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"And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too."
June 3, 2011 5:49 AM   Subscribe

"I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me." VS Naipaul, no stranger to literary spats and rows, has done it again. This time, the winner of the Nobel prize for literature has lashed out at female authors, saying there is no woman writer whom he considers his equal – and singling out Jane Austen for particular criticism.
posted by Fizz (289 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
This was Roger Ebert's response on Facebook yesterday:
V. S. Naipaul is full of shit. Wait, did I write "shit?" Let me think...no, that would be the correct word.
posted by NoMich at 5:55 AM on June 3, 2011 [48 favorites]


Christ, what an asshole.
posted by bwg at 5:55 AM on June 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


also their breasts make it difficult for them to type
posted by nathancaswell at 5:57 AM on June 3, 2011 [54 favorites]


I would like to see him prove his claims empirically.
posted by delmoi at 5:58 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I would like to see him prove his claims empirically.

You're a woman...aren't you? I can tell just by the way you write. I think you're unequal to me.
posted by Fizz at 5:59 AM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Now I can pretend like I'm not reading him because he's a douchebag rather than because his books look boring and have no space ninjas in them. Hooray!!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:00 AM on June 3, 2011 [36 favorites]


and singling out Jane Austen for particular criticism.

Well this I gotta agree with.
posted by hal_c_on at 6:02 AM on June 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


I'd like to see how the response would be different if he had said women are better than men at writing.
posted by John Cohen at 6:05 AM on June 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


From the article:

But you have also to hand it to Sir Vidia - as a sex we haven't shone when it comes to the grand scheme of things, even when there have been no economic or political impediments. It's not just that there have been no women Shakespeares or Tolstoys; there have been no female Samuel Becketts or James Joyces either. And no, I'm afraid Virginia Woolf doesn't do it.

I'm wondering what alternative universe she is referring to where female contemporaries of Beckett and Joyce faced no extra economic or political obstacles.
posted by burnmp3s at 6:06 AM on June 3, 2011 [29 favorites]


Well, he's got half a point at least. Jane Austen is stupendously crap, and she's lauded as one of the greatest female authors. Right now I'm finding it hard to think of any who weren't painful to read. Marilynne Robinson, perhaps? Carson McCullers? Little help here?
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:06 AM on June 3, 2011


"and singling out Jane Austen for particular criticism."

Well this I gotta agree with.


hal_c_on, get out of my head!
posted by sbutler at 6:07 AM on June 3, 2011


Yo, Sir Vidiadhar, I'm really happy for you, and ima finish one of your books one of these days, but Sarah Palin is still the best troll of all time ...
posted by octobersurprise at 6:07 AM on June 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


I'd like to see how the response would be different if he had said women are better than men at writing.

Ah, John Cohen, the old canard: "If this situation were hypothetically reversed, and it isn't, you ladies would, hypothetically, be happy about it. I have caught you being hypothetically hypocritical! Aha, you will find that it is actually WOMEN who are sexist!"

/yawn
posted by lydhre at 6:09 AM on June 3, 2011 [112 favorites]


I'd like to see how the response would be different if he had said women are better than men at writing.

Why? Is there some reason you think it shouldn't be different?
posted by escabeche at 6:10 AM on June 3, 2011


Well this I gotta agree with.

Jane Austen is stupendously crap, and she's lauded as one of the greatest female authors

hal_c_on, get out of my head!


Jane Austen would eat you all for breakfast and indelicately spit out the bones.

Right now I'm finding it hard to think of any who weren't painful to read. Marilynne Robinson, perhaps? Carson McCullers? Little help here?

You aren't even making a half-assed effort at trying.
posted by blucevalo at 6:11 AM on June 3, 2011 [28 favorites]


So, does his ridiculous opinion have to matter, or can I just laugh and ignore it?
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:11 AM on June 3, 2011 [6 favorites]


The original Guardian article Salon discusses.
posted by mediareport at 6:11 AM on June 3, 2011


You're a woman...aren't you? I can tell just by the way you write. I think you're unequal to me.

Hm, you're the OP, and you immediately post this comment. It seems like you posted this in order to rile people up.

Not that Naipaul's comments aren't rightfully annoying people, but how is that the basis for a good FPP? I mean, one famous person thinks men are better than women at something. Oh. I'm sure many famous people think men are better than women at certain things, and many of them think women are better at certain things. In fact, given almost any type of artistic talent, you can bet that there are some people who think women are better at it, and some people who think men are better at. Do we really need an FPP every time one of these statements is made?

It seems like a very indulgent way to get upset over something gender-related, with no real purpose.
posted by John Cohen at 6:12 AM on June 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


St. Alia, you'll like this:

The comments were dismissed by the Writers Guild of Great Britain, which said it would not "waste its breath on them".
posted by mediareport at 6:12 AM on June 3, 2011 [6 favorites]


also their breasts make it difficult for them to type

tob e fairI typeby mnashing mynh balsl ooin the kweyboirad.
posted by mrgoat at 6:13 AM on June 3, 2011 [44 favorites]


Dear VS Naipul-

Flannery O'Connor could write a parking ticket with more intelligence, style and beauty than anything you've ever written, you wanker.

Love,

Matt
posted by saladin at 6:14 AM on June 3, 2011 [40 favorites]


Well, he didn't win the Nobel prize for Intelligence.

Although before now I would have thought there would be some crossover.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 6:15 AM on June 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


Is there some reason you think it shouldn't be different?

Yes, I think the response shouldn't be different. My reason? I think the genders should be treated equally. If there's a rule that we're not allowed to say men are best at anything, but it's fine to say women are best at certain things, that's not treating women and men equally. (I'm sure someone will attack me as some kind of crazed men's rights advocate for saying this, but that's not what this is about: I think it's bad for women as well as men if only women can be held out as superior at a task.)
posted by John Cohen at 6:17 AM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Naipaul ... was asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match. He replied: "I don't think so."

The only adequate response to this is "Yeah? Well, last night your mom told me differently."
posted by octobersurprise at 6:18 AM on June 3, 2011 [10 favorites]


Margaret Atwood has a posse.
posted by furtive at 6:19 AM on June 3, 2011 [10 favorites]


I'd like to see how the response would be different if he had said women are better than men at writing.


Sigh. OK. Let's take it from the top:

Men haven't been marginalized and demeaned and barred from pursuing a literary career simply because of their gender the way women have. A woman claiming that no male author could match her because of his gender might be met with eye-rolls, and maybe a bit of sympathy, but it's isolated cranksterism.

What Naipaul has done is beyond, above and beyond, being an crank, because this is an influential, Nobel-prize winning author telling his colleagues to get back in the kitchen. His words carry weight with scholars, critics, publishers, contemporaries and aspiring authors, and will have consequences for women in the field. It's also poisonous and vicious, and fundamentally, outrageously, slanderously untrue.

It needs to be fought tooth and nail.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:19 AM on June 3, 2011 [105 favorites]


You aren't even making a half-assed effort at trying.

True. Jeanette Winterson & Angela Carter I enjoyed enough to read just about everything they published. Kinda one trick ponies, but you could say the same of Beckett & Joyce.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:21 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Let's al meet back here in 300 years and see if anyone still reads Naipaul.
posted by rtha at 6:21 AM on June 3, 2011 [22 favorites]


I blame my typo on my sex.
posted by rtha at 6:21 AM on June 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


Well now I'm curious -- who are the women writers who people feel are equal to Proust and Nabokov and so on? I like Virginia Woolf, but I don't feel she's in the same league.
posted by shivohum at 6:23 AM on June 3, 2011


Men haven't been marginalized and demeaned and barred from pursuing a literary career simply because of their gender the way women have.

I thought that would be the explanation. Of course, your statement is correct. But are you just assuming that old stereotypes are worse than new stereotypes? That's what I don't get — why would you think that?

A woman claiming that no male author could match her because of his gender might be met with eye-rolls, and maybe a bit of sympathy, but it's isolated cranksterism.

That seems to be the response Naipaul is getting too.
posted by John Cohen at 6:24 AM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


John Cohen, stop your trolling about this.

Don't do that. If you think he's "trolling," then MeMail or contact a mod or post to MeTa. Threads like this are low enough without accusations of trolling.

posted by red clover at 6:25 AM on June 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


Flannery O'Connor could write a parking ticket with more intelligence, style and beauty than anything you've ever written, you wanker.

Yes, thank you. If we insist on ranking writers as if they were left fielders, Flannery O'Connor should end any troll argument Sir Vidiadhar would like to put forward.
posted by steambadger at 6:25 AM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


But are you just assuming that old stereotypes are worse than new stereotypes?

Is he just assuming that old stereotypes are worse than new stereotypes? Why would he think that? Do I know? Do you? Why am I asking so many rhetorical questions?
posted by octobersurprise at 6:27 AM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Stereotypes are bad, we all saw the afterschool special.

The difference is that an author who holds an unreasonable stereotype about women being superior because of their gender is toothless - it's an obviously contrarian remark no-one will take at all seriously. They aren't in a position of power to marginalize men.

Sexism, real sexism, requires an exercise of power to marginalize women. It causes otherwise reasonable people to post things like this (taken from a comment upthread):

Well now I'm curious -- who are the women writers who people feel are equal to Proust and Nabokov and so on? I like Virginia Woolf, but I don't feel she's in the same league.

