Nobel Prize winning author thinks women can’t write.

Posted on by Pastabagel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Here’s one to raise your hackles:

“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…And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.””

So sayeth Nobel-prize winner author V.S. Naipaul. There’s more brilliance on display in this Guardian article. Obvious idiocy is obvious, so let’s set that aside for the moment. Focus for a second on the content of the statement “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not.”

The “or not” is puzzling, given the binary proposition that either the writing is by a man or a woman. But he’s implicitly saying that there is a difference between “writing” and “writing by a woman.” Writing by a man is normal writing, writing by a woman is different. Once he has this framework in his head, it becomes tautological that writing by women is never as good as writing by men, because he’s defined writing to be writing by men. This thinking is a reflection of those men who, in response to encountering the existence on college campuses of something like “Women’s Studies,” decry the lack of “Men’s Studies.” Then they stare bewildered when you explain that men’s studies is, in fact, every other course at the college.

Furthermore, suppose there is some statistically provable stylistic difference between the writing of men and women that he is picking up on. What is it that he does with this information? He dismisses the writing. Once he knows a women wrote it, he also knows he doesn’t care about what she has to say.

And who is Naipaul’s example of a woman writer who doesn’t measure up? None other than Jane Austen, that chick-lit hack whose stories and plots have been inexplicably cribbed almost as often as Homer’s. Of her, he says “[I] couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world.” Again it’s not surprising that he feels this way. She was writing at a time when women occupied a certain social role that was inferior to the role of men. And because men did not ever occupy women’s role, they were largely oblivious to the reality of that existence. So of course he couldn’t share her “sentimental ambitions”. There is nothing about her existence that he could share save the weather and gravity.

Naipaul is very comfortable in a world that has evolved socially to ensure that people like him are comfortable. When he was younger, it is almost certain that his teachers, mentors, and colleagues were all men. His father was also a published author. This is what Naipaul considers normal. Please don’t write things about rape, objectification of women, or gender inequality, it’s too “sentimental.”

What is amazing to me is the grotesque lack of intellectual curiosity to investigate that existence or to understand what it is that women who write (not “women writers”) are trying to communicate. It all strikes him as “banal” because he’s heard it many times but has never chosen to listen. Are you complaining about rampant domestic abuse again? You sound like a broken record…

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48 Responses to Nobel Prize winning author thinks women can’t write.

  1. JohnJ says:

    This thinking is a reflection of those men who, in response to encountering the existence on college campuses of something like “Women’s Studies,” decry the lack of “Men’s Studies.” Then they stare bewildered when you explain that men’s studies is, in fact, every other course at the college.

    No, actually the proponents of Women’s Studies are the ones who see Men’s Studies as the norm and Women’s Studies as different. They’re the ones who operate with that framework in mind. It’s those who don’t have that framework who don’t understand how there can be Men’s Math and Women’s Math.

    • Pastabagel says:

      The “other courses” I was referring to would be liberal arts courses, literature, history, etc. Those subjects are inherently “men’s studies” because so much of history and literature reflect the male-dominated society that prevailed for much of human history as well as the writing about literature and history being by men for a largely male audience. So from this viewpoint, the traditional liberal arts are male-focused.

      But this doesn’t apply well to contemporary history and literature, in which the mainstream is much more inclusive of women. But what Naipaul is doing is redefining the mainstream today to be writing by men, which is more retrograde and reactionary.

      I don’t think there is anyone anywhere claiming that math or chemistry are “men’s studies.” Although I think it’s interesting that the first two comments to this post make that same point.

      • JohnJ says:

        Well, you did say “every other course”.

      • Dan Dravot says:

        Well, narrowly speaking, you made the claim that math and chemistry are “men’s studies”:

        men’s studies is, in fact, every other course at the college

        …though I understand that’s not what you meant to say. And even if it were, you’re not the official international spokesperson for Women’s Studies, unquote.

        However: There is a thriving cottage industry in feminist critiques of the
        presumed objectivity of the hard sciences. A quick Google search for “gendered science” turns up This, this, and this in the first page.

        I understand the impulse behind that: The boys got to most of the really important stuff first (modulo Lise Meitner et al), and it feels unfair. Doesn’t Title IX guarantee that women get to found a field of study that tells us as much about the world as physics does? Unfortunately, no. But what the heck, the Irish didn’t get to invent physics either, and you don’t hear them complaining. Not even when they’re sober.

        More broadly, is there any aspect of objective reality that some tenure-seeker won’t claim is socially constructed, regardless of how ey performs his, her, hir, eir, its, or their gender identit(y|ies), or what department ey’s in? If so, it’s an oversight.

        That’s certainly not to claim that women’s studies is solely concerned with contemplating the chromosomes of neutrons, nor that any of their more appropriate concerns are necessarily illegitimate: No doubt, some men leave their socks on the floor or whatever, and it’s surely healthy for the girls to blow off some steam about it.

