Pity V.S. Naipaul: every couple of years or so the dyspeptic writer makes a pronouncement so extreme that it sounds like a plea for attention, a desperate attempt to shock, yet he is so profligate with his scorn that he is nothing if not predictable. This time around, his target is the woman writer, a species whose work and "narrow" concerns, he says, is "unequal to me." During an interview at the Royal Geographic Society earlier this week, he singled out Jane Austen for a Naipaulian drubbing, claiming that he "couldn't possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world." He can read a paragraph of text and "know whether it is by a woman or not," since "inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too."
Leaving aside suspicions that the famously supercilious Mr Naipaul just might judge every writer, man or woman, to be "unequal" to him, we may wonder why the author of "A House For Mr Biswas", arguably one of the most remarkable novels of the past century, deigns to deflect attention away from his brilliant work and direct it toward his reactionary, unpleasant self. Patrick French's biography of Mr Naipaul from 2008, written with Mr Naipaul's blessing, revealed a writer who was contemptuous of everyone he met and everywhere he visited; his abusive relationship with his long-suffering first wife, and the many cruelties he meted out on other women, make this week's comments about women writers look comparatively gallant.
No doubt there are readers who share Mr Naipaul's belief that women writers are inferior, but such misogyny tends to be indulged in secret, or else couched in cowardly qualifications and euphemism. Perhaps, then, we should think of Mr Naipaul as performing a useful public service, however awkward and accidental the performance or malign the intention. If his obtuse speechifying prompts a forthright discussion of gender bias in the literary world, then Sir Vidia will have done more for women and their "sentimental ambitions" than he might ever have imagined.