Why is Naipaul so ‘sentimental’ about women writers?

Sir Vidia's Shadow: with wife Nadira
Everyone is calling him an attention-seeker and giving him all the attention. V.S.Naipaul got kissed by a Pakistani woman and in a rather Jane Austenesque ouch moment they were married. His ‘misogyny’ is a lived experience and not merely the words he spews out, although misogyny is quite the wrong word. His dismissive attitude would have no place for hating women and given that he is so well-respected it is unlikely that he would be professionally insecure.

More than what he has said about women writers is that someone thought it was important to ask him such a question at all. Which woman writer did he think of as his literary match? This was the query posed during an interview at Royal Geographic Society during the Hay Festival. Why did he need to have a female equivalent? It is surprising that when there are different ways in which men write we should have these ridiculous demarcations. I have serious issues with the blanket term “women writers”. Does anyone know the gender of silk worms when they wear a garment of fine silk?

The groove is okay when you are writing on a specific subject where the feminisation is an intrinsic part of the narrative from the author’s perspective. I do recall that I had said in an interview that no man would have written about Peshawar as I had done, obviously alluding to my gender. (An extract is here) It is inevitable, for the angle would be different.

This is not a hormonal reaction or an emotive one. It is a matter of empathy and identification.

In fact, when Naipaul accuses women of being sentimental, I’d say – and only to use the rattler to quieten the boys – that men are sentimentally attached to fixed ideas and even from the personal example I have given they would have trotted out the macho vision. It is fine to have a specific vision, and Naipaul cannot be faulted on this score – the linearity in his books on India and later Hinduism and Islam are fine examples of a person who knows only pride and prejudice that his prose has to bear the brunt of.

Austen's portrait by sister Cassandra
Ironical it is then that he comes down most heavily on Jane Austen saying that he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world”. He certainly has a major chip regarding sentimentality and his reading appears to ignore contemporary literature.

So here are two quotes and let us see how they fare on just one aspect – home:

“Abruptly, he decided that the calf was lost for good; that the calf was anyway able to look after itself and would somehow make its way back to its mother in Dhari's yard. In the meantime, the best thing for him to do would be to hide until the calf was found, or perhaps forgotten. It was getting late and he decided that the best place for him to hide would be at home.”

Austen had a cryptic reply well before his time:

“There is nothing like staying at home for real comfort.”

His quote is from A House for Mr. Biswas, but what she says is much the same thing.

And here is something from Pride and Prejudice:

“Do not be afraid of my running into any excess, of my encroaching on your privilege of universal good will. You need not. There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of either merit or sense.”

She could well be saying this of Naipaul, especially his newfound friendship with Paul Theroux, an old friend of 30 years, who he had a fallout with after which they both rubbished each other like squabbling men do – the terrain shifts from the ladies’ room to the literary room. This is glorified gossip.

Therefore, while I do not agree with what Naipaul said, I disagree equally with the critics. Literary journalist Alex Clark said:

“Is he really saying that writers such as Hilary Mantel, AS Byatt, Iris Murdoch are sentimental or write feminine tosh?”

If you are travelling on the women writer gravy cart – although it really is not necessary – then check your baggage first. Even if these writers are sentimental, what is the problem? Sentimentality is not some sort of curse and narrating an emotional episode could have an element of sentimentality. I am quite certain Sir Vidia is sentimental about his knighthood, and his writings are not quite free from expressing certain sentiments in an overly demagogic fashion. Sighing over frills is not quite different from doing so over flags.

There seems to be no let-up in his ‘arguments’:

“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.”
  1. He said it is because of women’s “narrow vision”. I assume, therefore, he thinks that all male writers do not possess such a limited vision. It is amazing that he reads a para or two and reaches such a conclusion. A narrow vision is to judge the quality of a five course meal by looking at the menu. I doubt, though, whether he’d be able to tell the difference between the flavours of goose and gander.
  2. When he says it is unequal to him, is it only on the basis of narrowness or on other factors – such as story, style, and connectivity with the reader? Does the possibility that women writers might not even seek to be his equals or of of any others, including other women, strike him at all?

It is fine if he wishes to live in his own world, but then he should not get out and tell us that his world is the world. His views are rather juvenile:

“My publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh. I don’t mean this in any unkind way.”

Sir Vidia is not known for kindness and from him it would be a patronising gesture anyway. One has to admire his publisher and editor who went through the process of tasting his bitters.

What exactly constitutes “feminine tosh”? Is there a male equivalent of it and, if so, why is it not emphasised? Idiocy is not gender-based and can afflict anyone. More so, a knight with shining hammer.

(c) Farzana Versey

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The Naipaul tripe is not limited to sexist comments. Here is another example


  1. I vaguely knew about him and thought he was a good writer. After your article here, I went and read his wikipedia page (and some references listed there). The man is an absolute mess (and yes we are all imperfect but this one takes the cake). Now I realize how lucky it is to grow up ordinary and die one.

    I am beginning to think this misogynist was put on pedestal by Europeans (esp French) who have their own repressed cultural issues.

