V.S. Naipaul thinks women writers just can't measure up

V.S. Naipaul, the Trinidadian-British writer whom many believe to be one of the best on the planet, recently sat for an interview with the Royal Geographic Society and, wouldn't you know it, said some things that just might get him in some hot water. In brief: women don't make good writers. Not in brief: Jane Austen was hampered by sentimentality, as are most women. (Silly, hormonal women. Get your head out of those paperback romances and get in the game.)

But don't take my word for it. Take his:

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... 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.

I got a serious Mean Girls flashback with that last part. Of course, the argument that women are too sentimental, or too limited in their view of the world, is an old and tired one that's been used to argue against women's presence in many spheres. And the argument that women are "not complete master[s] of a house" and therefor unqualified for X thing is the kind of logic that eats itself — you can't do this because you're not in control, so let me control this because I can do it, and on and on.

Can we just put a moratorium on claiming that all women (and all men) are or are not good at one thing? These are not monolithic groups, which should be obvious. Live in the world, people.

Commentarium (36 Comments)

Jun 02 11 - 1:07pm

James Brady Ryan criticizing V.S. Naipaul on the subject of writing? If you live long enough you see everything, no matter how absurd.

Jun 02 11 - 1:56pm

I'm not saying the man can't write -- he's obviously incredibly accomplished. I don't even care when he says he doesn't like Jane Austen; he wouldn't be the first. But saying that no woman could write on his level by simply by nature of being a woman? That I feel more than comfortable criticizing.

Jun 02 11 - 2:46pm

It's the insinuation that Naipaul's opinion is so flawed that it's not worthy of serious consideration - "[l]ive in the world, people" - that's objectionable. Naipaul finds that women's writing differs from men's - with some merit if you look at the link below. He prefers the work of male authors. A musical virtuoso hear music differently than I do - I have no musical talent - isn't it reasonable to assume Naipaul is similarly highly sensitive to literature? Why is that worthy of derision?

You insinuate that he believes women are too hormonal and too sentimental to write well. I don't see that in his comments. Likewise, you construct the assertion that he believes women are "unqualified" as authors but Naipaul does not make that assertion.

Criticize away. I could criticize the techniques used for cardiac surgery but, as an aeronautical engineer, my opinion doesn't carry much weight compared to someone who is, for example, trained in cardiac surgery.

Jun 02 11 - 3:05pm

He's allowed to prefer male authors to female ones, but he does say that he finds women's writing different because of "sentimentality" and a "narrow view of the world" in one of his other quotes in the article, and that he finds it unequal -- that even an intelligent female editor turns out "feminine tosh." I think it's irresponsible to say that all women write in one, sentimentality-smothered way, because it just seems very obvious to me that it's not true.

Jun 02 11 - 3:22pm

y misses the point completely. Great Writing is not about Technique -- and apparently neither is music (just asked my friend, who happens to have perfect pitch).

I was disgusted with this old fart a few years ago when I learned that he used to beat his wife. A wife-beater making misogynistic comments?? Color me shocked!

Jun 02 11 - 5:01pm

Great writing can be about technique just as much as anything else. Compare the styles of Vonnegut, Tolstoi and Hemmingway.

Much about writing might be obvious to you, JBR - or to me for that matter - but I respectfully suggest that we're not in VSN's realm. Still, one need not agree with his assessment but to suggest it springs from an ignorant or uninformed pov doesn't make sense.

Jun 02 11 - 5:08pm

Thank you JBR for standing up against bigotry (or which there is plenty).

p.s. Toni Morrison runs circles around this dood and I'll bet that in a couple hundred years she'll be remembered, not him.

Jun 05 11 - 8:17am

@... : Toni Morrison? You must be joking!

Jun 02 11 - 1:13pm

There's a computer algorithim that can tell if the writer is male or female: http://bookblog.net/gender/genie.php

If a dude can do the same thing, but has a preference for other dudes, how is that any mroe sexist than if a dude prefers male sex partners?

Jun 02 11 - 2:41pm

I just put two pieces of mine into the algorithm, and it thinks they were both written by a male - one by quite a large margin. I don't believe that the number of times the word "and" appears in a piece of writing would be an accurate predictor of gender.

Jun 03 11 - 12:36pm

Yeah, I've used that thing before and I was classified as male. I do notice differences between male and female writers, and most of my favorite authors are male, but to say that no woman can write better than their male counterparts is demeaning and untrue.

Jun 02 11 - 1:31pm
Erik Deckers

Not a big fan of V.S. Naipaul, and comments like his only confirm that he's an out of touch geezer. He may have a way with words, but sucks at human interaction.

Doofus, I just tried the algorithm link a few minutes ago. It was correct on one of my pieces, and incorrect on the other.

Jun 02 11 - 1:50pm

hmm. Have you had a chromosome test? Maybe you're assumptions are incorrect.

Jun 02 11 - 2:52pm

Dooh: "Maybe your assumptions..."

Jun 02 11 - 3:07pm

Whatever, you made a dumb comment anyway. The ability to write well in English is way less a matter of genetics (if at all) than a matter of socialization, education and access to resources. Nobody is born writing, even less so writing well.

