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A House for Ms. Biswas by Tina Biswas

June 8, 2011

Tina Biswas was born in England to Bengali parents in 1978. She read Politics, Philosophy & Economics at New College, Oxford. Her first novel, Dancing With The Two Headed Tigress, is a comedy of manners, set in England, Ireland, and India. Her second, The Red Road, deals with the Naxalite Uprisings in the 1960s and 70s of West Bengal. Biswas lives in London and is currently working on her third novel and first screenplay.

Tina may be contacted at tina121b(at) hotmail (dot) com

“During a recent interview, the esteemed writer V S Naipaul claimed that there is not a single woman writer (dead or alive) equal to him. So far, so good. He then went on to claim that women writers were defined by their “sentimentality” and their “narrow view of the world” and described writing by Diana Athill – the magnificent editor who helped put Naipaul on the literary map – as “feminine tosh”.

The Writers’ Guild of Britain, when asked to respond to Naipaul’s criticisms, said that it would not “waste its breath”. Other journalists have responded by listing women writers who they believe are devoid of sentimentality and are every bit as talented as Naipaul. Yet others have chosen to take personal digs at Naipaul – he is a sexual sadist, a misogynist, a racist – in countering his controversial claims.

Naipaul is the writer who inspired me to write. Indeed, along with Philip Roth (another male writer accused of misogyny, mistakenly I believe), he is the writer who I have felt most connected to and inspired by. So, although disappointed, if not at all surprised, by Naipaul’s latest outburst, I feel the need to examine more closely what he said, and establish if there is indeed any truth in it. After all, how could the man who has written so beautifully, so engagingly, so correctly about the world, get this so wrong?

First of all, I looked up the word “sentimental”, wondering if there was some meaning which I had missed.

1. expressive of or appealing to sentiment, especially the tender emotions and feelings, as love, pity, or nostalgia: a sentimental song.

2. pertaining to or dependent on sentiment: We kept the old photograph for purely sentimental reasons.

3. weakly emotional; mawkishly susceptible or tender: the sentimental Victorians.

That Naipaul used the word “sentimental” as an insult is not in doubt; that is now its common usage in literary criticism. But what exactly was he driving at? I do not think for a moment that he meant that women write only about puppies and rainbows, but that whatever they write about, they approach their subject in a manner which depends on weak emotion and not tough intellect. This in itself is a very dimidiated and skewed perception of what the world contains: on one side, there lives female soft-heartedness, feeble emotion (Love? Yuk!), and fuzzy feelings; the other side is inhabited by male clear-sightedness, hard sensibility (Anger? Huzzah!) and cerebral rigour. That Naipaul seems to believe that this male outlook (as implicitly defined by him) is manifestly superior is a rather foolish and simple way of understanding both writing and the world which is written about. There are a multitude of different lenses through which the world can be viewed and written about, and writers should not be judged on which lens they choose, but only on how well they use their camera and how their photographs turn out.

Yet, what is interesting is that many (not all) male and female writers still do tend to use quite different criteria when constructing their narratives. In these supposedly egalitarian times, why is that? I believe that it is because we, the reader, expect different narratives from men and women, and that this expectation comes from a very early age; the market supplies what is demanded. J K Rowling insisted on not using her first name on the covers of her books so that boy readers were not put off from picking up them up. In the UK, 74 per cent of the books featured in the London Review of Books were written by men, and 78 per cent of the reviewers were male, despite more than 50 per cent of literary fiction being written by women. When growing up, I would choose male authors over female ones, because of some misguided perception that men wrote about more serious matters (I’m now not sure what exactly constitutes a serious matter!), and even if they were not writing about serious matters, they were at least writing about silly matters in a serious way.

This sort of bias can only come from a deeply prejudiced society. The kind of society where men are chefs but women are cooks. Where men are just men but women are wives and mothers and daughters and sisters. So when Naipaul accuses women of having a “narrow view of the world”, he means that they have a domestic view of the world, and from his chauvinistic standpoint, this domestic view is petty and banal and uninteresting and can only ever be inferior to the grandly political. But for such an insightful writer, he therefore completely fails to comprehend the relevance and importance of the domestic and how even his own life story has been shaped by not only the great sweep of history but also the small but equally powerful brush-brush-brush of the interior life. So when women choose to write about personal relationships and men think that is not important or interesting, that is their failing and their inability to value that which is closest to home.

At the same time, I fervently hope that we reach the point where women can write about whatever they like, be it domestic or not, and not be judged on their women-ness but only their talent. It is rather depressing that even now, there are deemed to be feminine and masculine ways of writing and feminine and masculine subjects to write about, as opposed to just good or poor ways of writing, and interesting or boring stories. But the only way this point can be achieved is for both readers and writers to let go of their preconceptions and prejudices, and to approach a book with a spirit of openness, broad-mindedness and sensitivity, qualities which unfortunately seemed to have passed Naipaul by on this occasion.

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7 Comments
  1. This is a wonderful, insightful article – in my opinion! Thanks.

  2. Excellent thought provoking article Tina. Ta.

  3. I love reading Naipaul and it is indeed sad that he had to make a rash judgement of women writing. It is true that people of his generation didnt often come across well read and well travelled women who were on par with men in terms of knowledge and experience but fortunately the situation is changing. Today I think women are catching up with men rapidly.
    As far as his comment on Jane Austen is concerned, hundred years from now, will anyone remember Naipaul like the way they do Jane? Are his novels being made into movies that get rave reviews? Only time will tell.

  4. A very thoughtful response to Naipaul’s comments. If his intention was to stir up controversy, he certainly achieved his aim! If not, then I feel rather sorry for him that he feels he has to denigrate ‘women writers’ merely for being women: after all, men and women are all people, not different species.

    I quite agree that the domestic is just as important as the epic, and that good writing is not limited to grand themes or political discourse – nor should it be.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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