June 2nd, 2011 / 2:06 pm

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

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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  1. Anonymous

      I think Pip could be sentimental, indulgent, but Dickens’ is probably not, at least not entirely, too much humour and dark humour at that.
      In regard to Naipaul I’d also take Austen any day of the week, the more I read her the less sentimental and the more harrowing she becomes. This is not to say sentimentality is bad but that Naipaul has grossly mischaracterised her.

  2. Anonymous

      I think Pip could be sentimental, indulgent, but Dickens’ is probably not, at least not entirely, too much humour and dark humour at that.
      In regard to Naipaul I’d also take Austen any day of the week, the more I read her the less sentimental and the more harrowing she becomes. This is not to say sentimentality is bad but that Naipaul has grossly mischaracterised her.

  3. Marcus Speh

      v.s.n. whose writing i have enjoyed, too, will most likely be forgotten in 200 yrs. that must be hard for him though he won’t be around to witness nobody abusing him. my daugher (10 yrs) is just getting into austen (via northanger abbey). i think she’s falling in love with henry tilney, and who wouldn’t. i’m getting sentimental myself when i think not just about austen’s work but about the response that austen inspires, which is nothing short of revolutionary in the world of the mind and the hear, for which sentiment is an all-important quality. it is sad that anyone whose own work has also inspired readers displays such a stubborn stupidity. but it isn’t unusual in the world of the nobel or in the world of writing, is it. many great writers have channeled their works on the page god knows where from & it hasn’t turned them into interesting or even very intelligent people. personally, after enjoying roxane, i’m going to return to hilary mantel’s “wolf hall” now which i can hardly put down. it’s the opposite of narrow, it’s a modern definition of broad thinking and feeling by a woman writer.

  4. Anonymous

      i had a prof that characterized sentimental as emotion that’s unearned. ‘unearned’ in workshop speak is one of those things that sorta makes my skin crawl but still i like that definition. steven spielburg is my epitome of sentimental–he’s gross. austen is awesome.

  5. J.A. Pak

      Uh…has Naipaul actually read Jane Austen? She is never sentimental. Wry, compassionate, but never sentimental.

  6. deckfight

      i used to live in the town where one tree hill is filmed, there were a few fake storefronts downtown (clothes over bros) that would confuse the old ppl and send young girls into shrills. 

  7. deckfight

      i used to live in the town where one tree hill is filmed, there were a few fake storefronts downtown (clothes over bros) that would confuse the old ppl and send young girls into shrills. 

  8. Scott mcclanahan

      Wasn’t Norman Mailer on an episode of One Tree Hill?   Maybe I’m thinking 7th Heaven.

  9. Scott mcclanahan
  10. Don

      But Spielburg did a great job with Munich.

  11. Nathan Huffstutter

      I don’t think there’s a living creature more prone to sentimentality than a man of age holding a glass of whiskey. Before the bitterness kicks in, many of these men have topped off their glass and rolled a fresh sheet into the typewriter. I don’t know what the hell Naipaul’s talking about.

  12. Amber

      I’m fairly sure that people who denigrate Austen have never read any of her books. If they had, they would know she’s the opposite of sentimental. The characters in her books who survive are the sharp, clear-eyed, slightly cynical women, not the sentimental types.

      Sentimental is just a code word for female, anyway. If a man writes a sentimental book about love or friendship, it’s heartwarming, heartfelt, human, endearing, honest, bla bla bla. But if a woman writes it, it’s sentimental claptrap, a fucking Hallmark Hall of Fame movie. Blar.

  13. NLY

      People have been criticizing Dickens for sentimentality for as long as they’ve been reading his novels, really.

  14. karl taro

      a great shame of this would be if fewer women read VS Naipaul. Don’t belittle his journey and achievement for these certainly muddle-headed comments—the best of writers say stupid things from time to time, Saul Bellow and Palestinians, Celine and anti-semitism. As a brown boy in his time, to have entered literary England and delivered perhaps the great story of his time, the devil ills of colonialism, the difficulties of living as a despised minority, the continued struggles of the oppressed long after the official oppression has ended, to have played away at Oxbridge and basically thrashed them at their own game, winning every prize—the frickin’ Nobel—is signal achievement. Naipaul may well be a hero of the last great fight, but he is still a hero and that was a big fucking fight. Goddamn is a House for Mr. Biswas a great and beautiful book, the rival, I would say of great and beautiful Austen. As a person of color and an immigrant and an intruder in this culture, I am lifted by him. Look, sometimes our heroes let us down. Martin Luther King and his mistresses and all that.
      But don’t, please don’t, disregard Naipaul for this.