Naipaul's comments are being taken seriously, and applied to literary criticism, right here, right now, to the detriment of women authors, and literature as a whole. This is why it's worse.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:30 AM on June 3, 2011 [20 favorites]


I'm not trying to silence you, as if I could, I'm trying to point out that you're engaging in repetitive behavior, tangential to the topic of the post, in order to either derail the post or transform the conversation into one you find to be more palatable. That meets my definition of trolling. You are, in effect, trying to silence those who are not interested in your counter-factual hypothetical. It's intellectually dishonest, and morally suspect. It does not do your case, such as it is, any service.
posted by OmieWise at 6:30 AM on June 3, 2011 [23 favorites]


Let's all meet back here in 300 years and see if anyone still reads Naipaul.

He's actually responsible for a rare & memorable laughing-out-loud-until-almost-retching moment; not in any of his fiction, but in one of the nonfiction books (either India: A Wounded Civilisation or A Million Mutinies Now). He'll still be read when Harry Potter is gone & forgotten.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:31 AM on June 3, 2011


There are several (admittedly, too few) women Nobel Prize winners who might rightly call this dipshit out. I know it's not the ultimate benchmark of quality in writing, but any list that includes Dorris Lessing and Toni Morrison has something to its credit.
posted by londonmark at 6:31 AM on June 3, 2011


High-profile writing arenas are very much still a boys' club (see, for instance, pretty much any issue of the New Yorker), so it's not terribly surprising that Naipaul is doing the equivalent of hanging a "No Girl Cooties" sign on the clubhouse door. He's saying publicly what a lot of editors practice quietly.
posted by rtha at 6:31 AM on June 3, 2011 [14 favorites]


If we insist on ranking writers as if they were left fielders

O'Connor is a 5-tool writer who can write prose with consistency, write prose with power, is quick enough to beat a deadline, has a strong arm to avoid writer's cramp and rarely dangles a participle.
posted by nathancaswell at 6:32 AM on June 3, 2011 [17 favorites]


He's actually responsible for a rare & memorable laughing-out-loud-until-almost-retching moment; not in any of his fiction, but in one of the nonfiction books (either India: A Wounded Civilisation or A Million Mutinies Now). He'll still be read when Harry Potter is gone & forgotten.

And Jane Austen will still be read when he's forgotten. That's irony for you.
posted by verb at 6:34 AM on June 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


It has been effective at removing a section of "books I need to read" from my list. I have no doubt Naipaul is a world class writer and as a general rule I don't automatically disregard the art just because an artist has shitty views about something. However, since the list of books I want to read is ultimately longer than the list of books I will be able to read, I will probably skip his.
posted by ndfine at 6:36 AM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Well now I'm curious -- who are the women writers who people feel are equal to Proust and Nabokov and so on?

As far as I'm concerned, Carson McCullers beats Nabakov any day, and would give Proust a fair fight. And if you're asking where the "female Shakespeare" is, well, if women had, for any part of history, been educated to the same degree as men, been allowed the same amount of time and space to work, and had the same breadth of experience outside the home and hearth to draw on, then this question wouldn't be asked. It's only in the last few years that any of these things have begun to change, and even then the change has only happened within a certain middle-class -and-above first-world experience.

There's also the fact that subjects that "men know about" have been, and still are, valued above subjects that "women know about". A book about war will be taken more seriously than a book about motherhood, even if the writing and insight of the motherhood book is superior.
posted by cilantro at 6:37 AM on June 3, 2011 [42 favorites]


"When" he's forgotten? I've never heard of him before and I doubt I'll remember him after this thread passes out of my Recent Activity.
posted by Gator at 6:38 AM on June 3, 2011


And Jane Austen will still be read when he's forgotten. That's irony for you.

Sure, because sardonic satire-lite with a bit of Mills & Boon thrown in will always be easy to teach to teenagers, ensuring it remains in high school curricula.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:38 AM on June 3, 2011


who are the women writers who people feel are equal to Proust and Nabokov and so on?

Marguerite Young, bitches
posted by octobersurprise at 6:39 AM on June 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


And if you're asking where the "female Shakespeare" is...
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:39 AM on June 3, 2011 [15 favorites]


For what it's worth, forty years ago a statement like Naipaul's would have been part of ordinary discourse (because of course there have been no female geniuses or great artists, right?). It took a lot of hard work and scholarship to change that, and the fact that Naipaul is being greeted with criticism is at least an improvement from the 1960s, when his opinion was unremarkable. I can't believe, however, that this is being fought about again in 2011. It's exhausting.
posted by jokeefe at 6:40 AM on June 3, 2011 [16 favorites]


Y'all sagging on Austen are just wrong. It's okay to be wrong about things sometimes, all is forgiven.

And yes, O'Conner serves up a healthy dish of KICK ASS with each story.

And George Eliot? Come on, George Eliot is the best. And of course, why did she call herself 'George?' Because of fuckwits such as the subject of the FPP

Women writers have been marginalized since day 1. Women writers were likened to prostitutes in the 19th century. We celebrate Updike and Roth and their examination of male anxieties.

But women, oh, no, they can't have insights into life the universe and shit.
posted by angrycat at 6:40 AM on June 3, 2011 [10 favorites]


I like this guy: pick fights with the long dead. But he should be careful, lest Austen reach out from the cryogenic lab.
posted by oxford blue at 6:41 AM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Whatever. Maybe this dude is a genius and there aren't any female writers superior to him. Maybe there aren't many writers superior to him, period. But it's ridiculous to say that even if it was the case, it's because women are inferior writers.

I'll never know, I guess, because I won't read someone who can make those sorts of statements with a straight face.
posted by gaspode at 6:44 AM on June 3, 2011


And if you're asking where the "female Shakespeare" is...
posted by jokeefe at 6:44 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


who are the women writers who people feel are equal to Proust and Nabokov and so on?

That's such a fundamentally flawed question. You cannot find another male writer that is "equal" to Proust or Nabokov because so few artists work at those kind of levels. There is no one that is equal to Proust just as there is no equal to Toni Morrison, Carson McCullers, Margaret Atwood or Jane Austen; they do not have "equals" no matter their gender.
posted by ndfine at 6:46 AM on June 3, 2011 [14 favorites]


He'll still be read when Harry Potter is gone & forgotten.

JK Rowling is your counterexample? Are you being deliberately obtuse for a reason?
posted by blucevalo at 6:48 AM on June 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


I always find myself thinking during these kinds of conversations-- is it important for someone to excell in a particular career, to attain recognition and admiration for excelling and having higher intelligence than others--- in order to be an equal?

How are we defining equal?

Do skill sets define equal? Because if our premise is "Women can have the same skill sets and make the same career accomplishments as men and therefore are equal" then we are saying that anyone with less skill sets or accomplishment is less than.

I don't like this criteria for being an equal. It's likely that if we had the research power to do so without bias we would find that genetics and biology and gender predispose all of us to slight trends in skills and capabilities different than other peoples. I would like for possesion of certain skill sets or capacity to excell to the top--- to NOT be what defines being equal as a human being.

Traditionally, viewing people more based on their emotional contributions and goodwill has been a "female" position on worth as a human being. I dislike that it's been removed entirely from the conversation of what equality means.
posted by xarnop at 6:48 AM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


with a bit of Mills & Boon thrown in

Come back to the raft ag’in, Ubu honey!
posted by octobersurprise at 6:48 AM on June 3, 2011


"I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee's life of the poet. She died young - alas, she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop, opposite the Elephant and Castle. Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the crossroads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh. This opportunity, as I think, it is now coming within your power to give her. For my belief is that if we live another century or so - I am taking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals - and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting-room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky, too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves; if we look past Milton's hogey, for no human being should shut out the view; if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare's sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her fore-runners, as her brother did before her, she will be born. As for her coming without that preparation, without that effort on our part, without that determination that when she is born again she shall find it possible to live and write her poetry, that we cannot expect, for that would be impossible. But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while."
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:49 AM on June 3, 2011 [10 favorites]


You know, some people win the NP, and some people don't, but most people can get through life without using a public platform to promote discrimination and mysogeny. Somehow, Naipaul just couldn't make that cut. Incredible.

Also, from his wikipedia entry:
Naipaul regularly visited prostitutes in London, and later had a long-term affair with another married woman, Margaret Gooding, which his wife was aware of.[6] Describing his physical treatment of Gooding, Naipaul told French, "I was very violent with her for two days. I was very violent with her for two days with my hand. My hand began to hurt."

Oh yeah, this guy really Gets women. Apparently, this is only the tip of the mysogeny-iceberg for Naipaul. What an eminently forgettable dirtbag.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 6:50 AM on June 3, 2011 [21 favorites]


O'Connor is a 5-tool writer

Where Naipaul is just a tool.
posted by immlass at 6:52 AM on June 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


Okay, I'm not going to engage on the whole sexist bullshit (horrific as it is) but just this about Jane Austen thing where he "couldn't possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world".