  2. Hitesh:

    Who says we are all imperfect? It is just those seeing us who believe so!

    Talking of Naipaul, he had jumped on the 'ancient Indian culture' heritage' as though he had anything to do with it.

    Anyhow, it was also disgusting that The Guardian dignified his BS with a 'test', quoting paras form various writers to check if one could tell the gender. They ended up playing his game. I did not even think of doing the test.

    But if anyone is a sucker for such things, here is the link:


  3. Naipaul's attitude beyond sexist stuff is here...thought you'd miss it in the update:


  4. I have my own issues but few things I like to avoid and one of them is,

    To read a Man who is a result of immaculate conception by two homosexual men and therefore has no influence of women on his life.

  5. This begs the question how do we decide who is a great writer, Is it based on their skill with the language, the story lines and plots , the characters they create, or how much of an insight they provide into the human situation? I dare not comment on who is better Jane Austen or Naipaul but I have sneaking suspicion that Jane Austens books will be popular for a far longer time than Naipaul's will ever be.
    As a man I will be very happy to read works by women which will give me an insight into the female mind. Why diss half the human population like this?

  6. Sai:

    You ask some important questions, but the question I would ask is: do we think about writers or writing? There could be a wonderful book, and then a not-so-wonderful one by the same writer.

    A good book would be different for different people. Unfortunately, in a market-driven society, the herd instinct is at play here as well and this is how things operate and a 'good book' is born for greatness even before it reaches the people.

    Naipaul used Jane Austen because he clearly has not kept in touch with contemporary literature. Those who read Austen may nto like his work and vice versa, although there could be an overlap.

    You say you;d like to read works by women writers for "insight into the female mind". Do you read male authors with that thought? Unless the subject explicitly says so, the gender of the writer might be perceptible but you might not get an insight into the female mind.

    Take a quicker platform such as a blog. If one is discussing gender issues, then you might find a female/feminist sensibility or if it is about sexuality. But if it is politics? I doubt. Then there are people who assume that because you are a woman you have to "take a deep breath". The idea of 'female hysteria' is old. It gives an amusing peep into the male psyche. Nothing else.

  7. Hi Farzana,

    >>The idea of "female hysteria" is old<<

    Indeed quite "old". If I might make reference to an older "good book" (perhaps Sal is acquainted with Old Testament accounts of Israel's earliest kings?), it seems David, on the day of his triumphal entrance into his capital city with the ark of the covennant, danced naked (save for a sort of linen half-shirt) in front of "all Israel." Now, of course this wasn't literally *all* Israel, but it seems reasonable throngs nonetheless of varied and representative interests encompassing "all Israel" had swiftly filled the "city of David," whether by especial invitation or simply to set up shop.

    Michal, daughter of the former king (she and all the former king's wives apparently were now David's by default -- a perhaps sensible policy considering, a keeping and protecting -- arguably, a mercy -- of the now 'out-laws' in the manner they'd become accustomed), attempts to sort of shame the new king:

    "How glorious was the king of Israel to day, who uncovered himself today in the eyes of the handmaids of his servants, as one of the vain fellows shamelessly uncovereth himself!"

    He had, in Michal's eyes, apparently frightened the horses. :)

    David replies, "It was before the Lord, which chose me before thy father, and before all his house, to appoint me ruler over the people of the Lord, over Israel: therefore will I play before the Lord" (IISam 6:14-21).

    Perhaps if U.S. Congressman Weiner had been a bit quicker on his feet . . . ? :)


  8. Hi Mark:
    Much enlightened.

    David in front of "all Israel" is of course also the perception of the general attitude towards baring 'all' projected as baring before all.

    His default victory over the women of the kingdom could perhaps be about the contemporary 'nothing to hide' male, who 'charms' with 'honesty'?

    Weiner preferred the stink of the stables, I guess.

  9. Same here. In reply to Sai, you wrote, "Unless the subject explicitly says so, the gender of the writer might be perceptible but you might not get an insight into the female mind." How did David do (or, rather, the editor/compiler of II Samuel)? Was he/she perceptive, in your view, relative to the female mind, in the in-crowd versus out-crowd dynamic (to include whatever money, power and/or sexual dimension) as suggested in the text? I wasn't looking for it; but I when I read your words, the passage came to mind . . .

    >>David in front of "all Israel" . . . .<<

    Why not? If "baring 'all'", then a suggestion of having compromised or weakened one's position (as Michal intimates); if "baring before all," then an aggression as in bared fangs (or fang, as it were).

    Of course, he could have been suggesting something about the country's finances. It seems the former king's armour was quite ornate -- and yet still he proposed to keep Saul's wives in style (even Michal, though she was banished). How about 'charms' with 'generosity'?

    >>Weiner preferred the stink of the stables, I guess.<<

    I want to say it was art. :)

  10. Mark:

    Re. Perception by David, perhaps of the out-crowd. At the level of the factual rather than the furtive!

    Re. Baring all/baring fangs, fangs are also vehicles of exploration, insidious or defensive.

    Re. 'charm' and 'generosity', perhaps his perception of need projected?

    Re. Weiner "I'd say it was art", or artistry...


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