  15. Scott Lewis

      Men are often the most sentimental writers, and I think maybe they need to go through something a woman would go through to level out their world view like harrassment or disempowerment because they’re living in a white healthy straight male bubble of the world is a wonderful place

  16. karl taro

      Naipaul? “White healthy straight male bubble”?

  17. karl taro

      Naipaul? “White healthy straight male bubble”?

  18. MFBomb

      Terminology is always an issue when discussing “the sentimental” in fiction.  People tend to confuse or conflate “sentimental” with “sentimentality,” the latter of which is really the pejorative, despite people using the former in place of the latter.  Then there’s “sentiment,” which almost all fiction of the last two hundred years possesses to some degree.

      Many of the greatest works in the West use “the sentimental”; if not for this tradition, we wouldn’t discuss things today like character emotions, or passion, since Victorian Realist writers like George Eliot believed that the novel should explore and probe the passions and emotions of characters; so, Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, and The Brontes are apparently offenders as well.  Interesting. By the way, I would argue that Austen was very sentimental, and there’s nothing wrong with this because there’s a huge difference between use the sentimental and committing sentimentality, which is simply the use of gratuitous “emotions” in order to avoid any real or unique character development.

      To accuse a writer of being “sentimental” is to show one’s lack of awareness and knowledge of the evolution of fiction and its history in the West. Is there are more “sentimental” novel than “Wuthering Heights,” or “Jane Eyre”? Dickens has already been mentioned.  Then there’s the Naturalist writers–all used “the sentimental.” I think it could be argued that the high modernists unintentionally started this trend of misusing or miscasting “the sentimental” in fiction, despite seminal works like “Dubliners” (is there anything more sentimental in the short story than Joyce’s transcendent epiphanies, something that’s remained a staple of much of today’s short fiction) or  “Winesburg, Ohio” (uh, the whole book is basically about emotions and borderline psychotic interiority). Maybe the real culprits are the Workshop Gods and their Slim Fast aesthetic, and yet, writers like Carver and Hempel compress (and leave out so much), that one could argue that they’re as sentimental as it gets.

      Sentiment–emotion; all fiction has it to some degree.

      Sentimental–use of the “emotional” in fiction; all discussions of character psychology come back to this.

      Sentimentality–the overuse of character emotions or emotional events as some sort of crutch (e.g, anything from cliches of dying grandmothers to men dying for their country, all done in unoriginal and uninteresting ways and to tap into “pre-recorded” responses from readers, like a cheesy movie on Lifetime or Spike).

  19. elizabeth ellen

      my only comment is how can you comment on his biography if you’ve never read his work? i’d like more specifics about what is “eye-opening” and “disturbing” about it:

      “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.”

  20. Roxane

      He didn’t write his biography…. The World Is What It Is was written by Patrick French. The eye-opening parts were what an asshole he is…cheated on his wife with prostitutes on the regular, a wife who ended up tolerating his long time affair with a mistress with whom he had a violent relationship. He was prone to rages. He’s racist toward people who are darker than him, etc etc etc. In the book he comes off as a brilliant writer but basically the worst person ever. He kind of destroyed his wife Pat. It’s sad. The biography (authorized by Naipaul himself) is entirely unflinching. It’s eye-opening, to me, that a writer would allow his weakness of character to be exposed so openly. It’s disturbing to me how poorly he treated the women he supposedly loved. 

  21. elizabeth ellen

      haha tricked you. you said biography and i immediately thought memoir. my bad. to play devil’s advocate though, it’s interesting we often read an author’s biography or bad press, but not their work. 

      this sort of reminds me of an episode of growing pains in which ben finds out the rock star he loves is an asshole (i think the rock star was played by brad pitt, interestingly enough). and then he has to decide if he can still enjoy his music even though he’s a dick.

  22. Roxane

      Yeah, it is interesting. I’ll be honest. I totally read the biography because when the book was released three years ago I heard it was full of lurid, violent sex and that always interests me. It’s a fantastic biography. I’m sure Naipaul’s writing is great too (no one ever disputes that). He’s an author I haven’t gotten around to reading. 

  23. Scott Lewis

      well he falls into the straight male part of the bubble, my point is men are often sentimental writers

  24. J.A. Pak

      I’m wondering if there isn’t some kind of odd jealousy going on here on the part of Naipaul. House For Mr Biswas is very much in the same territory as Austen novels only Austen did it so much better. I’m sure if Austen were James Austen, Naipaul would be bowing at Austen’s altar. A classic male writer doing it better would make sense to him. But a woman? No fucking way. To admit a woman did it better would blow his internal wiring up.

      By the way, I have read House For Mr Biswas and liked it very much. I’ve been a fan of Naipaul for many years and think he is a fantastic writer. But a strange human being.

  25. Anonymous


  26. deadgod

      Ha ha – that’s a great call.  I was just running through bare-knuckled-worldly books by women, and, if there’s only to be one to stand for the many, Wolf Hall is superb.

