Friday, June 03, 2011

BiblioBits: V. S. Naipaul vs. Jane Austen; Nicola Griffith on Women in SF

V. S. Naipaul, a winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, has made an ass of himself. In an interview, he denounced Jane Austen and women writers.

You don't want to meet great writers.  Really you don't. When I did PR for readings, I bobbed around with water bottles, wrote the introductions to be given by the profs and bookstore owners, and observed the writers' interactions with their fans. Most were pleasant and considerate, but occasionally they were arrogant.

I never dealt with a writer who said that Jane Austen wasn't his equal, though. 

Naipaul told the Royal Geographic Society in England on Tuesday that no women writers are his equals and that he "couldn't possibly share [Jane Austen's] sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world." He also said that he could tell within a paragraph whether writing was by a woman.

Not this again.

I admire Naipaul's novels.  I agree with many of his political views, but does that make him a great writer? 

He is not in Austen's league.

Compare the brilliant opening of Austen's Emma to the opening of Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas.

"Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her."
Austen establishes her character's interests and social position in one beautifully balanced sentence.

Now look at the opening of Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas.
"Shortly before he was born there had been another quarrel between Mr. Biswas's mother Biptu and his father Raghu, and Bipti had taken the three children and walked all the way in the hot sun to the village where her mother Bissoondaye lived.  Then Bipti had cried and told the old story of Raghu's miserliness:  how he kept a check on every cent he gave her, counted every biscuit in the tin, and how he would walk ten miles rather than pay a cart a penny."

Ahem.  Sort of awkward.

My husband has read all of Naipaul and has also read Paul Theroux's memoir of his friendship with Naipaul.

He summed up this latest flare-up:  "He's an ass."

Nicola Griffith on Women in Science Fiction.  Nicola Griffith, an award-winning science fiction writer, noted that when readers listed their favorite SF writers in comments in The Guardian, only 18 female writers were mentioned.  500 writers were listed. 

She seems to think IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE.  She thinks the gender parity is closer in the U.S.

She writes:

"Clearly, women's sf is being suppressed in the UK. Oh, not intentionally. But that's how bias works: it's unconscious. And of course sometimes it's beyond a reader's power to change: you can't buy a book that's not on the shelf. You can't shelve something the publisher hasn't printed. You can't publish something an agent doesn't send you. You can't represent something a writer doesn't submit. Etc."

She also lists the women mentioned in the comments:

Ursula K. le Guin
Joanna Russ
Julian May
Gwyneth Jones
Doris Lessing
Virginia Woolf
Anna Kavan
Marge Piercy
C.J. Cherryh
Mary Gentle
Anne McCaffrey
Mary Russell
Lois McMaster Bujold
James Tiptree Jr.
Karen Joy Fowler
Zenna Henderson
Margaret Atwood
Diana Wynne Jones


Ellen said...

FWIW, I can't read Naipaul (nor Nabokov nor Mahfouz nor .... ) -- they grew up in a culture which assumes women are inferior to men, less valuable. Even those who try to escape this (Pamuk tries) show many of its insidious traces. Like white people before 1964, males like Naipaul feel better about themselves because they are so sure 50% of the human race can't come near them for ability, achievement, &c.

I hope your summer is going well.


Frisbee said...

I like Mahfouz, but can't read Nabokov. I did like Naipaul's Bend of the River, though.

The Janeites have said today that we should ignore Naipaul's comments, and I pretty much do. But what is it about Jane Austen that upsets Naipaul (and Nabokov)?

Naipaul shouldn't let himself get drawn, and perhaps he did. The interviewer asked him about women writers and then he said this silly stuff. In a way I empathize with idiocy, but he's a Nobel winner and should think twice before he talks. But he is always doing this--fighting with Paul Theroux and Derek Walcott, too.