HOLY COW is that wrong, Jane Austen is only not frigging terrifying when you really read her because she has an absolute authorial authority over every single sentence while remaining as slippery as all hell (oh you thought that was an 'objective' judgement? Well maybe was an character speaking, or maybe it was society generally or maybe you're already too far down the rabbit hole...)
And sentimental? The woman who can construct a densely codified social world where the private is almost entirely suspect is sentimental? Who can pin anyone down with a single adjective, so well that they never quite recover? Who recognises the transcendental potential of love but will only allow that to express itself in way that it agrees with the structures of her social universe?

It says a lot about an author when they're fully prepared to put their literary senses to one side to support their own prejudiced preconceptions. You call Jane Austen a lot of things, but sentimental is really, really not one of them.
posted by litleozy at 6:52 AM on June 3, 2011 [44 favorites]


I wish someone would actually test him to prove that he actually can't determine what is and isn't written by a woman. I can immediately tell what was written by a woman everyone! Especially if the name on the cover is female sounding!

It's actually quite stunning that a person can be perceptive enough to write as well as he apparently does and actually be stupid enough to voice this opinion, let alone have it.
posted by haveanicesummer at 6:53 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


As far as I'm concerned, Carson McCullers beats Nabakov any day, and would give Proust a fair fight.

And see, as far as I'm concerend, McCullers couldn't shine Nabakov's shoes, but is easily the equal of the overrated Proust. I love year-end "ten best" lists and arguing over who should be n the Hall of Fame; but taking such things seriously is just silly.
posted by steambadger at 6:54 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Your favourite author sucks.
posted by terrapin at 6:55 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Egotistical writers are egotistical.

(also, I am quite shocked that I felt compelled to favorite a post by Cilantro.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:59 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


(also, I am quite shocked that I felt compelled to favorite a post by Cilantro.)

some people love her, some people think she tastes like soap
posted by nathancaswell at 7:03 AM on June 3, 2011 [16 favorites]


As someone who has read a ton of poetry, calling women writers "sentimental" makes me laugh more than anything.

A quick example, from one of Adrienne Rich's poems which will get printed in a hallmark card any day now:
Syntax of rendition:

verb pilots the plane
adverb modifies action

verb force-feeds noun
submerges the subject
noun is choking
verb disgraced goes on doing

now diagram the sentence
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:04 AM on June 3, 2011 [16 favorites]


And if you're asking where the "female Shakespeare" is, well, if women had, for any part of history, been educated to the same degree as men, been allowed the same amount of time and space to work, and had the same breadth of experience outside the home and hearth to draw on, then this question wouldn't be asked.

And yet, despite all that, the person scholars point to as the first Western playwright post-antiquity -- not the first female playwright, the first playwright period -- was a woman.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:05 AM on June 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


Lois McMaster Bujold. Yeah, she's not "literature." Yeah, I don't care. She's one of the finest authors ever, female or not.
posted by yeolcoatl at 7:05 AM on June 3, 2011 [9 favorites]


Are you being deliberately obtuse for a reason?

I just wish I could ask the same of Anais Nin. Have you ever tried to wade through the dogsvomit that is Cities of the Interior? She should've stuck with the erotica.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:05 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Salvor Hardin hits it on the nose (so to speak), and anyone masochistic enough to want to learn more about this unsavory topic could consult the recent biography of Naipaul. Let us just say the dude's issues have to do with women, not with their writing.
posted by Kat Allison at 7:06 AM on June 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


"Na potukoi natur vi Glotologi ploomp chikparu."
posted by cog_nate at 7:07 AM on June 3, 2011


I'd like to see how the response would be different if he had said women are better than men at writing.

Honestly? He'd probably be met with bemusement. He'd be just as wrong, but...

Okay -- see, in saying "Men write better than women," he's also talking about HIMSELF, because he's a man. So it comes across as self-posturing on his part ("I'm better at writing than any woman simply because I have teh mighty penis!") But if he said "women write better than men," that would be interpreted as self-abasement, which...tends not to anger people.

Mind you, if it was a WOMAN who said "women write better than men," then you'd probably also see some of this same backlash, because she'd be just as wrong.

What you're seeing isn't a response to sexism so much, what you're seeing is a response to someone's inherant "my team is better than yours neener neener."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:11 AM on June 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


My first reaction on reading this news was 'this will not end well.'

I think disbelief is holding the worst of the public mockery in check for a moment. But it will come. And rightly so.
posted by lodurr at 7:11 AM on June 3, 2011


I think we can pretty much dismiss any statement "x group is y" where y is not identical to x, no matter what kind of committee has given the statement maker a shiny.
posted by Mooski at 7:11 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


1. Suggest there is no easy way for you to determine if some art is "better" than some other art.

2. Suggest that you, and people like you, have the magic sauce necessary to make this determination. Demur to explain this magic sauce and suggest it takes years of practice and just knowing.

3. Claim some piece of art is clearly substandard to some other art, which coincidentally is created by yourself, or someone you know. Claim that it is obvious to anyone who owns the secret sauce.

4. Further claim you see the underlying pattern of substandard art; clearly it is the very fact that the authors appear to have vaginas that is the deciding factor. It cannot be anything else, which is clear if you understood the secret sauce, which you don't, and cannot because you can't. Especially if you have a vagina. Anyway, everyone knows people with vaginas are different, and are sort of ok at some stuff that does not matter, but in the realm of Those That Count it is clear, and always has been, that those with vaginas can never achieve the same greatness -- it's in the sauce, you see.

5. Rage that the majority of the world still hasn't actually read anything you've done in decades. They must be racist because I have a funny name.
posted by clvrmnky at 7:14 AM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Sure, because sardonic satire-lite with a bit of Mills & Boon thrown in will always be easy to teach to teenagers, ensuring it remains in high school curricula.

Of course! That's how her work survived the 18th and 19th centuries! It wasn't because Henry James thought she was awesome. It wasn't because of the serious scholarship done by academics at Oxford in the early 1900s. No, it was because she's just a simple girl writing about simple things that can be simply taught to pimply teenagers.
posted by rtha at 7:22 AM on June 3, 2011 [17 favorites]


And if you're asking where the "female Shakespeare" is, well, if women had, for any part of history, been educated to the same degree as men, been allowed the same amount of time and space to work, and had the same breadth of experience outside the home and hearth to draw on, then this question wouldn't be asked.

That's all well and good, but that doesn't answer the question honestly. If you're asking where the female Shakespeare is, the answer is there isn't. Yes, for all kinds of very good reasons. Many historical, many true to this very day. And no, that doesn't mean there won't ever be one, or can't ever be one, or that she won't someday run rings around the Bard. But right now? No. There's not.

"No, but…" isn't the answer to the question. No is the answer to the question. But… is the reason for the answer.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:23 AM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Old Nobel prize winner sexist. News at 11.
posted by nutate at 7:25 AM on June 3, 2011


He's full of shit. But in fairness, Jane Austen SUCKS. Give me some Rowling, LeGuin, Parker and Jackson.

Hell, even Chelsea Handler is 100 times more fun than Jane Austen.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:25 AM on June 3, 2011


who are the women writers who people feel are equal to Proust and Nabokov and so on?

Well, I don't think that much of them, so....

I always have to answer questions like this at a meta-level, because I don't think very highly of literary fiction in general. So much of it is "paint drying in Connecticut", to borrow a friend's phrase. But if what you want is HARDNESS, it's hard to beat Flannery O'Connor or Silvina Ocampo (I actually can't stand to read Ocampo, she depresses the hell out of me, she's like a mean version of Jim Thompson [sic] assigned to write comedies of manners). Margaret Atwood is a fine and interesting writer, much as her refusal to cop to writing SF annoys the shit out of me.

If I take Naipal seriously, his claim seems basically to be that female writers have a certain area of focus, and that area of focus is inherently less worthy of attention. (He doesn't seem to be arguing a tendency, rather a rule: he has no equal, remember, among women.) Which is an interesting claim if you divorce it from the sexism, and might actually be true -- depending on what interests you.

The real issue here is that naipal expects us to treat his literary opinion as though it should mean something to us. And I'm just not understanding why that should be the case.
posted by lodurr at 7:26 AM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Naipaul is a marvelous writer who does not have a lot of respect for women. His opinions about women are no more reasoned, emotionally mature, or wise than that of any garden-variety misogynist. His writing is excellent, his personal opinions are both odious and boringly banal.

I don't think it makes any kind of sense to compare the quality of writers on the basis of gender. There have been many brilliant women who wrote as well as men. It's not an illuminating basis for comparison and it just promulgates the idea that gender is the most important part of our identity, which is arguably part of the problem, so to speak.

Also, Jane Austen was a wonderful writer, and I say this as someone whose 17-year-old self detested her work in high school.
posted by clockzero at 7:27 AM on June 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


The jabs at Jane Austen in this thread are sort of surprising. I get the feeling nobody here has actually read her work seriously. She is clearly the equal of any writer in her century, male or female.
posted by koeselitz at 7:27 AM on June 3, 2011 [26 favorites]


If you're asking where the female Shakespeare is, the answer is there isn't.

