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Boeke | Books > Boekartikels | Articles on books > English

Big Book Chain Chat #71: VS Naipaul versus the World: Roses, thorns and dealing with pricks


Jonathan Amid - 2011-06-24

As I was reading the recent comments made about women’s writing and women writers by one VS Naipaul, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature no less, a quote from William Shakespeare’s beloved Romeo and Juliet came to mind: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” When I heard what Naipaul had uttered about women’s writing and Jane Austen in particular, I was displeased to say the least. But was I shocked, surprised, caught off guard? Hardly! The man in question (with the huge bull’s-eye on his back, chest and penis) is Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad, purveyor of some of the most cycloptic, pessimistic, altogether misanthropic literature ever to be celebrated by those in the Ivory Tower.

When evaluating Naipaul’s statements we could quite easily substitute Naipaul in the attribution of an outdated, asinine and unenviable attitude with the name of any other male, non-white author, and our disgust with the sentiments expressed would probably be the same. Having read the diverse and perceptive responses to Schutte’s original piece from Janka Steenkamp, Fiona Snyckers and Mike Rands I would like to put my footprints in the sand as well, and weigh in with a few small thoughts that move beyond the castigation of Naipaul as a straw man to be furiously beaten a very large stick.

A quick perusal of the internet, a leisurely visit to the local Exclusive Books or Wordsworth, or an extended investigation into the number of women involved in literary practice would all reveal the following result: While the “contemporary insidious misogynistic patriarchy” and “continued patriarchal hold on language” that Schutte identifies is neither complete fallacy nor dominant discourse in reading and writing circles, we find that more and more women are working very hard to express their own subjectivity and experience. A quick glance at the fantastic female authors currently held in high esteem by the public and publishing houses alike (such as Marlene Van Niekerk) suggests that this a process tackled in a grammar that vehemently resists the patriarchal, the phallogocentric and the logocentric, through a language of writing that celebrates the bodies, minds and power of women.

In this piece it is of little interest to me to challenge assertions about a male-dominated publishing industry or to poke my head into the seething cauldron of debates around masculinist or feminist discourse. Rather, as a white, twenty-something male student of Literature at Stellenbosch – and I put Literature in capitals as a fundamental intellectual and material form of expression that helps us to understand ourselves, our world, and the connections, affiliations and aversions we share with others across time and space – I then find myself wandering about town, wondering whether Naipaul’s opinion holds much currency in the debate around the ways that we read now, and how we evaluate books as works of art. How much does it really matter whether a writer is male or female, white or black, Asian or African, young or old, when we evaluate the literary merit of their writing? And how do we define what has merit as literature, bearing in mind the thick connections between texts and their contexts?

Do we turn to Foucault’s novel idea of the “founders of discursivity” and bestow such a title upon those whose writing is deemed groundbreaking through its genre-bending, epoch-defining, shamanic or self-reflexive qualities? Or do we use literary prizes as a guide to choosing the “best” books to read? At the end of the day, what makes one work of literature a classic and another a pedestrian piece, unworthy of being put on a pedestal? Who is fit to answer these questions?! Academics? Reviewers? The man in the street, the common reader reading for pleasure? These are questions without any easy answers, but questions that simply must be addressed, particularly in this age of “reality hunger”, to quote David Shields, where the future of the novel and book as we know it is seemingly under threat.

To return to my quote from Romeo and Juliet, it seems that Literature itself is in this context the beautiful yet mysterious rose, simultaneously fragile and resilient, its petals soft, yet its thorns so prickly to some! If we agree that literature means different things to different people, then just as Naipaul might find fault with all that is penned by a female hand – dismissing their “sentimentality” and “narrow view of the world” – I might decry his pen as poisonous, his words as slander, his oeuvre overwrought and his praise by those who enjoy his work as obsequious – both submissive and sycophantic. While Naipaul points a trivialising finger at women writers, othering and belittling them, he unhinges the nuts and bolts of his own colonial critique, which Austen, if she were alive today, might have derided as mere fool’s gold.

My point is that Naipaul’s criticism of women writers draws our attention to the archaic attitudes that still stir in the hearts of some men, and – while buried under an avalanche of invective – has equally made some of us remember, and question, what we love about women’s literature (and Literature itself). I would not be surprised if many readers now return for a repeat visit to their favourite Austen, Brontë or Eliot novels, or discover some of the wonderful writing of someone like Hilary Mantell. Words are the means to meaning, the picture of perception and the frames of perspective. They can only mean what we decide they mean.