Jun 02 11 - 5:02pm

Yeah, really wasn't meant to be a serious comment. While nobody is born writing, neural linguistics indicate that writing ability is, perhaps, genetic.

Jun 02 11 - 5:14pm

Perhaps you say.
Well, according that school of thought women are more gifted, naturally, in the linguistic/verbal communication realm (and men at math and science, oh hey Larry Asswipe Summers). Suspiciously, our most celebrated writers are still male.

In different news, read Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, especially that part about Shakespeare's sister.

Jun 05 11 - 8:19am

I was with you until you attacked - clumsily - Larry Summers.

You might be correct with your assertion but I doubt that changes Naipaul's opinion.

Jun 02 11 - 3:47pm

Anyways, I think that Naipaul is just being honest and is not being all that sexist. He says that women authors are "sentimental", not inferior. And writing with a "narrow world view" just means that female authors focus much on the personal level. And when he says that the editor wrote "feminine tosh" He was talking about specifically her, not all women writers. If I say that Hulk Hogan wrote a book and it was all "macho crap", I am not insinuating anything about men as a whole.

At the same time, I will take this opportunity to be sexist. I hate reading fiction written by female authors. They either write about very feminine things, which are boring to me, or they cannot achieve my suspension of disbelief. They just do not understand men well enough. I know some men feel the same way that I do. Naipaul is proof.

At the same time, it is very probable that some women feel the same about male writers. However, from my perspective and from Naipaul's, women writers just do not do the world justice.

Jun 02 11 - 4:19pm

In other words:
"At the same time, I will take this opportunity to be RACIST. I hate reading fiction written by BLACK authors. They either write about very BLACK things, which are boring to me, or they cannot achieve my suspension of disbelief. They just do not understand WHITES well enough. I know some WHITES feel the same way that I do."

Jun 03 11 - 12:59am

If in saying "feminine tosh" he was meaning that comment to be seen as being directed SPECIFICALLY at his female editor, then why didn't he simply say "tosh"? It was established beforehand it was a woman editor's writings he was refering to, so we already knew it was female/feminine writing, he didn't need to reiterate the fact again with the expression "feminine tosh" if he was directing that missive ONLY at her.
No, what he was really doing was lumping his former editor's writings in with that massive pool of writing he alreadys sees existing (that of "feminine tosh"), which he viewed his former editor of having now further contributed to, and expressed as much.

Jun 02 11 - 4:41pm

When a black rapper boasts about his prowess and how women and gays are inferior, Nerve readers all leap to defend him. Why is an author dissing women any different?

Jun 02 11 - 4:50pm


Jun 02 11 - 5:05pm

@moops - Excellent point.

@orly - Evidence that hip hop is misogynistic/racist or that nerve readers rally to defend such artists?

Jun 03 11 - 4:21pm

that nerve readers leap to defend him

Jun 03 11 - 4:21pm


Jun 03 11 - 4:22pm

Just wondering which hip hop artist moops had in mind.

Jun 02 11 - 4:58pm

I don't see how V.S. Naipaul could in good conscience say what he said outside of Jane Austin, I agree is way to obsessed with Victorian propriety. Obviously he is well read so how could he say that with authors like Charlotte Bronte, Willa Cather, Emily Bronte, and Mary Shelly, along with countless others who raised the bar of literature tremendously.

Jun 02 11 - 8:15pm

I decided to read more of Naipaul after having read hsi short story"The Night Watchman's Occurrence Book." Good stuff, the kind that makes any MFA student realize they are inept.

This shtick of hating on female writers is nothing new and seems to be a requisite for talented, albeit at times stuffy, writers. He reminds me of Nabokov, whom I also enjoy.

Read Nabokov's short story "The Admiralty Spire" for a glimpse on how this theme of hating on female writers can be turned to good prose. Good stuff. But remember that Nabokov hates your prose.

Jun 03 11 - 9:40am

Women authors are obviously inferior: For example, George Elliot is a far better writer than Evelyn Waugh.

Jun 03 11 - 10:32pm


Jun 03 11 - 11:02am

wait but Harry Potter

Jun 03 11 - 11:24am

and the twilight series!!!!!--master pieces, if you ask me.

Jun 03 11 - 1:24pm

The Naipaul test: can you guess based on one paragraph the gender of the author? I scored 9 out of 10:


Naipaul probably would have been better off saying "I don't care much for female works", rather than the blanket statement "[women authors] are unequal to me". That he doesn't care much for the feminine approach is not any worse than someone not particularly caring for Hemingway---different strokes for different folks.

However, in positing that there's generally a difference in the tones and styles of the two genders, I think Naipaul is correct. Take the quiz and see if you can sense the difference.

Aug 29 11 - 8:57pm

So true. Hoensty and everything recognized.

Oct 06 11 - 10:43pm
Athula Siriwardhane

Somehow with my own experience, I agree with his remark about women's "sentimentality, the narrow view of the world". And I think it is just natural and that may be the beauty of a woman and she should not lose it trying to be equal to man... that will make an ugly being neither man nor a woman. And we know that it is very true for a man.