Also, you get the same answer if you ask where the Eskimo Shakespeare is, or the ambidextrous Shakespeare, or the Presbyterian Shakespeare. Even if women in Elizabethan England had been fully free and equal, why would we expect their to be a female Shakespeare?
posted by steambadger at 7:27 AM on June 3, 2011 [12 favorites]


So the Nobel prize committee has changed their charter to using the Nobel prizes to make controversy? They they switch their board with the MTV Music-Video Awards or get sponsored by Axe Body Spray?
posted by fuq at 7:28 AM on June 3, 2011


Yeah, I don't really get the Jane Austen hate either.
posted by steambadger at 7:29 AM on June 3, 2011


You mean VS Naipaul the misogynist of the Caribbean, and believe me that's quite a large pile to sit on the top of.
posted by adamvasco at 7:31 AM on June 3, 2011


who are the women writers who people feel are equal to Proust and Nabokov and so on?

Sometimes I wonder if people who ask questions like this have ever, like, read books, because I gave up on trying to "rank" writers of extraordinarily complex pieces of literature a while ago and I can't imagine somebody who actually reads books thinking that you could just point to Proust and say "welp there he is, he's the high bar, somebody try and reach him now." Writing is way, way, way too immense to start to judge a whole pantheon of writers in that way; every writer comes from a different place, has a different idea about what makes writing good, and aims to write books that achieve a different particular goal.

You know that scene in The Office where David Brent is on a date with a woman he has nothing in common with, and she mentions liking classical music, and her favorite is Saint-Saens, and in an attempt to one-up her he says "Yeah, but Beethoven's the best, isn't he? I mean, he's widely considered... by authorities... to be the biggest one?" The way some people talk about literature I suspect that they're not-so-secretly David Brent.

Jesus, somebody spends decades of their life learning how to write, you can't summarize the entirety of their work well enough to ever meaningfully draw a conclusion about how valuable or good their writing is. You can if you're working with very shallow standards, like Harold Bloom and his preoccupation with aesthetic merit. Which is well and all, but that's such a subjective way to look at writing that you can hardly expect your own tastes to apply to anybody else.

The kinds of people who point to Proust or Nabakov or Shakespeare and say, "Well, that's it, that's the biggest one", would drop that attitude if they had any real breadth as readers. Maybe those writers are the most critically acclaimed, but that means nothing. Shakespeare has only recently been hailed as the "greatest writer ever" — his reputation has waxed and waned over time — and Proust and Nabakov too each fall in and out of critical favor, so it's not like there's some objective greatness to them which places them singularly above other writers, male or female. They're certainly all excellent writers, but using them as a cudgel to deny somebody like Flannery O'Connor or Virginia Woolf is missing one of the central points of literature in a humiliating way.
posted by Rory Marinich at 7:31 AM on June 3, 2011 [57 favorites]


I really read Austen for the first time a few months ago. The prose is annoying, but it was pretty leading-edge for its day, and her character-work and dialog seem first-rate to me. That said, I can't read her if I'm trying to write something, because that period language infests my prose.

Compare her to most of her popular peers of the time or even 20 years +, and she looks pretty good.

I do think the language, and failure to understand just how constrained the norms were by our standards, are big barriers to modern acceptance.

That said, Austen is a genre writer, and that fact shouldn't get lost when discussing her literary merits. What I mean by that is that academics who dismiss her are often participating in a fringe-skirmish of the old genre-vs.-literary war.
posted by lodurr at 7:32 AM on June 3, 2011


I categorize him as "Writer I Never Heard Of Until He Said Something Stupid Thus Saving Me The Effort Of Wasting My Valuable Time Determining He's An Idiot".
posted by tommasz at 7:33 AM on June 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


I'd like to see how the response would be different if he had said women are better than men at writing.

And why can't white people say the n-word? That's the worst racism there is out there, man!
posted by kmz at 7:33 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


[few comments removed - take grudges to email and name-calling to some other website. Thank you.]
posted by jessamyn at 7:33 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I gave up on trying to "rank" writers of extraordinarily complex pieces of literature a while ago and I can't imagine somebody who actually reads books thinking that you could just point to Proust and say "welp there he is, he's the high bar, somebody try and reach him now."

You have just described the theory of artistic creation that made Harold Bloom the successful and irritating man he is today.
posted by steambadger at 7:38 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sigh. These sorts of elderly-crank moments are always sad when they happen. It must be tough for an old-school male chauvinist like Naipaul, when even his so-called protege Paul Theroux will be much better remembered than he will, not to mention all those lady writers out there. (No doubt that's indicative of some essential failure of society.)

I am thinking that it demeans all involved to regurgitate knee-jerk lists of "great women novelists," as if we had to explain ourselves to this cranky authoritarian Daddy in the media, so I won't do that -- though, come on, without effort, I or any other serious reader of literature could certainly, without breaking a sweat, rattle off at least three dozen British and American women authors' names whose books are worth a hell of a lot more than anything in Naipaul's increasingly-irrelevant body of writing.

Finally, reading through the wikipedia link in the FPP I see that his first wife -- whom he was openly unfaithful to, and whom he betrayed by proposing to another women while the first wife was still alive and dying of cancer -- heavily edited (which I presume improved) his work -- which is just fucking rich. The "emotional cruelty to a wife dying of cancer" aspect has me wanting to label Naipaul the Newt Gingrich of literary figures.
posted by aught at 7:39 AM on June 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


Sometimes I wonder if people who ask questions like this have ever, like, read books, because I gave up on trying to "rank" writers of extraordinarily complex pieces of literature a while ago and I can't imagine somebody who actually reads books thinking that you could just point to Proust and say "welp there he is, he's the high bar, somebody try and reach him now."

I've read a few books and that's exactly what I say. People rank art because life is all too short and we need guideposts as to what is most beautiful and worthwhile.
posted by shivohum at 7:40 AM on June 3, 2011


tommasz:

I categorize him as "Writer I Never Heard Of Until He Said Something Stupid Thus Saving Me The Effort Of Wasting My Valuable Time Determining He's An Idiot".

He's actually a very fine writer. He's just a shitty person.
posted by clockzero at 7:40 AM on June 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


That said, Austen is a genre writer, and that fact shouldn't get lost when discussing her literary merits.

What? In what sense is Austen a genre writer? She wrote very few novels, all concerned with the particular concerns of the upper classes in England, but I'm not sure why that would make her a genre writer any more than Edith Wharton is a genre writer.
posted by OmieWise at 7:43 AM on June 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


Has the committee ever rescinded a Noble prize? Suppose it would be pretty controversial to rescind one for an offensive speech act, but then, when the prize itself is more or less awarded for engaging in a particular class of speech act (writing), one could see a reasonable argument to be made for reconsidering the wisdom of bestowing such an award on an author who espouses such shit. Ah well, maybe in a more just world...
posted by saulgoodman at 7:47 AM on June 3, 2011


In her time, she was a genre writer. The genre was romance. It was a new genre, but it was a genre. She was not taken 'seriously' as literature at the time, was in fact widely denigrated by respected literary figures, for being light and trivial and not of any deep interest. (Unsurprisingly, other writers have found great depth in her.)

I'm not sure what the 'particular concerns of the upper classes' has to do with anything. Genre work very often showcases the lives of people we want to be, in some sense; even when we read within our social class, so to speak, it's usually still aspirational (i.e., exceptional or particularly exciting versions of our neighbors) or cautionary (this is what happens to bad people) or both (boy he's bad, but that's exciting).

Also don't take this as genre-bashing -- if I'm a snob (and I believe I am by a lot of people's definition) it's in the opposite direction.
posted by lodurr at 7:50 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


The way some people talk about literature I suspect that they're not-so-secretly David Brent.

Exactly. And the statements some cranky writers like Naipaul make are also surprising because they suggest the author who one formerly thought was subtle, informed, and possessed of some measure of wisdom might actually be David-Brent-like too on a major topic. Since many people generally like to idealize writers and artists they like, this sort of revelation is often a difficult lesson to deal with.
posted by aught at 7:51 AM on June 3, 2011


Novels were not taken seriously during Jane Austen's time -- which is, in fact, a recurring theme in her work.

I'm not sure what it means to say that anybody is a genre writer. It doesn't seem like a meaningful distinction.
posted by steambadger at 7:54 AM on June 3, 2011


But in fairness, Jane Austen SUCKS. Give me some Rowling, LeGuin, Parker and Jackson.

Maybe you'll feel differently when you get to college, CPB.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:54 AM on June 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


I've read a few books and that's exactly what I say. People rank art because life is all too short and we need guideposts as to what is most beautiful and worthwhile.

"Most" beautiful? "Most" worthwhile? See, that's the mindset that I find more terrifying than anything else. Not just in literature, but in anything. When we rank people as "most" beautiful I find it similarly harmful and scary.

See, the thing about art is that it doesn't have to be particularly impressive to have an effect on you. Beauty? I could point out beauty in a Babysitter's Club book, and if you're twelve years old, you might fall in love with it. There's beauty in (I can't believe I'm saying this publicly oh god I'm so sorry Twilight that millions of people clearly see and respond to. For all I love great cinema, there was a time when as a kid I appreciated films like Kangaroo Jack; there was that thread last week that mentioned how the great Terence Malick is a huge fan of Zoolander. There's treasure everywhere.

