So V.S. Naipaul thinks no woman writer is his equal. Boring. Why waste column inches – let alone energy – on outrage? I take Naipaul’s statement about as seriously as one should take any statement by a cranky old egotist known for his bad moods, long sulks and antiquated bigotries – it might make for an awkward dinner party, but if you’re there at all, you can spend it plotting what to include when you deliver his eulogy. His former editor (and most recent object of his derision) Diana Athill has gone on record to say she used to remind herself in moments of strife, “at least you’re not married to him”. We, thankfully, don’t have to entertain the invidious Sir Vidia in person at all.
So there’s really nothing remotely rewarding about taking apart Naipaul’s arrogance. There is, however, one other thing that the eminent curmudgeon said about this matter that’s of some interest. Somewhere in his diatribe about sentimentality and “tosh” in writing by women (which you are no doubt already familiar with), Naipaul is also quoted as having said: “”And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.”
Now that is an almost empathic statement. Too bad about the context.
In their own way, Naipaul’s words echo a different response to the question of women and fiction. When it was put to Virginia Woolf in 1929, Woolf went on to write the canonical essay “A Room of One’s Own”, which posited that financial autonomy as well as actual physical space are imperative to the writing process. She argued that it is necessary, in short, for a woman to be able to literally lock herself into her work and lock the world out in order to produce it at all.
Decades later, the African-American womanist Alice Walker challenged and expanded what she believed was Woolf’s privileged point of view: she wrote (in “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”) that before a woman could own a room with a key, she first had to own herself – a prerogative literally denied to slaves and others of disenfranchised backgrounds.
So when Naipaul speaks of a woman not being “a complete master”, he actually wanders into feminist vocabulary, an interesting if unwitting step in an otherwise unexcitingly misogynist contention. It is, in effect, a concession: the acknowledgment that one’s experience of the world is limited by gender, and that gender roles in turn continue to be asymmetrically demarcated. Naipaul is correct in saying that the perspectives of women writers are influenced by their lack of dominion in various spheres of life. He is inexorably wrong, however, to dismiss these perspectives as any less important than his own or those of any other male writer.
The most elementary rule of writing is that one must write what one knows about. Good writing, even fiction, comes from an empirical place. So if the narratives produced by women writers reflect, as Naipaul says, a “narrow view of the world”, then the more pertinent question is – do they reflect that world truly? Do they speak for it? Are they authentic?
So if we are to assume that most women, in some regard, live without autonomy, then we must also allow that those who write have done so in a variety of less than ideal compromises: in secret, under pseudonyms, at the kitchen table, between feeding times, in custody, against regimes domestic and otherwise, without intention or access to publish. They have done so, more often than not, not from the comfort of a private office, but in the liminal spaces and snatches of time afforded by lives that do not, generally, afford much space or time, or respect.
If their writing is coloured by the fact that they are mothers, wives, daughters, wage-earners, dependents, care-takers, then by that same token Naipaul’s is surely also coloured by the fact that he is a racist, masochist, elitist, sexist misanthrope. But the circumstances out of which these women – or anyone, regardless of gender, who is disadvantaged in any way – write out of do not diminish their work any more than Naipaul’s infamous abuses in his personal life and corrosive statements do his own literary output. To write in spite of possessing a “small” life is an act of agency. Naipaul, whose own father took to writing as a means of escaping poverty, should certainly know this.
The work of the writer is to bear witness – but this is not as grandiose a trope as it sounds. To bear witness to life is to bear witness to its kitchen tables, its bedrooms, its little heartbreaks, its disappointments, its pettiness, its fleeting fulfillments and – yes – its sentimentalities. If the fiction produced by women writers does all these things, then I would say they are doing something correct. A narrow but clear view of the world is far preferable to something sprawling, sweeping, but ultimately in denial of the world itself.
An edited version appeared in Times of India’s iDiva supplement today.