter of shame. But unlike her, he would not wear his letter over his heart. Instead, his letter A could be affixed to a rather more nether region. He should appreciate the brevity of such a dispensation—the A representing at once both his personal trait and the anatomical part it covers.


V. S. Naipaul vs. The World, Or Why I Vacuum — 4 Comments

  1. Very interesting post Deb. First, I will make a point to not purchase any of Mr. Naipaul’s work certainly. But second, it opens up the perennial debate among female writers and the consideration of taking on a sexless or male pen name. Is one more likely to score that deal if you are perceived male?

    I just read an article today on the Council for Women and Girls website having to do with women in traditionally male dominated industries like science and engineering. Oddly, it seems what women do make their way into these male dominated industries enjoy fairly equitable pay with their male counterparts. I would be curious to see what the results of this would be in the publishing world, specifically in SF and fantasy. ( http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2011/08/04/women-stem-opportunity-improve-us-competitiveness – If you’d like to read the article.)

    It is shocking and infuriating that such a thing continues to this day. And for my part, I think you should definitely tell him about the writing sample. In person if possible. With a camera.

    • Hi Kristy,
      Thanks for your thoughts. I think you are right that women are making inroads into engineering. Companies seem eager to hire female engineers. Now we need publishing to catch up.

  2. Naipaul is a talented writer. I don’t think that there is any question about that. Being a talented at something doesn’t make him (or anyone else) any less of a narcissist. Genius is no excuse for rudeness.

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