And yeah, some art is much more powerful than other art. It demands more from you and puts more back in you. But the problem is that when we have those powerful reactions, we mistakenly assume that this power is the only thing that matters out of art, and we begin seeking only things which have that power. Which is where you get, again, Harold Bloom, who is a genius when he's talking about what he loves and a moron when he talks about the things he hates.

The sad irony, as I and pretty much all my art school brethren learn, is that once you start going out of your way to hunt down these pieces of power, you also eliminate certain contexts which are necessary to appreciate that power. First off, you're radically shifting your expectations, which can reduce great art down to nothing; but you're also denying yourself the freedom of exploration that would make that art mean something to you. Because that's the ultimate thing about art: It means nothing other than what you make of it.

The only people who truly go after the guideposts are something akin to hedonists. It's not just a literature thing; you get it in Pitchfork when a writer says straight-faced that Radiohead is objectively a "greater" band than My Bloody Valentine. And it's not even that they're wrong; it's that that's such a stupid way to look at art that the only people who do are people who want to write for publications like Pitchfork, who are popular because they offer a fake sense of superiority through "expertise".

If I were to stop and think about my ten favorite books, I suspect that maybe one of them would make any literary best-of list. And I'll argue to the end that the other nine are better than any of those books which would beat it to that list — not to you, maybe, but to me — and that my own appraisal of their value is what matters.
posted by Rory Marinich at 7:55 AM on June 3, 2011 [20 favorites]


I only speak for myself (unlike Naipaul, who is arrogant enough to equate his opinion as something like universal truth) but I rarely enjoy reading the work of female writers, and believe Austen to be hugely overrated (tedious to read, characters who aren't removely believable as human beings).
posted by dickasso at 7:57 AM on June 3, 2011



Exactly. And the statements some cranky writers like Naipaul make are also surprising because they suggest the author who one formerly thought was subtle, informed, and possessed of some measure of wisdom might actually be David-Brent-like too on a major topic. Since many people generally like to idealize writers and artists they like, this sort of revelation is often a difficult lesson to deal with.


Us humans don't stand up well to intensive scrutiny. I can separate an author's work from their personality easily enough, and if you're going to get reallllly mad at them, it helps to look carefully enough to tell lapses through consistent belief.

But with all of that said, it's a pretty asshole thing for him to say. It's the kind of thing that loves to get posted all over the internet, so that other assholes can make snarky, half-sarcastic comments about women.

In short, what the hell is the point of an article about this, and is it by any standard "The Best of The Web"? Anyway, some interesting conversation has come from it, and hopefully more will follow. But it really does seem like the entire point of the article is to incite outrage, and trollish arguments everywhere.
posted by Stagger Lee at 7:58 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


In her time, she was a genre writer. The genre was romance.

Ah, but today she is widely not considered to be a genre writer now, least of all a writer of romances. Indeed, when her books are blithely labeled, they're called "comedies of manners." The trouble with calling her a genre writer is that this is the label frequently applied to women's writings in order to denigrate it. You may not intend that, but your comment does raise that.

Regardless, it's not clear why it has any bearing on the overall assertion that Austen is one of the finest writers of English prose ever to have lived. I'm not sure how to take your statements about finding her "period" writing to be annoying. I won't argue with your taste, but I will say that many people, including Nabokov, find her prose to be shockingly well formed and delightful to read, quite aside from her plots and characters.

I have to be honest, I am not remotely fair-minded about this. I cannot imagine people hating Jane Austen, and each person who proclaims their hate here makes me despair for humanity a little bit.
posted by OmieWise at 7:59 AM on June 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


If I were to stop and think about my ten favorite books, I suspect that maybe one of them would make any literary best-of list.

Heh. The really fun part would be whether or not it was ever the same 10 books on subsequent weeks. At least, that's my problem.
posted by lodurr at 8:00 AM on June 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


People rank art because life is all too short and we need guideposts as to what is most beautiful and worthwhile.

We need discussion and criticism. Ranking is a cheap parlor trick, best performed between Christmas and New Year's to amuse the holiday-fatigued.
posted by steambadger at 8:02 AM on June 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


Heh. The really fun part would be whether or not it was ever the same 10 books on subsequent weeks. At least, that's my problem.

Oh totally. Which is why I prefer to see art-loving as dance rather than architecture. When I like things, I'm not building an identity for myself, I'm not trying to create a meaningful exhibit of preferences, I'm moving. Each thing I love shows where I'm at for a fraction of a second, and maybe they also show me moving in paths and directions — but at any moment I can pick another direction and find just as much joy and meaning there too.
posted by Rory Marinich at 8:02 AM on June 3, 2011 [7 favorites]


I read this kind of thing from Naipaul and I figure I do not need to read his books. Are they excellent? Sure, I will accept that they are excellent books and I would gain something from reading them, including perhaps an understanding of where his misogyny comes from. But there are lots of excellent books out there, more than I could possibly read in a lifetime, especially as there are lots of non-excellent books out there that I want to read for other reasons. Why bother with his books?


A link so you can test whether you can recognise penis writers vs vagina writers (so convenient there are no hermaphrodite or trans writers!). I got 5/10, not trying particularly hard and recognising only one paragraph (though I have read more than one of the books quoted).
posted by jeather at 8:03 AM on June 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


Re. Austen & genre: I don't think her genre/not-genre designation has any bearing at all on the quality of the work. As I've said, there are aspects that I think are really well-done.

What I was trying to point out is that many literary Austen-bashers (which doesn't include most of the people in this thread who don't like her work, I think) are using her as a proxy in the anti-genre wars. As such, yes, it does raiise the women-writers-write-genre spectre.

That spectre tends to derail discussions real fast, so maybe we'll regret getting into it, but for what it's worth I think the canard has some merit of truth: not that the work is less good, but that in fact women have tended to get ghettoized into genre work. (I'd go on to argue that the latest "genre" women have been [mildly] ghettoized into is literary fiction.)

Laurie King is a fantastic writer. If I want to write better, I read her before writing. And I find her genre work to have at least as much intellectual heft as the majority of literary fiction I've read. It's not Catch-22, but then what is?
posted by lodurr at 8:06 AM on June 3, 2011


In short, what the hell is the point of an article about this, and is it by any standard "The Best of The Web"? Anyway, some interesting conversation has come from it, and hopefully more will follow.

You may have just answered your own question, and at the same time provided the textbook definition of what MeFi is for many members.
posted by aught at 8:15 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sometimes assholes who say dumb shit are also good writers. Such is life.

It's a sign of progress that his remarks are being met with basically universal derision.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:19 AM on June 3, 2011


Rather than argue, I'll just quote from my favorite extended passage in literature.

There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up; holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship's smooths and contains the rocker. It's an inside kind--wrapped tight like skin. Then there is a loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down.

It is alive, on its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one's own going seem to come from a far-off place.

Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name. Diremembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her, and even if they were, how can they call her if they don’t know her name? Although she has claim, she is not claimed. In the place where long grass opens, the girl who waited to be loved and cry shame erupts into her separate parts, to make it easy for the chewing laughter to swallow her away.

Toni Morrison, Beloved
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 8:21 AM on June 3, 2011


A link so you can test whether you can recognise penis writers vs vagina writers

How many of us, I wonder, thought the Naipaul excerpt was a woman writer? (I did, and it made me laugh and laugh.) But then I did pretty poorly on this test in general (only recognizing one of the excepts specifically, sad to say).
posted by aught at 8:21 AM on June 3, 2011


As for Beckett/Joyce--hd's long work is up there.
posted by PinkMoose at 8:21 AM on June 3, 2011


Somewhere a young female writer is swearing vengeance on this jackass.

"Oh, we'll just see about THAT."

Give it a few years and homeboy will be eating crow.
posted by chronkite at 8:22 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, goody! I get another chance to plug two of my favourite books:

Geek Love
The Last Samurai

Both are Literature with a capital L and completely unputdownable besides.
posted by flabdablet at 8:23 AM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Also: Cerebus.
posted by flabdablet at 8:24 AM on June 3, 2011


What? In what sense is Austen a genre writer?

Didn't she write a book about zombies?
posted by Crabby Appleton at 8:26 AM on June 3, 2011 [7 favorites]


That said, Austen is a genre writer,

She may be regarded as a genre writer now, but that was certainly not the case when she was first published. Unless you consider the novel itself as a genre - it was a form that was generally looked down upon when she began publishing (anonymously), although her work was popular among taste-makers of the time and got good reviews. Later, they were regarded less favorably, because tastes had changed - people preferred the more overtly emotional works of writers like Dickens.
posted by rtha at 8:26 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, Austen was not only a genre writer in romance, but in social manners, and her parody of the Gothic (Northanger Abby) was an interesting, early work in intertextuality. Recognize its importance, not a huge fan of it, but vital in understanding later attempt.s
posted by PinkMoose at 8:26 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


In her time, she was a genre writer. The genre was romance.

No, Austen's genre was novels of sensibility. The fact that she actually satirized her own genre (and the fact that she did it so subtly even Nobel Prize-winning authors dismiss her work) is one reason she has enduring staying power. I think her ultimate work is Mansfield Park, which features a romantic heroine with no romantic qualities whatsoever, who ends up with the hero because his first choice turned out to be a dud.

