Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul’s intemperate remarks about women writers have caused a storm of backlash from the literary community, ranging from dismissiveness (Naipaul’s former editor, Diana Athill, said his comments “just made [her] laugh”) to well-placed vitriol. In the latter category, Booker Prize winner Keri Hulme is quoted in the Guardian calling Naipaul a “slug” and a “misogynist prick.”The remarks that prompted all this occurred during an interview last week, in which Naipaul said he does not consider any woman writer – even Jane Austen – his literary equal. “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not,” the Trinidad-born author remarked. “I think [it is] unequal to me.” He went on to refer to Athill, whom he considers “so good as a taster and an editor,” but who resorts to “feminine tosh” in her own writing.
In a comment on the New Zealand–based Beattie’s Book Blog, Hulme responded by writing: “V.S. Naipaul is a mysogynist prick whose works are dying. He accurately foresaw their relevance 3 decades ago. ‘They will not survive me.’”
Another writer lining up to denounce Naipaul is Francine Prose, who in 1998 published an article entitled “Scent of a Woman’s Ink: Are Women Writers Really Inferior?” in Harper’s magazine. The Guardian sums up the pith and substance of Prose’s article thusly:
Thirteen years ago, Prose explored what she dubbed gynobibliophobia, pointing to Norman Mailer’s comments that “the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquillé in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn” and that “a good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls.”In a postscript published on Harper’s website last week, Prose refers to her earlier article in light of Naipaul’s jibes.
Because the recent controversy about the Guardian interview in which V. S. Naipaul claimed that no woman was his equal and that he too could instantly sniff out that telltale estrogenic ink has made it clear (in case it needed clarification) that “before” is “now.” The notion of women’s inferiority apparently won’t go away. Of course, the idea that Naipaul imagines he is a better writer than Jane Austen would be simply hilarious if the prejudice it reveals weren’t still so common and didn’t have such a damaging effect on what some of us have chosen to do with our lives.Prose ends by saying she wishes “Scent of a Woman’s Ink” appeared dated in 2011, that it addressed “a problem women no longer have.”