Here’s to Women’s “Narrow View”

Anyone who follows the literary world probably knows by now that Nobel-winning author VS Naipaul has embroiled himself in yet another literary controversy by claiming that women writers are inferior to him because they’re, well, not men. The outcry from women writers has been predictable, with Booker prize-winning New Zealand novelist Keri Hulme calling him a “misogynist prick” and a “slug” whose works are dying.

Women have a narrow view of the world, Naipaul claims, and write “sentimental tosh.” He even dismisses Jane Austen’s “sentimental ambitions.” This seems to indicate that either he has not actually read Jane Austen, or that he’s a much better writer than he is a reader. Like her or not, it’s  difficult to argue convincingly that Austen was sentimental. In fact, she skewered sentimentality wherever she could.

As for a narrow view, yes, Austen took a narrow view in her books, quite deliberately. Some authors, male and female, choose to focus on a narrow slice of life, some range wider. To say that one view is inferior to the other is ridiculous. Authors get to choose about what they want to write about. We get to choose whether we want to read them or not. Austen homed in closely on narrow groups of people to make larger comments about the society in which she lived, particularly the status of women in Regency England.

You have to give Naipaul points for having chutzpah. He has previously pissed off Indian writers and author Paul Theroux (though the two have since made up), among others. And to claim that no woman writer is as good as he is–well, it’s really for other people to judge that, isn’t it? We’ve been reading Austen for 200 years. We can only guess whether anyone will be reading Naipaul 200 years from now.

More to the point, women buy most books (regardless of the gender of the author), at least in the United States. Women read more than men do, and read across a wider range of genres and topics. Men often tend to avoid reading books from a woman’s point of view, while women read plenty of books written from a man’s point of view.

So who, exactly, has the narrower view here?

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