        But it is also accurate to say that some of these chicks do, at times, lash out at real science — in spite of the fact that these days, there are real women in real science departments doing real work. Maybe math’s not too hard for Barbie after all.

      • Fifi says:

        Up until recently even subjects everyone likes to believe hold no bias have actually been taught from a male perspective – such as some of the sciences. In medicine women’s bodies and emotions were often treated as pathological. We’ve come a long way from the those pre-1980s/1970s religiously informed beliefs based upon a religiously based worldview or conception of “reality” but we’re still discovering our own culturally ingrained biases when it comes to understanding the world and nature (including our own nature). If your (or my) world view and concept of reality is based on stories in the bible, which often pathologize nature as a means to gain and maintain social control, you’ll have lots of biases that get in the way of seeing things as they actually are and some very odd ideas about what is “natural”. If you believe in creation stories, the theory ad evidence for evolution is going to challenge your concept of reality.

        • philtrum says:

          In medicine women’s bodies and emotions were often treated as pathological.

          It surprises me that this is even controversial. Medical and psychiatric categories are necessarily imperfect and changeable, and TLP has written about flaws in psychiatric diagnosis and treatment any number of times. Criticism of medical science on feminist grounds may not always be correct, but neither is it obviously and inherently wrong.

          And there’s been plenty of critical writing on science as philosophy/ideology that isn’t feminist or identity-based.

        • AnonymousAtLarge says:

          I can’t help but observe the glut of writing in primary care journals about the importance for testosterone replacement in old ass dudes, even though ALL EVIDENCE suggests estrogen deficiency is just as problematic mentally and physically for females as testosterone deficiency is for men. There are so many women in menopause who happen to take a low dose estrogen replacement and they are like “why didn’t anyone tell me about this option” – answer is no one cares about female health, especially after the reproductive years. Men are scared of aging, of being old and with a testosterone level of an old man, and so males who write medical journals are like “yes, yes, more testosterone for old dudes, but never ever give estrogen replacement for an old lady because um clots or something, even if it makes her feel better and improves her health otherwise”.

          But by the way your insurance will totally cover VIAGRA and it won’t cover a shitton of treatments that help women.

  2. Dan Dravot says:

    Physics, geology, chemistry, astronomy, calculus, computer science, metallurgy, analog circuit design: Men’s Studies!

    Nahhh.

    Women’s Studies types are a joke because sometimes (about one week out of four), they get overemotional and try to apply their ideas to serious, quantitative subjects. Like trying to claim that chemistry is “Men’s Studies”. That kind of obvious idiocy needs to be laughed at, long and hard. But as long as they stay in the subjective, gendered academic kitchen they’ve created for themselves, most people just politely ignore them.

    The other thing is that, like, dude: He’s writing in the Guardian. The New York Post would be one thing, but the Guardian? Naipaul’s not exactly preaching to the choir here. He’s trying to get a rise out of you. Like whatsisname with the urinal. Duchamp. In neither case is it art, but at least it’s a change of pace.

    • Dan Dravot says:

      Oops, I hadn’t clicked through: Naipaul wasn’t writing for the Groan himself; he was speaking “In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society”. Not a big difference, though, as far as trolling goes.

    • JohnJ says:

      I think the argument is rather that the framework for teaching these subjects is one that favors a male perspective/approach. But you do highlight a concern that pushing other perspectives into the “kitchen” actually makes it more difficult to use those different perspectives to tackle the topic. Science, for example, really benefits when a problem is approached from various angles. What should, and has, happened is the subject incorporates these views. Women’s and Race Studies are really just about promoting resentment and disharmony.

      • CubaLibre says:

        Seems to me that women and racial minorities deserve to be resentful, and that we could all benefit from disharmony. After all, isn’t that what party-based republican democracy was supposed to be about? Disharmonies?

        • JohnJ says:

          The disharmonies in the American form of federalist republicanism were based on region, not gender, racial, or other identities. And I don’t believe that anyone deserves anything based on their gender or race.

          • CubaLibre says:

            Not even a little sympathy?

            As for American republicanism, you’re wrong. The disharmonies are based on political affiliation. It’s not Texas vs. Massachusetts, it’s Republican vs. Democrat. A Democratic Congressman from Georgia will ally with a Democratic Congressman from California against a Republican Congressman from Georgia. Why shouldn’t political affiliations – i.e., opinions about the correct structuring of society – be influenced by identities? How couldn’t they be?

          • JohnJ says:

            Why should one race or gender be more deserving than another? No one race or gender is inherently superior.

            I assumed you were referring to Federalist 10, which describes how America’s system would promote factionalism as a defense against centralized power. If you actually read it, you’ll find that the idea was that regional sympathies, not other forms of identity-politics, were the basis for the protection of dissent.

