Deborah Yaffe

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Death of an anti-Janeite

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 16 2018 01:00PM

The death last week of Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul prompted the customary chorus of praise for his writing, as well as the rather less customary chorus of agreement that, all told, he was a pretty awful human being—abusive to women, unkind to colleagues, arrogant about his own achievements, and sometimes racist in his views.


For Janeites, it was all rather familiar: Seven years ago, Naipaul—who was born into an Indian family in Trinidad but spent his adult life in Britain--made headlines worldwide by dissing female writers in general and Jane Austen in particular.


Asked during a 2011 interview at the Royal Geographical Society if he considered any female writer to be his equal, he replied, “I don’t think so.” Jane Austen? Nope: He "couldn't possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world."


"I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not,” he claimed, because of female authors' "sentimentality, the narrow view of the world. . . . And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.”


It’s hard to know where to begin in critiquing this farrago of stereotypical generalizations and egregious misreading. Like the Writers Guild of Great Britain, which at the time declined to “waste its breath” on a reply, one is tempted to borrow a phrase from that rank sentimentalist Jane Austen and say that Naipaul’s views on the writing of half the human race didn’t deserve the compliment of rational opposition.


Of course, plenty of people voiced such opposition anyway (for instance, here and here): Naipaul was either attacked as an exemplar of the sexism that still prevented women from getting their work published and reviewed, or dismissed as a grumpy old man whose own achievements were long in the past.


I can’t weigh in on Naipaul’s writerly virtues: He represents one of the many gaps in my reading education, though the recent spate of obituaries has convinced me to add him to my list. But if he found the clear-eyed and ironic Jane Austen sentimental, then I guess he wasn’t much of a critic.


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