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Boeke | Books > Boekartikels | Articles on books > English

Big Book Chain Chat #69: VS Naipaul’s recent rant – The last gasp of a moribund mindset


Fiona Snyckers - 2011-06-17

When something happens in the literary world that stirs me, I take to my blog at once. I find I can’t rest until my swirl of thoughts has been tamed, ordered and laid down neatly on the page.

VS Naipaul’s recent rant against women writers was not one of these stirring events. I felt absolutely no compulsion to respond to it. Beyond a few moments of shocked incredulity, I stopped thinking about it almost at once. A few days later I read with great pleasure and amusement Finuala Dowling’s blog “My dog, VS Naipaul”, and felt that her response could not be bettered. She had struck exactly the right note of amused disdain in comparing Sir Vidia to an ageing, cranky lapdog, desperate for attention and deeply threatened by the young pups he sees frolicking outside.

Never once did it cross my mind that Naipaul was saying what other men secretly believe, nor that his blatherings deserved the serious attention of busy people. It seemed to me the last gasp of a moribund mindset that has no place in the modern world. It was striking and shocking precisely because it was so archaic – rather like stumbling across a dinosaur in the middle of a bustling shopping centre.

Then Gillian Schutte joined the debate with a scathing indictment of the South African literary scene and, for the first time, my interest was piqued.

Schutte’s piece is shot through with phrases like “contemporary insidious misogynistic patriarchy”, “phallocentric and logocentric notions”, and “feminine discourse” that make my brain hurt to read them. It’s not that I don’t understand these phrases, it’s just that I don’t trust myself to recognise them in the wild.

What is a feminine discourse? Is it anything written by women, or for women, or about women? How about all three? Is it a particular type of language that one might term gynocratic, rather than phallocratic? And what type of language might that be, and how does one recognise it when one sees it? The moment I try to fathom such a notion, my brain implodes in a welter of useless speculation.

Schutte’s call for writers to set up a new feminine form of language in opposition to what she believes to be the dominant masculine form of language strikes me as just as much of an essentialist fallacy as Naipaul’s claim that he can tell within paragraphs whether something has been written by a man or a woman. The attempt to separate language into masculinist and feminist usages strikes me as artificial and not particularly useful.

The rest of Schutte’s piece is devoted to her claim that the South African publishing industry is rife with misogyny, to the extent that it is almost impossible for a female voice to be heard. “In South Africa,” she claims, “(white) men overwhelmingly dominate the publishing industry, as publishers, writers and reviewers. They are the self-appointed gatekeepers to what our society reads.”

This struck me, as one who has been inside that industry for some brief while (as a writer, reviewer, book festival habitué, and self-styled commentator) as not entirely true. It seems to be more true of the Anglo-American publishing industry, where complaints about the sidelining of women’s writing are ongoing and seemingly valid. And it is certainly true that as a generally misogynistic society we South Africans are shamefully among the world leaders. Our sexual violence and domestic abuse statistics place this beyond dispute.

But the interesting fact remains that the disease of misogyny has been much weeded out of our publishing industry in recent years. When I think of the most powerful players in the South African publishing world, I think of women – many, many highly influential women. The male-female ratio is not fifty-fifty yet, by any means, but it’s getting there fast. And the real, gatekeeping influence of those female insiders seems to me to be out of proportion to their actual numbers in the industry. As publishers, editors, writers, reviewers, literary awards judges and shortlistees, South African women are well represented and by now well nigh impossible to dislodge. Yes, we still have a way to go to achieve full gender equality, but we’ve made a bloody good start and created a vibrant young industry I’m proud to be part of.