            Why shouldn’t political sympathies be informed by racism and sexism? Because those are both really poor bases for deciding what is a good idea. I don’t think anyone should support or oppose a candidate just because they’re of a particular race or gender. And individuals should be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.

            How couldn’t they be? By explaining to people that choosing candidates based on gender or race is as silly as choosing candidates based on hair color or attractiveness. America has made great advances already in this, thanks to the sacrifices of many great people.

          • JohnJ says:

            I am supremely confident, for example, in speculating that you really, really oppose Palin despite her being a woman, but not because she is a woman.

          • Dan Dravot says:

            …racism and sexism … are both really poor bases for deciding what is a good idea.

            Of course voting your identity group produces dismally rotten policies, but people don’t do it in pursuit of wise policies. They do it because they think their candidate will take the other group’s stuff and give them some if he wins — and if he loses, they think the other group will take their stuff instead.

            Advocates of identity politics don’t think it’s an alternative to post-Enlightenment politics, because they don’t even know what post-Enlightenment politics is. Theirs is the only game they can imagine.

          • JohnJ says:

            @Dan

            Ya, thinking that someone is going to help me just because we’re the same race or gender doesn’t work. That’s a recipe for real disappointment. Demagogues and double-crossers know no race or gender.

          • CubaLibre says:

            “Why should one race or gender be more deserving than another? No one race or gender is inherently superior.”

            But some are historically superior.

            “I assumed you were referring to Federalist 10, which describes how America’s system would promote factionalism as a defense against centralized power. If you actually read it, you’ll find that the idea was that regional sympathies, not other forms of identity-politics, were the basis for the protection of dissent.”

            The Federalist isn’t Biblical authority and it does not itself comprise the whole logic of American politics. A person’s beliefs comprise their identity – you are what you do, right? So their identity is instrumental in deciding their politics.

            What I don’t see is how a college class about women’s historical experience – an experience entirely ignored in most history – means the balkanization of the academy and the dissolution of debate. Without the women’s studies class, there wouldn’t be a debate. No one would realize there was anything to debate about.

          • JohnJ says:

            No, the debate preceded the women’s studies classes.

        • philtrum says:

          The assumption made, also, is that only women and racial minorities are playing identity politics.

          White identity politics may be labelled as something else: “traditional values” or the like. It is seldom as nakedly identity-focused as it was in, say, the pro-Confederate Southern press in the 1870s, but it’s still there.

          But particularly with history — how do you discuss history without identity politics? How do you get a clear sense of what was happening in any given place at any given time if you don’t discuss the experiences of (quite often) the majority of people there? Especially if that society was explicitly organized by race and sex, or race and sex were enormous concerns in that society?

  3. rawford says:

    The headline here is that a Nobel Prize winning author is a misogynist. To be fair, I haven’t read any of his stuff. Perhaps he is what he says he is, a male writer who has no female equal. But I feel pretty confident he hasn’t actually read much (or any) contemporary writing by women, and thus has no idea what it is he’s talking about, other than he generally regards women as sentimental and narrow minded. Therefore, their writing must be also.

    Don’t let Naipaul pin the literary aspirations of an entire gender on Jane Austen. I consider that a straw man. I find most aspects of her work borderline intolerable, while being aware I’m not her target audience. There’s a bunch of female writers that are miles ahead of Austen (Harper Lee, Flannery O’Connor, Margaret Atwood, and on and on…), but it’s all a matter of personal taste and it doesn’t prove anything more than me arguing that Austen was, indeed, a consummate hack.

    Sometimes when I read short story collections or pick up a book where the author’s name makes their gender ambiguous, I perform an informal experiment and read without knowing whether the author is a man or woman. Somebody try this and tell me if you notice the same thing.

    My observation: When the writing is bad, you can usually pick out whether it’s dude-bad or chick-bad. Conversely, when it’s really good, it’s hard to tell, and you might be surprised.

    It might say more about my own personal taste than what great writing entails, but allow me to advance a hypothesis. Whether the story is about rape or erectile dysfunction, the best writing is an exercise in empathy and contains at least some element that is trying to climb higher than the author’s narrow culture or identity, even if their culture and identity are the subject matter. The best stuff is inclusive.

    • philtrum says:

      No accounting for taste. I love Austen for her ability to illuminate all the ways people have of being nasty and/or ridiculous (her “central” love stories are often unconvincing, sometimes deliberately), and found To Kill A Mockingbird annoyingly didactic.

      But as others have said, which book is more sentimental, David Copperfield or Wuthering Heights? I know what I think.

