Saturday, June 04, 2011

Bigotry in Writing

This week, Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipaul stirred up a big stinky pile of controversy. Here's the jist of what he said, as reported by and initially from the Telegraph:

"Women writers are different, they are quite different. 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." Naipaul said this was due to their "sentimentality, the narrow view of the world". He added: "And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too. 
"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."
On Jane Austen, he added that he "couldn't possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world".When asked if he considered any woman writer his equal, the 78-year-old answered: "I don't think so", the Telegraph reports.

Now, as a woman writer, I find that pretty offensive. Interestingly enough, however, the editor whose work he dismissed as 'feminine tosh' is acclaimed author and biographer Diana Athill, of all people!  I've read Athill's Somewhere Towards the End, and I'm absolutely positive that it's NOT 'feminine tosh.'  Athill's response to Naipaul--also from the Guardian--is worth noting:

"I was a 'sensitive editor' because I liked his work, I was admiring it. When I stopped admiring him so much I started being 'feminine tosh'," she said this morning. "I can't say it made me feel very bad. It just made me laugh ... I think one should just ignore it, take no notice really."

Naipaul has "always been a testy man and seems to have got testier in old age", said Athill. "I don't think it is worth being taken seriously ... It's sad really because he's a very good writer. Why be such an irritable man?"

It's not the first time the pair have clashed. When Athill told Naipaul that his novel, Guerrillas, did not ring true, the move led, indirectly, to his departure from André Deutsch. And Athill has previously said that, when she needed cheering up, "I used to tell myself: 'At least I'm not married to Vidia.'"

Amen, my sister. From some of the horrors I've read about Naipaul's marriage, I think I'd be able to say that to myself in jail.

Okay--here's my point: there's a longstanding and inherent bias against female writers.  We are dismissed instantly as writing 'bodice-rippers' or 'feminine tosh.'  When I tell people I'm an author, their first question is usually, "Oh, romance?" with an intonation in their voices that just drips disdain.  It's like no one can imagine a woman writing strong, relevant, gripping literature.  This is insulting on several levels. 

First off, women write in all genres and not just romance. Look at some of the powerhouse women in fiction right now. Can anyone dare to dismiss female writers when the most successful writer in history is JK Rowling? Can anyone honestly sneer at the work of Barbara Kingsolver? The Poisonwood Bible is one of the toughest books I've read in a long time--and absolutely lovely.  And then I think of some of my friends and acquaintances in speculative fiction, like Kelly Meding and Gini Koch, and I have to kind of laugh.  These ladies don't waste their time on feminine tosh, not when their heroines are kicking everything's ass in sight.

Second off, romance books are NOT EASY TO WRITE.  I've tried to write a straight-up contemporary romance novel; I can't. I'm not wired that way.  And when you look at some of the greatest classic pieces of literature, those books were romances written by women.  Jane Austen? The Brontes? And those writers aren't equal to Naipaul?  Come to think of it, I'm reasonably positive Naipaul would chew off his own leg to have a fraction of Nora Roberts or Danielle Steele's sales.  The Nobel prize is nice and all, but you can only eat off it for so long. But Naipaul doesn't see it that way:

Of Austen he said he "couldn't possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world". 
The author, who was born in Trinidad, said this was because of women's "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," he said.

I don't know about the rest of you, but I am the complete master of MY house. Even the cats acknowledge that.

But finally, and most importantly, the main reason this disturbs me is simple. Naipaul, as a Nobel prize winner, has a platform--one that will reach millions of people.  He's used that platform in the past to denigrate third world countries, including his native Trinidad, and to express his loathing for people of color.  Now, he's using it to sneer at the accomplishments of women in literature, setting himself up on a pedestal and proclaiming the inherent inferiority of female writers. 

(In the interests of transparency, I've read some of Naipaul's work.  I like his earlier stuff; am not quite so fond of his later stories. I've found an underlying strain  of bigotry permeating his work, and felt that as he aged he got really, really preachy.  I've felt that way for years, which is a shame because I found A House for Mr. Biswas a lovely, evocative work.)

As writers, we should all be aware of the power of the written word. What we write can influence people, sometimes beyond anything we could possibly hope to expect.  Ever see a movie theater on opening night of a Harry Potter movie? Or, even stranger, the day a Harry Potter book was released? It's crazy. Did you witness the Team Edward/Team Jacob madness a few years ago?  Yes, writers have power.  We have the power to entertain, to inform, to invoke thought. Unfortunately, we also have the power to promote bigotry and prejudice through the employment of the language of hatred.

It's easy to dismiss Naipaul's comments.  After all, the gentleman is getting on in years and there's every chance that he might just be batshit crazy. This could just be jealousy rearing its ugly head, from a writer who once was very important and pissed away his momentum by alienating people in the industry and his readership.  Or, he could just be stupid.  Considering that eighty percent of the fiction-reading public are women, a writer would have to be an idiot to go out of his way to piss all those book-buying women off.  A writer on a forum I frequent made the mistake of saying that as this was just Naipaul's opinion, it was okay.

But it's not okay.  The language of hatred is NEVER okay. When a writer with the acclaim and notoriety of a V.S. Naipaul dismisses women at all levels of the publishing industry, it's most empathically NOT okay.  I mean look at precisely what he said: Sentimentality. Narrow view of the world. Feminine tosh. Not a complete master of a house. Banality.

Are women writers his equal? "No, I don't think so."

Come on.

Naipaul was slipping into obscurity before this interview, resting on the laurels of his prior acclaim and out of the public spotlight.  Now he's right back in the middle of it, but at what cost?  Even his authorized biographer, Patrick French, described Naipaul as, "bigoted, arrogant, vicious, racist, a woman-beating misogynist and a sado-masochist."

As writers, we need to be aware of the potential power of our words. Always.  Even a spec fic genre hack like myself can wield influence in the world--probably never at Naipaul's level, but some.

Very rarely, I'll find myself so disgusted with an author's political views that I won't buy his/her books.  Orson Scott Card is a good example of this; Ender's Game is one of the greatest spec fic books written in my lifetime, and yet his blatant hatred and prejudice of the gay community will keep me from ever putting a dime into his pocket.  It's sad, really, that V.S. Naipaul is now floating along in the same boat with Card.  That boat now has a Nobel Prize for an anchor, but it's powered by the sails of bigotry, hatred and prejudice.

Sail away, gentlemen. Sail far, far away.