Personally, I think "genre fiction" is a silly label. Everything has a genre. If what you mean by it is "bad fiction," or "mass-market fiction" or whatever, then just come out and say it.
posted by muddgirl at 8:26 AM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


no, that was her great great great grand-nephew, Steve Austen. He also had some machine-parts.
posted by lodurr at 8:27 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


The entire genre versus literature dichotomy is unproductive and harmful.
posted by Stagger Lee at 8:28 AM on June 3, 2011 [8 favorites]


who are the women writers who people feel are equal to Proust and Nabokov and so on?

Listen, I love me some Nabokov, but if it came down to it I'd throw all his books in a volcano to save Lydia Davis. Not to point fingers in this thread (no, seriously!) but it usually seems to be the case that people who ask 'What female/black/gay authors are the equal of my favorite straight white male author?' are people who have not read much of anything by authors who are not straight white males.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:30 AM on June 3, 2011 [6 favorites]


If what you mean by it is "bad fiction," or "mass-market fiction" or whatever, then just come out and say it.

What I mean by it is 'stuff popularly or commercially identified as being a class.'

'Genre' is a sociological concept for me. I'm interested in what's identified as genre, by whom, what their given reasons are, and what the real reasons appear to be. In Austen's case, I'm arguing that the reasons for dismissal are commonly part of someone's attempt to mark themselves as 'not-genre.'

A writer-friend likes to say genre is a marketing concept, and he's not wrong about that. but that's not all it is. Things become social facts when people behave as though they are social facts. So, genre's real; it's just not necessarily what people say it is (and in fact isn't any one thing).
posted by lodurr at 8:33 AM on June 3, 2011


Meh. The earliest known author was a woman, and the work widely regarded as the first novel was written by a woman.

Anyway SF already had this argument. Some brightspark claimed that James Tiptree Jr. couldn't possibly be a woman because obviously only a man could write that way.
posted by Proofs and Refutations at 8:34 AM on June 3, 2011 [8 favorites]


, because sardonic satire-lite with a bit of Mills & Boon thrown in will always be easy to teach to teenagers, ensuring it remains in high school curricula.

Dude, have you read Jane Austen?

I've read all six Austen novels and most twice, and dozens if not hundreds of Regency Romance novels including Mills and Boon (great schlocky fun) -- and Austen is the anti-romance writer. Her entire concept of successful marriages is one where romance/passion does NOT win out, but where the relationship is based on mutual respect and intellectual compatibility. Her novels have no physical passion, and depict marriages based on physical attractiveness and "romance" (such as Mr & Mrs Bennet) as mistakes. And where good contemporary romance novels work because the provide the reader with a roller coaster of strong emotions (as exciting as an adventure novel) - angst, sorrow, joy - The magic in Austen is in the delicate social satire, in the quiet conversations and subtlety of the emotions. Austen is stylistically more like L.M. Montgomery (Anne of Green gables, The Blue Castle) than any modern romance writer.

I like both Austen, and contemporary romance novels, but comparing them is like comparing a finely made (and not over done) sushi roll to a chocolate sundae with whipped cream. Both are great - and really not alike at all.

And to finish - I have to wonder at the sexist assumption that all novels written by women which have a marriage at the end are inherently similar.
posted by jb at 8:34 AM on June 3, 2011 [15 favorites]


... and I don't at all disagree that genre as a concept is harmful to literature in general (with the understanding that I've now made it very difficult for myself to use terms like "literature" and "genre" in this discussion in a way that doesn't slip away from understanding at the slightest pressure).
posted by lodurr at 8:35 AM on June 3, 2011


Charlotte Bronte could still kick Jane Austen's ass though
posted by shakespeherian at 8:37 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Emily Bronte could kick Jane Austen's and Charlotte Bronte's arse. And, in fact, anyone else's arse. And I'd like to see you call her sentimental.
posted by Summer at 8:40 AM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


See, the thing about art is that it doesn't have to be particularly impressive to have an effect on you.

"An effect" (even a tremendously moving one) is not necessarily the same as the appreciation of astonishing craft. No one has to like the best literary writers, or even agree that they're the most personally resonant. But I think there's tremendous value in having ranked lists of them, so that people who are looking for the writers who over time have proven the most brilliant and powerful artists can find them easily.

Also, in a way you're really arguing for multiple sets of rankings. There should be top-ten lists of books for people who like Twilight, etc. (and there are such lists) as well.

"The best" is an extremely heuristic concept and for that reason it will never go out of fashion. It distorts but it distorts usefully, as do all maps.

once you start going out of your way to hunt down these pieces of power, you also eliminate certain contexts which are necessary to appreciate that power. First off, you're radically shifting your expectations, which can reduce great art down to nothing; but you're also denying yourself the freedom of exploration that would make that art mean something to you. Because that's the ultimate thing about art: It means nothing other than what you make of it.

I'm not quite sure what this means. I've picked up lots of books simply because they're renowned, and many have affected me powerfully. Have you not had the same experience?

I'm not arguing that one should only or even primarily read what is ranked highly. But they can unquestionably be a helpful rule of thumb.
posted by shivohum at 8:41 AM on June 3, 2011


Austen is the anti-romance writer

I don't buy your argument, first. A lot of romance novels have that very characteristic that you identify as 'anti-romance.' It's arguably the dominant subgenre, at least in modern romance fiction (though I can't speak for the regency period).

Second, I find it's quite common for a work to both define and defy a genre. For a less controversial literary example, look to Graham Greene's early thrillers (A Gun for Sale and The Confidential Agent are what I particularly have in mind), which I'm given to understand were big influences on Fleming. (And later obvious ones on LeCarre, but that's not a good example of variance....) People often copy the parts that are easy to copy or that lead to popular appeal, and leave out the stuff that's hard (either for the artist or the consumer).
posted by lodurr at 8:42 AM on June 3, 2011


But I think there's tremendous value in having ranked lists of them, so that people who are looking for the writers who over time have proven the most brilliant and powerful artists can find them easily.

Except that I often find many of those to be quite poor writers, by my aesthetic standards.

Good writing is a lot like good acting, in that if it's done well you often don't see it, and if you see it, it's very likely not being done well. (With notable exceptions, like the Toni Morrison passage quoted up-thread, or like most good Al Pacino performances.)
posted by lodurr at 8:44 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


So, genre's real; it's just not necessarily what people say it is (and in fact isn't any one thing).

I think my point is that "sociologically," people get confused when "literary authors" like Cormac McCarthy or Margaret Atwood write "genre novels" (by which is generally meant fiction with a sci-fi, fantasy, or horror element) and their confusion is, well, confusing to me.

It's arguably the dominant subgenre, at least in modern romance fiction (though I can't speak for the regency period).

It's kind of ridiculous to say that Austen's themes are common in modern romantic fic. Since, you know, she hadn't read any of it.
posted by muddgirl at 8:45 AM on June 3, 2011


Or it's not ridiculous to say it, but it doesn't have any meaning.

Modern romantic novels have a very strict set of guidelines that Austen did not have to follow, and indeed did not follow. Because they didn't exist.
posted by muddgirl at 8:46 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's kind of ridiculous to say that Austen's themes are common in modern romantic fic. Since, you know, she hadn't read any of it.

It's only ridiculous if you're arguing that modern writers influenced Austen. So it's a good thing I didn't argue that.
posted by lodurr at 8:47 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Of course it "has meaning." It's just not interesting to you.
posted by lodurr at 8:47 AM on June 3, 2011


The jabs at Jane Austen in this thread are sort of surprising. I get the feeling nobody here has actually read her work seriously. She is clearly the equal of any writer in her century, male or female.

Well, to be fair, the only reason Shakespeare is popular is that he wrote a play about suicide that is popular with junior high students.
posted by verb at 8:50 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


You know that thing immature people do where decide that everything they dislike is crap just because they dislike it? And then crow on and on about it? Yeah, that right here.
posted by captaincrouton at 8:51 AM on June 3, 2011


...at least I've heard of Jane Austin.

Seriously. I guess I live in a literary hole or something.
posted by Atreides at 8:51 AM on June 3, 2011


Not having any interest in the words of a raving naipaul I tuned in to this thread solely to pick up a few names to broaden my reading horizons, so many thanks to octobersurprise for the mention of Marguerite Young, who I'm almost salivating to read after a quick google, and to lodurr for silvina ocampo. And indeed it seems to me that the most appropriate response to Mr naipaul is just to ignore him for the obviously misguided fool that he is and share some names and favourites. Simone de beauvoir, anyone? Iris Murdoch? Gertrude stein, maybe, potential collaborator or not? Or marguerite duras? I'd be the first to admit my bookshelf is a little phallocentric, but I've read and loved books by all of these authors, and I'd be most appreciative of some more suggestions from those more widely read than I. Who else should I/we be reading?
posted by los_aburridos at 8:53 AM on June 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


Maybe you'll feel differently when you get to college, CPB.

It was high school and college where I was precisely afflicted by Austen and once broke up with a girl after an argument that started over the film version of Sense and Sensibility.

"So they didn't get the inheritance they were expecting. What a weird starting point for a story..."
"God, you are such an animal."