  27. deadgod

      Munich was okay, but he’s at his best with kiddie flicks:  Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders, and E. T. are great movies, surely the envy of many more-‘ambitious’ directors.

      – but he’s a ‘nine-year-old genius’, you know?  Sure, a “genius” – but still nine.

  28. deadgod

      Austen writes about how women (and men) protect themselves (or not) – materially, as well as psychologically – by marrying wisely (or not).  Passion is not the opposite or absence of wisdom, but rather is an inner as well as corporal experience penetrable by one’s capacity to be wise.

      What is “sentimental” about Austen’s sensitivity to the entwinement of material and psychological compulsions?

  29. deadgod

      That distinction between “sentimental” and “sentimentality” is fine, as you’ve laid it out.

      – but, as you know, when most people use the term “sentimental”, especially pejoratively, they mean the adjective that indicates “sentimentality”, ‘the failure of emotion to be “real”, usually on account of excess’, as opposed to the adjective that indicates “sentiment”, ’emotion’.

  30. MFBomb

      I understand, but before we start throwing the word around as a pejorative, we should have a better understanding of its historical context and relationship to the history of the novel, in particular Mid-Victorian Realism’s desire to capture the emotions and psychology of “everyday” people, a desire that owes a great debt to earlier “sentimental novels.” It’s important to remember that many elements of fiction we take for granted today were groundbreaking only a few hundred years ago, and that “the sentimental” tradition looms large in fiction’s cultural and historical ascension.  In other words, it’s more than a mere adjective.

  31. I Have Become Accustomed To Rejection / You Keep Remembering How Good He Hit It

      […] This one famous writer said something idiotic. […]

  32. Anonymous
  33. Sarah

      I think “sentimental” is just the adjectival form of “sentimentality,” or at least I always thought so. My abridged Oxford dictionary describes “sentimental” thus: “deriving from feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia; having or arousing such feelings in an exaggerated and self-indulgent way.”

      The meaning following the semi-colon I think is what Naipaul meant about women’s writing, or what most people mean when they want to criticize. Of course calling women’s writing “sentimental” is moronic for many reasons that aren’t worth going into. Calling Jane Austen’s books “sentimental” in the pejorative sense is laughable, though, because no one’s work could be less sentimental. They have happy endings, sure, and individual characters have emotions (because people aren’t robots), but the stories are just not sentimental. I found no nostalgia or exaggerated feeling in the books by her that I’ve read. It seems to me that either Naipaul has never read Austen; he read Austen cursorily and failed to grasp her subtle, dry wit, and that the emotions of the characters are in fact restrained; or he’s only seen the movies made from her books, which sometimes can be called “sentimental” because Hollywood often tries to condescend to what they believe people want out of books made from 19th century novels by women.

      If someone asked me to describe a sentimental book, I might name Gone with the Wind, Little Women, High Fidelity, The Road, and maybe any book where you feel like you are being manipulated. That’s not to say that everyone will have the same opinions about which books could be called “sentimental,” nor is it to say that the books I mentioned are bad books. But certainly, for an established writer, Naipaul has an extremely poor grasp of what sentimentality entails. If he means to say that he simply does not care to read books about women, or women’s lives, he should just say so, but instead employs dated, tired rhetoric that people have used for too long to describe fiction by women.

  34. Odds & Ends | Laura Maylene Walter

      […] Roxane Gay discusses misogyny and writing in response to V.S. Naipaul’s ridiculous comments about women’s “sentimental and narrow” writing that could never rival his own. “He need not worry,” Roxane wrote. “We hardly consider him our equal either.” […]

  35. MFBomb

      I realize that it’s an adjective and a form of “sentimentality,” but I think it’s best to use “sentimentality” when discussing the novel since “sentimental” is a tradition or movement within English literature that’s largely responsible for Realism and the Gothic romance.  The Oxford’s definition doesn’t account for the particular tradition of “the sentimental” novel, sort of like a definition of “realistic” that’s not fully engaged with particular aspects of 19th C realism.

  36. MFBomb

      Also, only the very last part of the basic definition is clearly bad:

      “self-indulgent way.”

      “deriving from feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia; having or
      arousing such feelings in an exaggerated”

      ^All this can be used effectively (or not).

  37. deadgod

      no […] exaggerated feeling in the books by her

      I think Austen does something more interesting than ‘not writing about sentimental people’; she presents them critically.

      Lydia, in Pride and Prejudice, runs off with the Captain while she’s in the grip of “exaggerated” passion (as opposed to the calculation of, say, Charlotte).  It’s not that Elizabeth isn’t a passionate person, but rather, that her passions are governable even as they’re fulsome – they’re not, in Elizabeth, crude vehicles of delusional self-destruction eventually (though she – and Darcy – have to learn to attend the wisdom of their passions).

