My friend Emily posted a link to this piece on VS Naipaul, who for some reason has decided to speak out on the value of women writers:
Naipaul… was asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match. He replied: “I don’t think so.” Of [Jane] Austen he said he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world.”
Elsewhere he speaks of women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world” and explains that a woman’s writing is different because “inevitably…she is not a complete master of a house.”
I do not know Naipaul well enough to know if this outburst represents an attempt to regain the spotlight by a writer who used to be taken seriously or stems from brain lesions or similar organic damage (didn’t writers in the last stages of syphilis use to say pretty weird stuff?). But beyond the fascination of the trainwreck, the interview brings up some interesting questions.
First is the issue of sentimentality. I suppose you could say that Jane Austen had “sentimental goals” if you mean that she was very interested in the feelings of her characters and readers, and maybe this really is what VSN means by a “narrow view” of the world, but can that be so? It seems to me that it is just barely possible for a novel to be worth reading without being ‘sentimental’ in this sense; one can imagine a witty satire by Muriel Spark, say, but that’s certainly not Naipaul’s bag–I don’t think anyone regards him as the straight Oscar Wilde.
More likely Naipaul has in mind the meaning of sentimental as emotionally manipulative, as when the score (swelling strings, ejaculatory cymbals) tries to bully us into the appropriate emotions during a movie. In fiction, the sentimentality the irks me is when the author sacrifices artistic or ethical integrity in order to milk our emotions. Jane Austen seems to me rather free from this; if anything, she is too much the child of the 18th century, corsetting emotion within the stays of an at times off-upttingly rigid and defensive morality (one things, for example, of the evils of amateur theatricals in Mansfield Park).
Among the writers I love, the one who most often deserves to have his ears boxed for sentimentality is Dickens. Dramatic intensity is the Cleopatra for which he will lose the world and be content to lose it (to paraphrase Austen’s beloved Dr. Johnson). To milk the emotional potential of a situation, Dickens will make otherwise lovable and admirable characters skulk coward-like in closets and tell arrogantly manipulative lies to their loved ones in a way that Austen or George Eliot or Lorrie Moore or Barbara Pym would never stoop to.
But there is something indecent about the whole business, and I suppose the interviewer is somewhat to blame for baiting VSN–how should he know whether he’s better than Jane Austen, and are their enterprises similar enough to make that question meaningful? It seems to me a perfectly valid topic for idle chatter, like whether Natalie Portman is hotter than Katy Perry. One might well have a decided opinion on the matter (I do, in fact, have a decided opinion on the matter) but nobody much cares to hear it, and if I were given a Nobel Prize, nobody would still care.
The line about being master of a house actually makes me lean toward the brain damage theory, it’s just such a verruecktes thing to say. It does make me wish VSN could go ten rounds with Gertrude Stein.