Who the hell is V.S. Naipaul?!?

14 Jun

Though I prefer to leave personal anecdotes behind, in this case I will make an exception.

I am a waitress, mistress of eavesdropping–whether I want to or not. Tonight, as I was attending to a table, I overheard someone describing a patron of Picasso’s, a literary round table figure. I immediately knew that the person was referring to Gertrude Stein, but their erudite guest did not; he asked who was being spoken of, and when told, asked “were they a writer or something?”
Granted, I suppose that Gertrude Stein is no household name at this point, but whether one has read “The Making of Americans” or not, it was astonishing to me that this adult had no idea about whom their company was speaking.

How does this relate to my title? Well, I will tell you. When a notable blowhard, trouble-making, canonical, striving-to-be-relevant writer attempts to draw attention to himself, he often resorts to the literary fistfight. In this case, the writer V. S. Naipaul recently caused a raucous by declaring no female writer (apparently in the history of the written word) to be his match: “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.”


Naipaul went on to deride Jane Austen for her “sentimentality,” and refer to a specific female quality in writing, one that reveals that she is not the “master of the house.”

Granted, these declarations are so insipid as to almost be unworthy of a response. After all, does my foil in question–the novice reader/wine drinker–read V. S. Naipaul? Probably not.

But I believe that my ire and irrational linkage of Gertrude Stein’s anonymity and V. S. Naipaul’s desperate attempt at relevance are connected, if only in so far as the failure of the literary canon.

I have read Gertrude Stein, and come to my own conclusions concerning her literature, persona, poetry, and relevance to the topics of modernity and surrealism. However, I sought her writing out in the auto-didactic approach with which I have discovered, recovered, and enjoyed hundreds of female writers whose mere names have drawn little more than blanks if mentioned at the tables of literates.

V. S. Naipaul is only a drop in the bucket (much to his chagrin). As long as the existing canons of literature remain as overwhelmingly male-centered as they have always been, Jane Austen will continue to serve as the lone example, and a rose is a rose is a rose will be just another cliche.


Of interest: The Guardian published a short quiz for those of you who tend to think that (good or bad) a writer’s sex can be deduced from her or his writing:


As someone who has mixed feelings regarding the topic–and more than dabbles in essentialism (good or bad, again!)–this quiz is onerous…none of the examples listed can be readily viewed as female- or male-written.


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