      Marianne, in Sense and Sensibility, also gives herself over to a passionate attachment.  One (explicit) point of the book is that, while, in a way, admirable, “exaggerated[ly]” passionately generous people will learn, to their grief, of the hard malice of the Great World of people and evil.

      Naipaul isn’t talking about (and against) writing about passionate people – his novels have plenty of them.  He’s saying that to present life in terms of ‘marrying well’ is sentimentally reductive in a ‘girlish’ way.  His example – Austen’s novels – is fatally inaccurate — and so grossly inaccurate, as Roxane suggests, as to be beneath the serious response he thinks novels should be constituted by, ha ha ha.

  38. In a Sentimental Dude - Montevidayo

      […] Danielle Pafunda on Jun.03, 2011, under Uncategorized Roxane Gay has a reliably invigorating take on the recent man-writer-finds-himself-superior-to-women fracas. Her post, and the ensuing debate in the comments section reminded me how baffling and irritating I […]

  39. Danielle

      This is fascinating, y’all! Thanks Roxane for an as-ever super smart post. I’ve been thinking about sentimentality for awhile, especially when I teach intro gender studies classes and we discuss something like the way we gender crying, etc. Such weird coding! I wrote about all that over at Montevidayo, In a Sentimental Dude http://www.montevidayo.com/?p=1464

  40. MFBomb

      Only uber-cynical pomo types who take emotion and passion for granted and live in a privileged world of Seinfield-esque irony and Tao Lin Worship can think of “the sentimental” in purely
      bad terms, instead of something that can be done both poorly and

  41. MFBomb

      Esp. since, if we’re giving dictionary definitions here, the word is also an adjectival form of “sentiment.”

  42. Roxane

      Loved your post, Danielle (and thanks for the kind words). You brought out some really great stuff, particularly with regard to how the performance (which is what it can be at times) of sentimentality has far more often, been undertaken by male writers. This stuff *is* fascinating and I’m glad such a great conversation is taking place about sentimentality and how emotion in writing (and elsewhere) is coded. 

  43. Roxane

      Loved your post, Danielle (and thanks for the kind words). You brought out some really great stuff, particularly with regard to how the performance (which is what it can be at times) of sentimentality has far more often, been undertaken by male writers. This stuff *is* fascinating and I’m glad such a great conversation is taking place about sentimentality and how emotion in writing (and elsewhere) is coded. 

  44. Sarah

      I think there’s a difference between passion in a character and exaggerated or unwarranted feeling in the depiction of a character, time period, etc. I didn’t say that Austen characters never feel passion. At least not unwarranted passion :)

  45. deadgod

      Now I see that you meant “no […] exaggerated feeling” on the part of the narrator (to be imparted to the reader), not felt/exhibited by one or several of the characters.  That “difference” is what I meant to refer to, too. 

      Naipaul has proven himself to be a rude clown so many times it’s hard to understand why his counterfactual crap has gotten the oxygen it has – except that he articulates a sensibility that remains, what, distressingly common.

  46. deadgod

      Naipaul has written three books (that I’ve read) that I think people will be interested in in, say, twenty decades:  A House for Mr Biswas, an unhappily funny book written brilliantly; and Guerillas and A Bend in the River, post-colonial novels as hard on ‘natives’ as on ‘imperialists’.  I don’t think he’s as fine a writer as Austen, but that’s a pretty high bar.

  47. Nicholas Liu

      You serious? Tao Lin’s writing is sentimental as hell. It’s part of the charm.

  48. MFBomb

      You find his charm sincere? I don’t.  To each his/her own.

  49. NLY

      Remembered this a little while ago, and listened again: http://www.radioopensource.org/v-s-naipauls-gloomy-clarity-about-africa-and-himself/

      If anyone else wants to, as well.

  50. Anonymous


  51. Nicholas Liu

      I should have said “part of the charm, to those who find it charming”.

      Like it or dislike it, it’s still sentimental. Seems like a taxonomical error to group him, his fans, and his buddies together with the people who are 100% against “the sentimental”. That stuff runs on sentiment; it just conveys it in odd ways (which are really not so odd).

  52. Sarah Sarai

      So One Tree Hill is good in the way such things are good?  I’ll check it out.  There, you see.  VSN has achieved something useful.
      I loved reading this and agree with you on his proclamation as being attention getting and how easy it is to get attention if the sentiment is low. I have read several of his VSN’s books, long ago.  This twister of outrage has been in the news for some days now, meaning I’ve have time to revive the memories of reading and they haven’t revived.    Whereas … (insert many accessible over time memories of good and not-so-good books read long ago).

  53. Sarah Sarai
  54. Anonymous