Let me be clear ... I'm sure there are people that loves them their Austen. I don't hate you.

I just bristle at certain things (Austen among them in other areas of art, literature, music, etc.) that have been somehow elevated to the status of "should enjoy." You should enjoy and appreciate XYZ writer. You should enjoy the works of XYZ musician. If you do not, you are somehow less enlightened and open-minded, and are barely capable of being house-trained.

This is much like being told you should enjoy Brussels sprouts because they're good for you. I fucking hate Brussels sprouts. There are many other cruciferous vegetables to choose from, many of which don't taste like socks.

So, fuck this. I've read Austen. I don't like her work. There are others. Many of which appeal to people that won't break up with you, steal your bike and start sleeping with the asshole that works on the third floor of my same building.

Fuck you, Brooke. You know what you did.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:55 AM on June 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


An oldie but a goodie: Linda Nochlin's Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?

Excerpt

"Why have there been no great women artists?" The question tolls reproachfully in the background of most discussions of the so-called woman problem. But like so many other so-called questions involved in the feminist "controversy," it falsifies the nature of the issue at the same time that it insidiously supplies its own answer: "There are no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness."
posted by Cuke at 8:55 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


anybody who reads ocampo after my name-drop, you have been warned: if flannery o'connor creeps you out, don't even try ocampo.
posted by lodurr at 8:56 AM on June 3, 2011


Of course it "has meaning." It's just not interesting to you.

No, I just don't understand it. Of course modern romance writers are influenced by early novels. I don't see what that has to do with the fact that Austen often intentionally broke with the norms of the novel of sensibility. If modern romance novelists intentionally break the standards of regency-era romantic novels (which I don't actually agree with), I don't see what that has to do with Austen besides the fact that modern romance writers were influenced by her.
posted by muddgirl at 8:58 AM on June 3, 2011


"So they didn't get the inheritance they were expecting. What a weird starting point for a story..."
"God, you are such an animal."


Dude, that argument SO had nothing to do with Sense & Sensibility.

(and anyway, it is a slightly weird starting point. but so what, many good books have weird starting points. anyway, as a starting point it has the merit of emphasizing the diminished prospects of a woman in that social class.)
posted by lodurr at 9:00 AM on June 3, 2011


Give it a few years and homeboy will be eating crow.

If by a few years you mean -3000 or so.
posted by kmz at 9:03 AM on June 3, 2011


I don't see what that has to do with Austen besides the fact that modern romance writers were influenced by her.

It doesn't necessarily have to have anything to do with Austen, as my temporal qualifier should have made clear. It was just a statement. It happened in the context of a larger discussion that has expanded to include genre, and I was making arguments that included genre in general.
posted by lodurr at 9:06 AM on June 3, 2011


UbuRoivas: I just wish I could ask the same of Anais Nin.

Ask Henry Miller while you're at it. If you want to talk about self-indulgent tripe, he wrote a lot of it.

Cool Papa Bell: I just bristle at certain things (Austen among them in other areas of art, literature, music, etc.) that have been somehow elevated to the status of "should enjoy." You should enjoy and appreciate XYZ writer. You should enjoy the works of XYZ musician. If you do not, you are somehow less enlightened and open-minded, and are barely capable of being house-trained.

Outside of mefi, which is pretty much the temple of "you should," nobody's telling you that you "should" enjoy anything. If being told that you "should" enjoy something bothers you so much, you have the capability to push back on it, just as you've done. And no, Jane Austen does not suck.

Hell, even Chelsea Handler is 100 times more fun than Jane Austen.

Apples and oranges much?
posted by blucevalo at 9:07 AM on June 3, 2011


Dude, that argument SO had nothing to do with Sense & Sensibility.

Brooke? Is that you? Babe, send me an email.

I miss you. I'm sorry I said you had thick thighs.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:09 AM on June 3, 2011




Cool Papa Bell: I just bristle at certain things (Austen among them in other areas of art, literature, music, etc.) that have been somehow elevated to the status of "should enjoy." You should enjoy and appreciate XYZ writer. You should enjoy the works of XYZ musician. If you do not, you are somehow less enlightened and open-minded, and are barely capable of being house-trained.


It's more that they're considered valuable, or praise worthy. People supply the "I should enjoy this" guilt themselves, if they're interested in seeming well-read or intellectual or whatever.

I have am ambivalent relationship with that kind of thing. I try to read "great literature" to see if there's something to be gained from it, and often there is, but I'm not afraid to put it down if I get bored or can't find the value in it.
posted by Stagger Lee at 9:10 AM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Dude, that argument SO had nothing to do with Sense & Sensibility.

It's an argument?
posted by Summer at 9:11 AM on June 3, 2011


cool papa bell: thanks for being a good sport. I couldn't resist. (no, i'm not brooke. and I'm not going to make a joke about my thighs.)
posted by lodurr at 9:12 AM on June 3, 2011


Dude, that argument SO had nothing to do with Sense & Sensibility.

I dated a crazy Austrian chick for a year or so. That's why I oppose the Euro.
posted by verb at 9:13 AM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


The suicide of Naipaul's younger brother Shiva suddenly seems much less mysterious.

Shiva must have made the mistake of taking his brother's literary opinions seriously.

A thing very few of the rest of us are likely to do after this, I think.
posted by jamjam at 9:18 AM on June 3, 2011


It happened in the context of a larger discussion that has expanded to include genre, and I was making arguments that included genre in general.

I guess I just don't think it's correct to lump all of Austen's works into the "romance novel" category. Pride and Prejudice is certainly a romance novel in that the protagonists work against external and internal obstacles to marriage. Emma, certainly, although the thesis "romantic feelings are often constructed based on fantasy, not fact" doesn't have much place in the modern romance genre.

Persuasion is closer to a 'modern'-day fairy tale where the handsome prince saves the beautiful but under-valued old maid from a life drudgery. Sense and Sensibility is explicitely a novel of sensibility, which has little to do with the romance genre save for the fact that people fall in love (as they do in lots and lots of genres). Mansfield Park is a novel of morals (those with strong morals succeed, those with loose morals are chastened). And Northanger Abbey is a gothic satire.

This fits in with my overall thesis: It doesn't make sense to lump authors into a "genre" vs. "literature" dichotomy, because most authors swim around in a big old pool of genres.
posted by muddgirl at 9:20 AM on June 3, 2011


So who are the great woman writers that we should all read? I'm reading Atwood right now, but that's a pretty slim cross section.
posted by Stagger Lee at 9:24 AM on June 3, 2011


OK, total douchebag comment - that's a given. But...

I he rarely reads women, so has few opportunities to find women writers excellent.

Shamefully, I find myself falling into the same pattern. I read men a ratio of about 5:1 or greater. A big part of this is the historical situation where the vast majority of excellent historical writers whose writing survives are going to be men. Then there's the current problem where men are still published or I guess promoted and lauded unequally. So there is basically much less great writing by women that is available. Then I probably have a bias in what I read that does have to do with themes covered by topic.

When I try to come up with women writers who I personally find of the highest caliber my list is distressingly short: Arundahti Roy - but she only has one novel. Louise Erdrich - at least the few of her books I've read. Maybe Gertrude Stein? LeGuin. I thought Jeanette Winterson was going to be one of the greatest writers, but then after a few books she seemed to wander off into some boring stream of consciousness thing. I would love to hear recommendations for really top caliber women writers - I know they exist and I want to read 'em.


Someone probably already said some of this uptrhead - I didn't read every comment ):
posted by serazin at 9:25 AM on June 3, 2011


Paging Joanna Russ. Joanna Russ to the white courtesy phone.

sigh
posted by Zed at 9:25 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


lodurr: I have read a hell of a lot of contemporary romance, and Austen is not a romance writer -- any more than L.M. Montgomery (many of whose novels end with a marriage) is, or Shakespeare's comedies could be said to fall into the romance genre.

First and foremost: Austen does not believe in the power of romantic love. This is a universal assumption in the romance genre, including for genre-breakers like Mary Balogh or Galbadon (who broke genre so hard she left it, but still shares some similarities) - or for authors influenced by romance, such as Bujold (Her Civil Campaign is a tribute to Heyer -- but not Austen). There is only one novel in which it is suggested that romantic love is powerful, Persuasion, and even then it is acknowledged by the characters to have been an insufficient basis for the marriage. In Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibilty, sexual or romantic attraction leads the main characters to fall for men who aren't worthy; in Mansfield Park it leads to a secondary character's downfall. In Austen's world-view, it is friendship, respect and intellectual compatibility that lead to successful marriages -- and these things come before successful romantic attachment.

Moreover, her novels are also not romance novels in that the development of the relationship is often only one plot-string among many (Persuasion perhaps being an exception). Many contemporary romance novels do have non-relationship subplots or side-plots, but still keep the relationship plot at least equal; this can't be said of Sense and sensibility, Northanger abbey, Emma or especially Mansfield Park (which is really about Fanny's relationship with her adopted family than her non-romance with Edward - in fact, I can't even remember if he was called Edward).