    • sleeper says:

      My observation: When the writing is bad, you can usually pick out whether it’s dude-bad or chick-bad. Conversely, when it’s really good, it’s hard to tell, and you might be surprised.
      That’s what I thought when I was taking this test http://bit.ly/imaaJI. It contains snippets of writing by authors generally considered to be really good. I scored 9 out of 10.

  4. kitty says:

    Weird that a man who writes about modern day Islam has a hard time relating to Jane Austen. In his writing, it is clear he has a very high opinion of himself, but I read one of his award winning books, and I had a hard time understanding his point.

    That said, I’m not sure I disagree with him, particularly in the realm of non-fiction. In my experience, if a topic gets glossed over, I check the author and am inevitably disappointed with the fact that it is a woman writer.

  5. cat says:

    Naipaul using Jane Austen to demonstrate that women’s writing is sentimental is about as brainless as me using Charles dickens to demonstrate that men’s writing is sentimental. Seriously, I can’t share Dicken’s sentimental view of the world.

    I don’t agree that Austen is a hack. I think that view is likely to have been formed as a response to the sentimentalisation and commodification of her work – Jane austen as a brand – that happened when her books were adapted into romantic movies or repackaged as chick lit – e.g. I’m reminded of the repackaging of Pride and Prejudice to include a preface by the author of the (monumentally dull) Bridget Jones Diary.

    Of course Austen wrote about women’s concerns since that was the only world that was open to her, what does Naipaul expect? but her work is hardly chick lit, which anyway is a modern brand. She also, however, condemned slavery (in Mansfield Park) and in her later novels critiqued women’s limited roles. I doubt Naipaul has read Austen.

    • Pastabagel says:

      That “Austen is a hack” line was a sarcastic joke. Obviosuly she’s a great writer, and she certainly does not write “chick-lit”, which is what makes Naipaul’s professional assessment of her work insane. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

  6. ExOttoyuhr says:

    It sounds like the Nobel Prize for Politics isn’t the only one handed out by idiots. We have been trolled.

    I didn’t know who this fellow was until today, and I don’t feel particularly pleased to learn. What Pastabagel doesn’t mention is the “Personal Life” section of his Wikipedia article: Naipaul has the kind of ulterior motives for wanting to discredit female writers that Hitler would have for wanting to discredit Jewish ones. Even reading the linked-to article revealed him as a callous brute, but it looks like he has even less nobility and virtue than I initially imagined.

    Is he representative of anything outside his corrupt and iniquitous self, though? I really hope not, but I wonder about the spiritual state of a (proudly left-leaning) establishment that can tolerate a man like this, let alone hold him up as some sort of ideal.

  7. eqv says:

    According to wiki, he has abused women, visited prostitutes, and thinks Tony Blair is a lefty.
    That’s a clue.

    Why does someone make a joke about periods every time Womens’ Studies classes are discussed?

  8. BluegrassJack says:

    Seems to me there is a website created by some Israelis. You type in a story on the site, and an algorithm predicts whether the writer is a female or a male with a high degree of accuracy. It’s based on words, phrasing, and a whole bunch of other stuff.

    • philtrum says:

      Yep, but “a high degree of accuracy” != “accurate every time.” I know a lot of people who fooled it. It gives you a percentage — your writing scores as 80% masculine, 20% feminine, or whatever. I recall that the passage of my own writing I submitted scored 50/50.

    • AnonymousAtLarge says:

      Even if we assume there are real differences in male and female writing, the point pastabagel was making is it is ridiculous to assume that women’s writing is inherently inferior. Different is not necessarily inferior.

  9. AnonymousAtLarge says:

    More than a lack of curiosity, it’s worse than that… a purposeful, willful intent to subjugate women. How dare my possessions attempt to observe, understand, and comment on the world? It would be as frustrating as if your computer kept talking back at you, and refused to go to the websites you typed into the search bar, instead directing you to websites about feminism. I mean, WTF, I own you bitch. That’s kinda how I would feel if my computer started back talking and it’s sorta how men like this dude feel about women who dare speak (or write, or be seen/heard).

  10. xylokopos says:

    Naipaul is a phenomenal writer, seriously PB, you have got to read him, if not for another reason, just to counterbalance your readings of french postmodernists and guardian articles.

    Also, anyone who annoys the guardinistas is someone I would buy a drink. Did anyone read the comments? ” He is neo-colonial”, ” my wife and I bought a book of his but now that I know what a bad guy he is, I am not gonna read him”, ” what about Doris Lessing and Virginia Wolfe” etc. What a bunch of pretentious pricks. 6 fucking pages of name dropping and NOT ONE, after hundreds of comments, mentioned Agatha Christie ( the most successful and widely read writer in english) or JK Rowling ( the top earner as far as women writers go).
    He is not a nice guy and he doesn’t respect women, well la di da, we have known this for 50 years. He didn’t win the Nobel Prize for being the best husband and best mate ever, did he?

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