V. S. Naipaul: Cranky Old Sexist?

Or Self Possessed, Accomplished Author?

Author V.S. Naipaul. Photo copyright David Levenson/GettyI admire people that just don’t care what other people think of them; they are in fact quite rare. Oh, lots of people claim to feel this way, but when you stop and break down it down, it falls apart under the scrutiny.

As a youth I used to think that I didn’t care what other people thought, that I was a true social misfit, etc. I broadcast this belief with lots metal in my face, spiky hair, mohawks, crazy clothes, etc. – until someone pointed out that I was still taking my queues from those around me. I felt compelled to declare that I was different. Wanting to be perceived a certain way — worrying about it – is akin to caring what people think, just as much as fashion-conscious people one claims to despise.


So I have a certain admiration for the fat, hairy, middle-aged guy down the street who mows his lawn without a shirt on. On the one hand, from an aesthetic standpoint: ewww, gross. No one wants to see that, least of all, me.  On the other hand, props for truly not giving a damn and letting it all hang out. Literally.

It’s probably true that at age 42 I care less in general about what a stranger would think of me than the average person. But I’m not to the point of the fat, hairy guy down the street. If I had to mow the lawn – I rent, so it’s not my problem – I’d still put a shirt on.

Of course there is a fine line between having the self-security not to care what others think of you and the vanity and hubris that enables you to do and say outlandish things. Hubris, of course, is all about what other people think of you.

With all that in mind, I can’t help but wonder what was author V.S. Naipaul’s motivation was when he declared that no woman writer was the equal of himself. To wit, in Britain’s The Guardian last week, the critically acclaimed author had this to say:

In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society on Tuesday about his career, Naipaul, who has been described as the “greatest living writer of English prose”, was asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match. He replied: “I don’t think so.” Of Austen he said he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world”.

He felt that 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.”

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.

He added: “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.”

Let’s set aside the question of whether or not he is the greatest living writer of English prose, or even if his sexist claims are valid and true (or rubbish). Rather, let’s look at his motivation. Is his vanity and hubris so great that he actually believes this? And does he genuinely not care what others think?

Or is it actually just clever marketing? The lets-say-something-ridiculously-controversial-because-there-is-no-such-thing-as-bad-press marketing ploy?

On the one hand, I can’t believe anyone with half a brain would actually believe this, no matter how good a writer they were. On the other, I can’t believe that guy down the street mows the lawn with his shirt off.

I’ve never read Naipaul, so I can’t say if his writing is all that. But now I’m mildly curious, because of these outrageous remarks about women authors. If it is a matter of vanity and hubris, I feel bad for him; one would hope at 68 that he would be secure enough in his own talent not to feel the need to make such outlandish claims, even if he believed them. But if he genuinely does believe this to be true and it’s not a matter of an old man’s vanity, well then, bully for him, I suppose.

But then it would seem that Naipaul has some deep-seated issues with women, as his authorized biography reveals, which would suggest these claims about women writers arise out of his own insecurities – often the root of hubris.

Oh Snap! Biz Markie started it all. In any event I’m inclined to agree with what critic Helen Brown told The Guardian:

He should heed the words of George Eliot – a female writer – whose works have had a far more profound impact on world culture than his.

Oh snap!


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