where the writers are
A Dollop of Pride and Prejudice
Butcher's daughter rocks and rescues English dynasty. Novelised biography of Mary Cole, 5th Countess of Berkeley.



Thanks to Dale Estey for highlighting the news item about V S Naipaul who appears to feel that women writers peddle sentimental tosh and should be dismissed out of hand.

Straight off, this is unworthy to the point of boorishness. Courtesy has evolved for one good reason: that individual opinions, while they may help shape collective attitudes, do not have the monopoly of truth.

Naturally, he meant no offence. Like the SS firing squad meant no offence.

Naipaul has been cited as the greatest living writer in the English language. Asked this week if he thought any woman was his equal, he was violently affronted and roundly condemned the race of female scribes, saying not even Jane Austen could come up to scratch. The comparison is inane. She was writing two centuries ago in structured conditions. I guess the questioner was fishing for soundbites. And got them. So did he! The publicity machine has been cranked into flying motion. Somebody knew which buttons to push. The author was well-primed to court controversy. That he resorted to self-puffery by slighting wholesale one half of the literary world does not smack of 'greatness', but of a monumental ego masking deep insecurity.

It means, at best, that anything he writes should be taken with a ladle of salt.

I'm not a political feminist - a human rightsist, yes - and often feel that gender roles have eclipsed too far for everyone's good. We have been overzealous in the banishing of stereotypes. At root, biology determines our outlook and the contribution to human survival for which we're most fitted. But I have long been convinced that in the literary arena, women are at least men's equals.

Quite apart from these considerations, Jane Austen was as hard headed as they come. She would likely have been dealing in the futures market today. I'm as in awe of her gifts as any aficionada, and she has been a strong influence on my historical novels, but there are moments when I'm not at all sure I'd have taken to her in person. Her tongue could be just as sharp as Virginia Woolf's.

Maybe one of the reasons we now idolise her is because, on paper, she manages to combine steely materialism with the romanticism our present culture lacks. We want it all. We wish it could be like that. In an era of pre-nuptial agreements, we have grown cynical about the regenerative and exponential possibilities of love. We demand, and feel that fate ought to supply. Investment is hardly part of the equation.

As for Naipaul, Pygmalion was less of a misogynist. Diana Athill, the former editor at André Deutsch who helped him ascend the ladder to fame, speaks wisdom. We should ignore him and laugh it off. We might also bear in mind that Naipaul is in his nineties and, for all we know, may be taking medications. They can do strange things combined with the effects of advanced aging.

It's sad that towards the end of his life and career, this leaves a shadow of doubt about his overall credibility.

Unless, of course, his male readership is of like mind and covertly agrees. Misogyny has, after all, been called the world's oldest prejudice!


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