‘Kiss me and you will see how important I am.’ VS Naipaul could have quoted that line from one of Sylvia Plath’s journal entries. But that would have disrupted his latest thesis: no woman writer is his literary match. In a way, we can now be sure that the next Naipaul book is on its way. For with unerring timing, he has, in the past just before a new offering, made loud utterings that wakes everyone up like Thomas Hardy’s non-consensually impregnated-during-slumber Tess. The trick is not to get all foamy-mouthed with Mr Naipaul’s keenly observed digs. Instead, let’s try and figure out whether what he says has any merit to it, shall we?
There is no woman writer VSN believes to be as good as him. That’s fair enough. It’s like good old Homer pooh-poohing all that ‘psycho-social drama nonsense’ in the works of Mr Naipaul’s dear 19th century writer Guy de Maupassant. In any case, the rubbishing of women writers continues Vidia’s distaste for all ‘modern writers’, a group which he fits in everyone from Orhan Pamuk to Mahashweta Devi and Chetan Bhagat in one chubby sack. But what the man has really thrown up in the air isn’t the cat that has everyone snarling. There is something more important to ponder over: is there something called ‘women’s writing’? Is there something intrinsic to a woman’s writing that marks it as clearly as, say, Naipaul’s post-colonial works or Ursula K Le Guin’s science fiction or Edmund White’s gay literature or Patricia Highsmith’s crime fiction? Mistah Naipaul says he can sniff out a woman’s prose in the dark. Well, of course, he can tell his Charles Dickens from his dreaded Jane Austen. But surely Sir Vidia wouldn’t mind the following sturdy, manly passage stripped of all ‘female sentimentality’ (sic): “I can’t help it either, the laughing: solemn gatherings, slow ballads, pompous orations, any person or occasion that assumes I’ll offer my unreserved respect: I tend to find them all hysterical in the end.” That’s AL Kennedy, the Scottish writer, who like Naipaul and Mae West, loves telling it as it is. Alison Louise Kennedy, that is.