Naipaul's Comments Reflective Of 'Hubris'

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V.S. Naipaul's comments about women writers has sparked controversy. i

V.S. Naipaul's comments about women writers has sparked controversy. Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty Images
V.S. Naipaul's comments about women writers has sparked controversy.

V.S. Naipaul's comments about women writers has sparked controversy.

Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty Images

This past week, the Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul was interviewed at the Royal Geographic Society in London about his phenomenal career, which spans six decades. It should have been a glorious moment. Instead, Sir Vidia told an interviewer that no woman could ever be his literary match. Then he singled out Jane Austen and said that he couldn't possibly "share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world."

Naipaul also called a book by his former female publisher, "feminine tosh." And that, he said, is because a woman has a "narrow view of the world, since she is inevitably not a complete master of the house." This from a man the New York Review of Books called "the greatest living master of English prose."

If a misogynistic and contemptuous remark is uttered by someone who's won a Nobel Prize for literature — how might we react? Naipaul is famous — or infamous — for his fractious and ruinous relationships with other human beings, particularly women. One of his targets, the former British publisher, just laughed, taking the "He's just an old duffer" approach.

But I'm not laughing. As a young traveler and writer, I remember savoring the precision of Naipaul's observances and anticipating each new book. If I'd known then of his disturbing reputation with women at the same time — his wife, his mistress — he'd never have won me over. In an excellent essay, the novelist Roxanna Robinson asks why we should put up with misogyny and contempt. She points at the truly disturbing gender imbalance in a raft of distinguished journals — like the New York Review of Books. This great gender imbalance in our best magazines and journals is actually more important than Naipaul's dismissals.

So you have to blow the house down. We could look at the British explorers Freya Stark or Gertrude Bell, since the knighted author was sitting at the Royal Geographic Society, which honored them. Or we could turn to Austen, who he slighted.

"Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story," she wrote. "Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything."

It's as if the lady anticipated his hubris.

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