(The Spectator September 15, 2007 has published this cartoon of Naipaul drawn by Vasant Sarwate)
In May 2011, talking to Royal Geographic Society in London, V S Naipaul, the recipient of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature, lashed out at female authors saying there is no woman writer whom he considers his equal. Even he claimed Jane Austen couldn't possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world. He felt women writers were “quite different.” He said, “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.”
Without naming Diana Athill, Naipaul told that she was as good as a taster and editor, but when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh. Athill was Editorial Director of the publishing company André Deutsch for 50 years, and was the first person to promote Naipaul.
In giving her response to Naipaul’s attack, Diana Athill felt the need to disinter this dreg. In her response talking to The Guardian, she told, “It seems very odd. He doesn't realise what a monkey he's making of himself.”
But what made Naipaul to describe women’s writing as ‘sentimental’ and ‘narrow?’ Naipaul chose the word ‘sentimental’ to describe the writings of women. If we suppose that the word was chosen carefully, then the implication is that Naipaul thinks the writings of women are swayed more by emotions rather than reason. Readers may mark Naipaul is not saying it in so many words; however, the context in which the word ‘sentimental’ was used has a pejorative connotation. Is the subordination of women by a construction of femininity does not allow them to be rational thinking subjects? But before looking into the matter, let us first decide what does ‘rational thinking’ mean here?
When Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man was first published in England in 1791, it encountered a response like no other in English publishing history. The poor pooled their pennies, supplementing it with meager savings to buy the book. The Rights of Man became an underground manifesto, passed from hand-to-hand, even when it became a crime to be found with it in one's possession. But when it was printed in America, it created a new sensation. The book became a bible to thousands of citizens who dreamed of a free America. Time after time, when men were tried for treason, invariably the Crown offered as evidence to the jury the fact that these men possessed a copy of The Rights of Man.
Mary Wollstonecraft not only appropriated a space for the rights of women to be discussed in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) but she also gave a literary reaction to Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man (1791). Through an analysis of her text, I will assess the argument for the education of women which prevented them from entering into the public sphere of masculine Romanticism. The impact this had on female writers such as Jane Austen is presented in Mansfield Park (1814) which articulates, fictionally, Wollstonecraft’s concept of a rational woman in the character of Fanny Price.
Wollstonecraft and Austen both advocated women’s rights on the grounds of sexual equality but this position is complicated by the specificities of their own early in nineteenth century culture which tied the acquisition of equal rights for women to the issue of marriage and becoming better wives for men. In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price in could initially be read as the familiar Austen character. We are not simply being offered a woman’s view of life through Fanny Price but a questioning of the structures which gender rational discourse as masculine and therefore exclusive to men. The other women depicted in Mansfield Park are those ideological constructions of women by masculine rationalism who offer ‘a woman’s view of life.’
Women’s writing has been accepted by patriarchal society as the manifestation of a woman’s view of life, a feminine Romanticism. The intention of women’s writing was not to offer a woman’s view of life but to bring to literature a social critique. No one asked or tried to find how the men’s view of life included the interrogation of patriarchal structures which bound literature to a gendered Romanticism. On refusing to support the notion of gendered writing, the rational rather than masculine discourse of Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was an appropriation of a space for women to exist as literary writing subjects within masculine Romanticism.
Naipaul has decided rationalism or reason has nothing to clutch with emotions and that rationalism was only associated with a plain, factual, and methodical way to approach a problem and to obtain a valid and logical solution.
Descartes says that rationalism is independent and absolute of experience, whether Kant proposed it is critical that can be perceived is within the limits of the mind. Influenced by Descartes’ philosophy of rationalism, Spinoza adds approach to the emotions, which have implications for modern approaches to psychology. So it is very false to say philosophically that rationalism has nothing to relate with sentiments and emotions.
Kant, who discussed in detail the scope and limits of reason in his remarkable work Critique of Pure Reason, also saw emotions as an essentially curative phenomena, but grouped them with inclinations enticing the will to act on motives other than that of duty.
Those who, while arguing Naipaul’s misogynic comments, often cite Hilary Mantel, A.S. Byatt, and Iris Murdoch to stand with them as writers who are away from sentiments and who never write ‘feminine tosh.’ I want to ask what do these term ‘sentiments’ and ‘feminine tosh’ really mean? Isn’t the so-called rationalism defined and constructed by a masculine discourse and ideology, a ‘masculine rationalism?’ The gendering of rationalism, therefore, articulates the cultural understanding of the current literary scenario. Nobody, I found in Naipaul’s misogynic debate has raised any question on gendering rationalism.
But in fact, reason is an instinct that is subject to humanities and the human intellect is limited by its physical and social surroundings which impose on it constraints that show its limitation. Mind is also a subjective entity influenced by group myth, group culture and social format and is responsible for the basic mental models used to structure social interaction. So, rationalism could not be above any social basic model like patriarchy and others. In her essay “The Ethics of Ambiguity,” Simone de Beauvoir claims that at one point or another, every human being will of necessity feel the ambiguity of his existence.
