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Thursday, 12 December 2013

V. S. Naipaul and Francine Prose: more on female writers (and Jane Austen)

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/jun/02/vs-naipaul-jane-austen-women-writers
"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.""
 

His comments can be broken up into 2 parts:
1/ On female writers:
All of his arguments are refuted by this 1 essay alone: "Scent of a woman's ink" by Francine Prose- http://harpers.org/archive/1998/06/scent-of-a-womans-ink/.
Ironically enough, the essay came out in 1998, 13 years before V. S. Naipaul's statement.
1 of my favourite parts:
"But can clever readers really tell a writer’s gender from his or her prose? In the spirit of scientific inquiry, let’s try the equivalent of a blind tasting. Let’s examine a series of passages for the telltale bouquet (sentiment, self-absorption, self-pity, humorlessness, narrowness, triviality) by which we might sniff out “the ink of the women.”
Both of the selections below involve a confrontation between two characters, one in a state of physical duress so extreme as to inspire a real (or fantasized) deathbed confession:


    Mrs. C., the on-duty nurse in the receiving room, was right out of Dickens, one of those eternal mothers, broad, sympathetic without being maudlin, and appallingly efficient, a woman whose very presence seems to heal.
    Listening—to my choked, fearful complaints, she helped me off with my jacket and shirt and onto the hard, white-sheeted leather table. . . . I repeated my words to Freddy: “I’m afraid, Mrs. C.—really afraid.”
    “Just lie still.”
    “Look here,” I demanded, by now half crazy with fear and upset with what I interpreted as her dour indifference, “have I had—I mean, am I having some kind of attack?”
    . . . One can imagine the kind of thing I wanted to say: “Look, if anything should happen, tell my mother I loved her—and my wife—well, tell her in my way I loved—no, she won’t believe that. Tell her—well, tell her I’m sorry.”





    The man was trying to say something but he was only wheezing. Haze squatted down by his face to listen. “Give my mother a lot of trouble,” he said through a kind of bubbling in his throat. “Never giver no rest. Stole theter car. Never told the truth to my daddy or give Henry what, never give him…”

    “You shut up,” Haze said, leaning his head closer to hear the confession.
    “Told where his still was and got five dollars for it,” the man gasped.
    “You shut up now,” Haze said.
    “Jesus…” the man said.
    “Shut up like I told you to now,” Haze said.
    “Jesus hep me,” the man wheezed.
    Haze gave him a hard slap on the back and he was quiet. He leaned down to hear if he was going to say anything else but he wasn’t breathing any more. Haze turned around and examined the front of the Essex to see if there had been any damage done to it. The bumper had a few splurts of blood on it but that was all. Before he turned around and drove back to town, he wiped them off with a rag.


Although the reference to a wife in the first passage suggests a male point of view, it should be otherwise obvious that a woman wrote it. Observe the claustrophobic intimacy of the first person, the emotionality, the hyped-up intensity of the adjectives, most of which describe feelings (sympathetic, choked, fearful, half crazy with fear), the self-conscious, self-correcting (“tell her in my way I loved…”) solipsism of the unspoken confession, the sentimentality with which the narrator surrenders to the Dickensian “eternal mother,” the breathlessness of the syntax, the hazy vagueness of detail, the merciless focus on the self.
The second selection is, as obviously, the work of a man—though we must imagine what manly writing is, since no one has explained how, precisely, a writer deploys “the remnant of his balls” at the word processor. These cool, hard-boiled, distanced, third-person sentences turn their unblinking eye on a man dying horribly. His incoherent confession is punctuated by his confessor’s (and murderer’s) bullying demands that he shut up. There are almost no adjectives (“hard” is the most notable modifier), nor much emotion, any sentimentality (sentiment is undercut—sliced through—by the implacability of those “shut up”s), the whole grisly scene culminating in the hard slap, the “male” supposition that a human life is worth less than the specter of damage to one’s vehicle, the giddiness of that made-up word splurt, and the fastidious attention to the smears of blood on the bumper.
In fact, the gender of these authors is the opposite of what I’ve suggested. The first passage comes from Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, a memoir-novel that, in the three decades since its publication, has assumed an iconic status thanks to its painfully honest portrait of a certain sort of male writer and career alcoholic. The second is from Wise Blood, by Flannery O’Connor, the writer who shocked Ozick’s students by turning out to be female.
And if we move beyond these passages to consider the whole books, everything keeps subverting our stereotypical expectations. O’Connor takes the aerial view, gazing down from above, charting the mysterious wriggling of her tiny, comical humans as they scurry about, looking for salvation in all the wrong places. Unlike a humorless girl writer, O’Connor is hilarious, structuring long scenes so that their jokes keep building. She’s not terribly engaged by psychology or the subtleties of motivation, or by that abiding female obsession: romantic love. She is more concerned with questions of grace and free will, with destiny, with sin and mercy—in a word, with metaphysics; she’s less intent on stamping a tiny foot against God than on listening for the footfall of the rather larger foot that God is stamping against us.
If O’Connor’s work resembles aerial photography, Exley’s suggests a sonogram, or images from a brain scan: interior, self-monitoring, charting each subtle psychic shift, each degree of damage. His writing has all the pleasures and drawbacks of the barroom monologue: the overlong rant of the guy propped up on the next stool. There are passages of real eloquence, sections so raw and undefended that they make your skin crawl; but there are also the inevitable repetitions, the rambling, the maddening inability to comprehend the seemingly simple fact of another’s being." 

