Sentimental, Narrow, Women’s Writing. Alas, Alack, Anon!

Posted by @ 2:06 pm on June 2nd, 2011

People tend to e-mail me about two things as of late–anything related to gender and One Tree Hill. They’ll say things like, “Have you seen this?” or “What do you think?”

Yes, I know One Tree Hill has been renewed for a ninth season and I couldn’t be happier about it. I have said a few novenas for Hilarie Burton and Chad Michael Murray to return for the final season. If that happens, let’s just say I will be giddy.

Yes, I have seen V.S. Naipaul’s comments that he doesn’t consider any woman writer his equal. I have a Google Alert set up under the phrase, “Bullshit.” He need not worry. We hardly consider him our equal either. Before that Google alert came through though, several people e-mailed me and Tweeted me about Naipaul’s comments. Certain brands of crazy are beneath comment. They cannot be taken seriously. Take Donald Trump, for example. When he began to rant, publicly, about President Obama, it was fairly easy to dismiss his racism and xenophobia because it is difficult to take a man like that seriously. We’ve seen Celebrity Apprentice. His actions were clearly borne of a desperation to remain relevant.  Sometimes rich and/or famous people need attention so they say crazy or provocative or stupid things over and over again to get a little attention. (See: January Jones, et al)

While I am not familiar with his writing, I am somewhat familiar with the man himself. V.S. Naipaul is no stranger to bad behavior. Have you read The World Is What It Is? It’s an eye-opening, rather disturbing biography. Naipaul’s most recent comments about women writers (and certainly not his first on this subject) are not only beneath comment, they are hardly surprising. He wanted attention and he wanted to provoke some kind of reaction and now he’s getting exactly what he hoped for. I have no doubt he sincerely believes there are no women writers who are his equal and that is his right. His comments, however, which are so tired they don’t bear repeating, are completely uninspired. That’s what is truly offensive. We are all entitled to our opinions but if you’re going to have offensive opinions, I’d prefer they were sharp and intelligent and interesting instead of weak and trivial. Naipaulsaid that women writers are quite different from him and I should certainly hope so. I take that as a compliment. I take all of his comments as compliments. Naipaul said no woman writer is his equal “because of women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world.” Is that the most incisive criticism a Nobel Laureate can make? Really? He made these comments during an interview with the Royal Geographic Society so he was probably thrown a lazy question and he provided a lazy answer, a lazy, boring answer. Naipaul’s arrogant assumption that women are even a little concerned with how he considers them in relation to himself and his arrogant assumption that women writers would have so little ambition as to want to be considered his equal, is certainly admirable.

While Naipaul’s comments are, indeed, beneath discussion and practically beneath contempt, they do speak to a certain cultural permissiveness where misogyny is concerned. We live in a world where certain men are comfortable with openly expressing their contempt for women and they’re comfortable doing so, to borrow a word from Naipaul, with utter “banality.” They don’t even try. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t harbor some kind of politically incorrect opinion but most people have the good sense to either keep those opinions to themselves or share them with like-minded friends rather than share them publicly. If they do share those politically incorrect opinions publicly, they have the good sense to do so with intelligence and grace. Life would be quite boring, after all, if we agreed about everything but there is a difference between opposing perspectives and idiotic perspectives. Naipaul’s perspective is idiotic.

There is this matter of women and writing and how, so often, women’s writing is characterized as sentimental as if that is a bad thing. At times, it feels like women writers have to assume a defensive posture or they have to write against assumptions about what women’s writing is, as if women’s writing could ever be any one thing. In many ways, this is an extension of the conversation about Esquire’s list of books every man should read and the kinds of writing that are prioritized–masculine, expansive, unsentimental writing, I suppose. When writing is deemed sentimental it is always coded as feminine, as emotional, and therefore, as lesser unless of course that writing comes from a man and then that writing is characterized as something like, “deeply felt and powerful.”

I woud love for someone to define sentimental writing once and for all. Is writing sentimental when the central characters are women? When the stories focus on the domestic? Is writing sentimental when the author is a woman? I wonder why the term “sentimentality” is so often treated as an accusation, ala, “All you women writers are so sentimental!” Charles Dickens was a sentimental writer. Take Great Expectations. It is an unparalleled love story that also deals with issues of class and poverty and gender but the heart of that book, there is pure sentiment in Pip’s abiding and unrequited love for Estella. A man wrote that book though, so in that case, the sentiment is perfectly acceptable and the book, in turn, is great literature.

Poor Jane Austen. All too often her memory is conjured when writers like Naipaul decide to denigrate women writers and their supposed sentimentality. Where Austen is concerned, Naipaul said he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world.” Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811. He should be so lucky as to share the ambition of a writer whose work has remained relevant for two hundred years. Naipaul claims women write narrowly but Jane Austen’s books, for example, tackle issues of class mobility, the constraints of gender in the early 19th century, the tensions of social mores, and if those subjects are narrow, I cannot imagine what Naipaul consider’s broad.

I’ve read all of Austen’s books and not one of Naipaul’s. If I am forced to choose, I shall take my chances with Jane and sentimental, narrow writing.

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