Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul's latest exercise in high-end trolling -- and the entirely predictable (and justified) response from writers like Keri Hulme, Diana Athill and Francine Prose -- is the kind of NY-LON literary prostate gazing that's vaguely interesting for five minutes on a wet Sunday afternoon when you've only got nothing else to read.
Of course, the quickest response to Naipaul's sneer about ink-stained vaginas oozing "feminine tosh" from their "sentimental sense of the world" would be to read some women writers.
Jane Austen, according to Vidia, is beneath him because of her "sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world." Bitch, please... I will leave it up to readers to assess whether there's any sentiment on display in this passage from Pride and Prejudice.
"Engaged to Mr. Collins! My dear Charlotte -- impossible!"
The steady countenance which Miss Lucas had commanded in telling her story, gave way to a momentary confusion here on receiving so direct a reproach; though, as it was no more than she expected, she soon regained her composure, and calmly replied:
"Why should you be surprised, my dear Eliza? Do you think it incredible that Mr. Collins should be able to procure any woman's good opinion, because he was not so happy as to succeed with you?"
"I see what you are feeling," replied Charlotte. "You must be surprised, very much surprised -- so lately as Mr. Collins was wishing to marry you. But when you have had time to think it over, I hope you will be satisfied with what I have done. I am not romantic, you know; I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins's character, connection, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state."
Elizabeth quietly answered "Undoubtedly;" and after an awkward pause, they returned to the rest of the family. Charlotte did not stay much longer, and Elizabeth was then left to reflect on what she had heard. It was a long time before she became at all reconciled to the idea of so unsuitable a match. The strangeness of Mr. Collins's making two offers of marriage within three days was nothing in comparison of his being now accepted. She had always felt that Charlotte's opinion of matrimony was not exactly like her own, but she had not supposed it to be possible that, when called into action, she would have sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage. Charlotte the wife of Mr. Collins was a most humiliating picture! And to the pang of a friend disgracing herself and sunk in her esteem, was added the distressing conviction that it was impossible for that friend to be tolerably happy in the lot she had chosen.
Mr Collins is a pretentious, pompous, arse-licking little toad. Or as Austen more elegantly phrased it, "not a sensible man, and the deficiency of nature had been but little assisted by education or society." But Elizabeth is wrong - and, frankly, a wee bit of an arrogant bitch who is displaying a great deal of pride and prejudice. Charlotte, as it turns out, is "tolerably happy" with her beaux -- mostly by contriving to spend as little time in his presence as humanly possible.
Now you can call that many things, and it's certainly not difficult to write off Austen as Mills & Boon for highbrows. Until you actually bother reading the damn novels with slightly closer attention than a certain Nobel laureate. Then they have an unnerving habit of being about as sentimental as being smacked in the head with a brick-stuffed reticule.
Perhaps Vidia would like what some bloke called George had to say about 'Silly Novels by Lady Novelists' that appeared in the October 1856 issue of The Westminster Review? The novels under review are (thank the Muses!) dead as they probably were on arrival, and very silly indeed.
Unfortunately, Mary Ann Evans (yes, gentle reader, it is the author of Middlemarch in her literary drag) blows it by taking women writers seriously, and saving her sharpest barbs for male critics who pat bad writers on the head. (Whereas Naipaul recoils from the fishy odour of lady-prose.)
We are aware that our remarks are in a very different tone from that of the reviewers who, with perennial recurrence of precisely similar emotions, only paralleled, we imagine, in the experience of monthly nurses, tell one lady novelist after another that they “hail” her productions “with delight.” We are aware that the ladies at whom our criticism is pointed are accustomed to be told, in the choicest phraseology of puffery, that their pictures of life are brilliant, their characters well drawn, their style fascinating, and their sentiments lofty. But if they are inclined to resent our plainness of speech, we ask them to reflect for a moment on the chary praise, and often captious blame, which their panegyrists give to writers whose works are on the way to become classics. No sooner does a woman show that she has genius or effective talent, than she receives the tribute of being moderately praised and severely criticised. By a peculiar thermometric adjustment, when a woman’s talent is at zero, journalistic approbation is at the boiling pitch; when she attains mediocrity, it is already at no more than summer heat; and if ever she reaches excellence, critical enthusiasm drops to the freezing point. Harriet Martineau, Currer Bell, and Mrs. Gaskell have been treated as cavalierly as if they had been men. And every critic who forms a high estimate of the share women may ultimately take in literature, will on principle abstain from any exceptional indulgence toward the productions of literary women. For it must be plain to every one who looks impartially and extensively into feminine literature that its greatest deficiencies are due hardly more to the want of intellectual power than to the want of those moral qualities that contribute to literary excellence—patient diligence, a sense of the responsibility involved
in publication, and an appreciation of the sacredness of the writer’s art. In the majority of woman’s books you see that kind of facility which springs from the absence of any high standard; that fertility in imbecile combination or feeble imitation which a little self-criticism would check and reduce to barrenness; just as with a total want of musical ear people will sing out of tune, while a degree more melodic sensibility would suffice to render them silent. The foolish vanity of wishing to appear in print, instead of being counterbalanced by any consciousness of the intellectual or moral derogation implied in futile authorship, seems to be encouraged by the extremely false impression that to write at all is a proof of superiority in a woman. On this ground we believe that the average intellect of women is unfairly represented by the mass of feminine literature, and that while the few women who write well are very far above the ordinary intellectual level of their sex, the many women who write ill are very far below it. So that, after all, the severer critics are fulfilling a chivalrous duty in depriving the mere fact of feminine authorship of any false prestige which may give it a delusive attraction, and in recommending women of mediocre faculties—as at least a negative service they can render their sex—to abstain from writing.
George Eliot: 1. Sir V.S. Naipaul: Nil, methinks. I'm a huge believer in Sturgeon's Law that 90% of everything is crap. (The two novels, one travel book and unpleasantly bitchy memoir published since his Nobel win a decade ago aren't even crap; they're almost Onion-worthy self-parody. Patrick French's authorized biography The World is What It Is can only be recommended for literary masochists, and even the reviews require a trigger warning due to the attention paid to Naipaul's sadistic abuse of his first wife and various mistresses.) There are even more extremely silly novels published in the 21st century than there were in the 1850s. Many of them by women. Many not.
There's also no reason why writers shouldn't be as petty, vindictive and prone to ego-wanking as, say, a random sample of accountants or plumbers. But silly sound bites from crusty old male writers are no more immune from criticism than the bad writing (and absence of thought) that raised Eliot's ire; or the bad faith arrogance that Austen took such dry-eyed delight in laying bare for her readers.