I was also fooled, by the way. This is a brilliant essay. A must read.



2/ On Jane Austen- "her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world":
Such pride, such prejudice, such wrong assumptions. In a distance, one may have the wrong impression that Jane Austen's novels are sentimental because they deal with romance and have happy endings and are popular among young, romantic, even sentimental girls and women, yet in fact, Jane Austen's not only non-sentimental but anti-sentimental and realistic, with a cool, detached tone and an apparent dislike of melodrama and "sappy" language.
To be honest, I used to think the same, and for many years before reading her books, had some prejudices about her writing romance novels, thinking pink and creating perfect characters... All of these have been proven to be myths. 
Now, I would agree that Jane Austen's world is a confined one, in which politics, war, slavery, plantations, Industrial Revolution, philosophy... are avoided and people outside the gentry class are only in the background. That is why I haven't reversed my opinion that she's somewhat overrated*, even though lately I've reevaluated "Sense and sensibility", and at the same time I don't strike out the possibility that when reading V. S. Naipaul I may see why he's awarded the Nobel prize and that he's superior to Jane Austen, but V. S. Naipaul's statement suggests that he hasn't really read any of her books and is probably content with watching the film adaptations. 
(The bitter old man doesn't realise that her books are satires of foibles in human beings and he, when attacking her and other female writers, shows such foibles- pride and prejudice and the inability to understand that things are not always what they seem.
In fact, I would love to know how Jane Austen would react to such asinine remarks. That sharp tongue of hers. She would say something biting to shut him up, or just laugh and put him into her new novel). 






*: Which is to say, that Jane Austen's overrated and that the Janeite phenomenon is incomprehensible has been my opinion for a while until lately when I reread many passages in "Sense and sensibility". At the moment, my attitude is rather ambivalent and I cannot say anything until I have stopped swinging and chosen a definite side. 











Update on 13/12: 
I had a talk with Arnav, an Indian friend of mine, about V. S. Naipaul and this is what he said: 

"ah
him
he is good
read his house for mr.biswas
its beautiful
rest are stupid 

because he is a xenophobe
like certain indians
he is concerned with a past
that may or may not have existed
and his books are a lament for that past
he does not realise that this invention of tradition was responsible for one of the worst genocides in india
he does not realise that what he is doing is not humanism at all
but driving wedges, creating rifts
amongst people
he does not realise
that past does not exist
u always create and re-create the past
with the present as the vantage point
and this present
is always fractured
he might have the most brilliant english prose
but his understanding is zero
a bitter old man
thats what he is

in his latter books
particularly the india trilogy
he is obsessed with what India stands for
and so he goes on a quest
at first, in the first book
he is overwhelmed with the dirt and mire
that characterizes india
he is overwhelmed by the chaos
and tries to seek refuge in history
in a particular hindu history
characterised by victimhood
u will hear discourses after discourses
about how the hindu civilization
was run down by the alien intruders
the muslims primarily

but it is an invention
an invention of tradition
first and foremost, India never was a monolith
heck india didn't even exist earlier
it was a congeries of city states
of loose kingdoms
he sees history as a confrontation
as a clash
but history is so much besides that
it is assimilation, confrontation, degradation,
it rises and falls
history is also symbiosis
history is also syncretism
his books in ignoring such complexity
boils down to an angry rant
a replaying of victimhood
we have an organization
called the RSS
doing the same
politically
and these points got concretised in 2002
when Gujarat, a state
saw a massive massacre of muslims
the same got replayed a few months back
in a state called Uttar pradesh
all done by the Hindus
so u see

it's really not that easy
[...]
he never lived in india, never
he just visited it
he is an interesting writer as a case study
like knut hamsun was
a complete nazi sympathizer

[...]
my position is that u can never divorce ur writing from ur politics
its an impossibility

politics is a world view
how can u separate ur world view from ur writing?"

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