So here are the two things I would like to consider: first, what is the ambiguity of the human condition? And second, how does this ambiguity affect the rationality of a human, if it has any effect at all?
Considering these group myths, prejudiced condition of mind with social formats, and the ambiguity of human existence, I think we have an open window to discuss more whether rationality is effected by patriarchy or not. And I hope the answer will be a positive one.
Now allowing rationalism to struggle with a question mark, let us return to misogynist discussed author. Naipaul is no stranger to his misogynistic comments and attitudes. In the past, Naipaul has criticised India's top female authors for their ‘banality’ on the topic on which he is best known for writing: the legacy of British colonialism.
Naipaul, famous for a caustic portrayal of his female characters, is a known misogynist and his once friend Paul Theroux, wrote for The Sunday Times in 2008 that Naipaul was “violent, unstable, a racist, and a misogynist.” Theroux laments that he had been forced to be kind in his book. He wrote: “I wanted to write about his cruelty to his wife, his crazed domination of his mistress (which lasted almost 25 years), his screaming fits, his depressions, his absurd contention that he was the greatest writer in the English language (he first made this claim in Mombasa at the age of 34). Theroux further wrote, ‘“I am a new man,” he assured me once, ‘as Montaigne was a new man.”’ But did Montaigne frequent prostitutes, insult waiters, and beat his mistress?
Slash, change; slash, change. Even so, when my book appeared, the reviewers howled at me for my audacity. “An unfair portrait,” “a betrayal,” and the usual jibes – all of them portrayed me as an envious upstart. Just a few weeks ago, in a sycophantic piece about Naipaul by a rival newspaper, my book was described as an example of “literary pique” because I had suggested that Naipaul was a monstrous egotist.( See: http://www.timesplus.co.uk/tto/news/?login=false&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.thetimes.co.uk%2Ftto%2Farts%2Fbooks%2F)
That Naipaul started to create controversy (for him, controversy was not new) was an old topic and in the June 1998 issue of Harper's Magazine, Francine Prose opened a debate through her essay “Scent of a Woman's Ink: Are Women Writers Really Inferior?,” in which she expressed her agony for neglecting female writers by insisting that despite the sales success of middlebrow “women's fiction,” as epitomized by Oprah Winfrey's hugely successful television book club, women writers of “serious literary fiction” don’t get any respect, not, at least, from “the more cerebral book-review pages and the literary prizes.” Prose has revived the debate by asking whether women writers are really more prone to “diminutive fictions, which take place mostly in interiors, about little families with little problems,” and are they really more inclined toward a soft, self-absorbed emotionality or not. Actually, Prose maintains that male writers do all of that just as women produce works that are “fiercely unsentimental, sharply observed, immensely ambitious and inclusive.”
In one of my old essays “It is Risky for a Woman to Deal With Female Sexuality in India,” I once wrote, “(Patriarchal readers and critics) are the ones who persist in seeing a fiction as inevitably colored by its author's gender, and the male critics always think that the domestic issues [like] love are of less consequence then the depth of thought produced by male writers?”
In short, it is a big question now who will determine the difference in importance between a woman's inner or outer life and a man's. The answer, until recently at least, has been men. Uma Parmeswaran once wrote an article on Kamala Mrakandeya at Sawnet where she described that Salman Rushdie, in his novels Shame and The Satanic Verses, raised the issues of race riots in Britain. But 20 years before Rushdie, Kamala Markendeya talked not only about the violence of racism but also about other diasporic realities: educational degrees that are not given accreditation, the resistance of immigrants to the expectations of the “host” culture, chasms of communication between generations, cultural values, and needless cultural baggage. But the male-dominated literary criticism placed Rushdie as a pioneer of diasporic struggle.
Our literature thus is highly male-dominated, and the hidden male-centric agenda masks the capability of the writings of women under the pseudo-mask of such biased universal standards of aesthetic judgments, to which Naipaul played a clever game at the Royal Geographic Society in London.
Before concluding this, I want to show my readers how our literary world is figured by a masculine shape. VIDA, an organization for women in literary arts, compiled a survey in 2010 and found in the UK, the London Review of Books reviewed 68 books by women and 195 books by men with men taking up 74 percent of the attention; 78 percent of the reviews were written by men. Seventy-five per cent of the books reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement were written by men; 72 percent of the reviews were written by men.
Meanwhile in 2010, Granta magazine, which does not review books but includes original contributions, featured the works of 26 female writers and 49 male writers, with men making up 65 percent of the total.
In the United States, The New York Review of Books, in 2010, showed a stronger bias. Among the authors reviewed, 84 percent were men with 84 percent of the reviews written by men. The New York Times Book Review fared better. There, among the authors reviewed, 65 percent were men with 60% of the reviews being written by men. (See: http://www.vidaweb.org/the-count-2010)
Returning back to Naipaul’s discourse, at last I want to quote the response of Diana Athill made after Naipaul’s attack. She comments, “When I stopped admiring him so much, I started writing ‘feminist tosh.’”
There are many Naipauls today with their misogynic attitudes and agendas constantly revolving around us. Think what they could do if they held a sword instead of a pen!