I really became aware of how much Austen is not "romance" after a) reading a bunch of romance novels and b) seeing Lost in Austen - It's a fun mini-series about a modern Austen fan who falls into the P&P story, but it also was so disconcerting to watch because the basic assumptions about relationship-formation and the power of romantic love were that of contemporary romance novels and not that of Austen -- it was like mirror-universe Austen. I was watching Darcy fall for the main character because of her freshness and spunk and thinking -- but that makes no sense! Darcy never had a "crush" on Elizabeth (or rather, he did, and she told him to get lost) - they came together eventually out of mutual compatibility.

now, I'm not saying that NO contemporary romance novels (historical or modern set) share Austen's treatment of relationships. But as a genre, the generic convention treats romantic love as a powerful, sometimes inexplicable emotion often based heavily on physical compatibility, with intellectual/social compatibility to follow (which gives the plot it's driver - they both want each other but have to work how to live with each other). But in Austen, that kind of attraction isn't just not the basis of a good relationship, in P&P and S&S it even leads the main characters astray -- the dashing man they are attracted to is not a good partner.

Okay, I've gone on for a long time. Suffice it to say that I have seen no evidence that Austen was working in a romance-genre mode, or indeed shares much of a world-view with the romance genre, any more than any other fictions that end in marriage do (like Shakespeare's comedies, many L.M. Montgomery books/series).
posted by jb at 9:26 AM on June 3, 2011 [10 favorites]


But jb, if it's written by a woman and people fall in love, it MUST be womance!

Unlike if it's written by a man and people fall in love. Then, it's literature!
posted by muddgirl at 9:27 AM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Some good women writers, if we're going to do the list thing:

Susan Hill
AS Byatt
Barbara Kingsolver
Hillary Mantel
Kate Atkinson
posted by Summer at 9:32 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


So, fuck this. I've read Austen. I don't like her work.

So. More of a Steve Austin fan, then? Ok.
posted by octobersurprise at 9:37 AM on June 3, 2011


So. More of a Steve Austin fan, then? Ok.

Which one?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:39 AM on June 3, 2011


Crazy writer guy gotta talk smack to get attention to make up for so-so writing ability.

Look. Point. Laugh.

He'll go away then.
posted by BlueHorse at 9:41 AM on June 3, 2011


I just wanted to pop my head in here to give a few shout outs to:

Joyce Carol Oates
Joan Didion
Emily Dickinson
Alice Walker
Elizabeth Bishop
Flannery O'Conner
Agatha Christie
Flannery O'Conner
Kate Chopin
Anne Frank
Margaret Atwood
Sylvia Plath
The Bronte sisters - Emily, Charlotte and Anne



and the author of, in my opinion, one of the best books ever written - Harper Lee.
posted by triggerfinger at 9:42 AM on June 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


Is this thread for real? Like, for real for real? It's 2011 and people are asking if there have been any great women authors?

I have to go to a dance show right now, but when I come back I'll list a couple hundred if you like. Sheesh.
posted by kyrademon at 9:43 AM on June 3, 2011 [8 favorites]


lodurr - re-reading your original comment, I think it is very true to say that Austen was a popular writer, writing for a wide audience (like contemporary genre writers whether romance, SF&F or action). She wasn't a literary writer steeped in academic criticism and looking to consciously forward the medium. She wasn't trying to be Alexander Pope.

Of course, the Brontes, Dickens and Shakespeare were also all popular writers, which one of the reasons that they, like Austen, are all widely read and loved. They aren't as challenging to read as someone like Woolf or Joyce because they were never meant to be hard to read. They are still awesome, just like how Miyasaki is as awesome in his own way as any art film director.
posted by jb at 9:45 AM on June 3, 2011


So who are the great woman writers that we should all read? I'm reading Atwood right now, but that's a pretty slim cross section.

If only it were possible to find a list of them, somewhere on the Internet.

In all seriousness, it's not terribly difficult. Flannery O'Connor, Jane Austen, Maria Doria Russel, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, the Brontë sisters, LM Montgomery, Dorothy Sayers, George Elliot, Virginia Woolf, and a host of other names that have bubbled up in this thread.

The fact that a person only know the name of one woman author is a commentary on the breadth of their reading, not the capabilities of female authors as a group. Naipaul's embarrassing public statements are a sign of his own ignorance and arrogance, nothing more.
posted by verb at 9:46 AM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


A response from Diana Athilll who his original remarks were largely directed against.
(and who also has said,when she needed cheering up, "I used to tell myself: 'At least I'm not married to Vidia.'"

I'm not at all surprised by this, a decline into irrelevancy has become the defining factor in the career of a much over-rated writer. While certainly a fine prose stylist his books are largely tainted by the monstrous egoism on display here, an inability to see beyond the end of his own nose leading to what Salman Rushdie described as "delicate, precise prose of the highest quality, but it is bloodless prose."
posted by tallus at 9:50 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hey verb, I'm a feminist and can easily google a list of women writers. But I'm genuinely appreciative of the hand-picked suggestions for top calibre women writers because I haven't read enough of them.
posted by serazin at 9:51 AM on June 3, 2011




If only it were possible to find a list of them, somewhere on the Internet.

If I wanted an impersonal A-Z list of every woman writer ever, I'd probably have been able to find one with a quick google hey?
posted by Stagger Lee at 9:51 AM on June 3, 2011


I don't think anyone should be shocked that there are fewer women writers of quality℠. That's kind of the point. Women have had the freedom to be writers for only a fraction of the time that there have been writers as a profession. List Wars is not the way to approach this issue, rather we should understand why there weren't many women writing until about 50 years ago. 100 years ago 99% of women didn't have the freedom to write, 200 years ago they have neither the freedom nor the education.
posted by 2bucksplus at 9:52 AM on June 3, 2011


Can I just link to a Lydia Davis story because you guys, for serious.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:52 AM on June 3, 2011 [6 favorites]


Why is what a man writes about and what a man cares about the default? Women and their "feelings" aren't some sub-genre but actually account for the majority of the population of the world. I would take Jane Austen over this boring fuckwad ever day of the week. And I refuse to be taken less seriously because I prefer Austen and Gaskell over his books, my choices are just as serious and just as valid as Proust and fuck all.
posted by Foam Pants at 9:56 AM on June 3, 2011 [6 favorites]


Shit yes! Harper Lee! I love To Kill A Mockingbird. Just a completely perfect book.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:57 AM on June 3, 2011


He's actually responsible for a rare & memorable laughing-out-loud-until-almost-retching moment; not in any of his fiction, but in one of the nonfiction books (either India: A Wounded Civilisation or A Million Mutinies Now). He'll still be read when Harry Potter is gone & forgotten.

Highly doubt it, actually. Children's literature tends to have a remarkably long shelf life--Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland and Winnie the Pooh are still remarkably relevant today, whereas the adult literary counterparts of the same period tend not to be as widely adapted, reimagined, celebrated, known. I know that the literary elite tends to attempt to marginalize both works for children and women in the same sort of way (Jen Egan disparaging Megan McCafferty), but it really just makes y'all look ignorant. The truth is, Harry Potter is far more relevant in the lives of modern humans than Naipaul, has touched more readers, and will likely have a a far longer shelf life.

This isn't necessarily about quality. Hell, I've hardly read any of either Rowling or Naipaul. But comments to the effect that Rowling will be forgotten are just plain ignorant, the equivalent of holding your hands over your eyes and refusing to see the actual world around you.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:02 AM on June 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


Austen does not believe in the power of romantic love

That's news to me.

I mean, I understand that she couches it in an intellectualized context. But all she's doing is rationalizing romantic love, and I think she damn well knew it.
posted by lodurr at 10:02 AM on June 3, 2011


I tend to agree with Emma Thompson's assessment of Austen, which is that her novels are pretty much about the economics of being a woman. When marriage is your only respectable option to keep a roof over your head, then a lot of conversations will be about whether or not you can bear to marry the nearest guy, or can afford to wait for someone who actually respects you as a human being.
posted by harriet vane at 10:03 AM on June 3, 2011 [24 favorites]


Ceremony, by Leslie Marmon Silko is a must-read.

One of the most intense and well-crafted novels ever.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:04 AM on June 3, 2011


I just want to give my shout out to Anne Patchett. bel Canto is seriously probably the best book I've read in the past ten years or more.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:05 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Just dropping in here to give some props to Doris Lessing. All you sci-fi geeks / Inception-heads owe it to yourselves to take a crack at Briefing for a Descent into Hell.
posted by chaff at 10:05 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Which is why Emma can afford to indulge in fantasy - she's independently wealthy and has no need of a man.


Also, Dorothy L Sayers is a way better writer than Agatha Christie. The Nine Tailors and Gaudy Night are note-perfect.
posted by harriet vane at 10:06 AM on June 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


Virginia Woolf will fucking fight you.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:06 AM on June 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


Also: Octavia Butler. And if you want to read kid's lit by women that passes muster with all of the snobs I know, try Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now (or, if you want to get more experimental, Justine Larbalestier's Liar).
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:08 AM on June 3, 2011


Children's literature tends to have a remarkably long shelf life

Especially when it's in a context that lets contemporary kids ignore how old it is. E.g., you have to go through to book 7 and make inferences to figure out what period the Harry Potter books are set in. Jungle Book is sufficiently exoticised that contemporary kids just write it off as "foreign". But I suspect stories of ordinary suburban life without mobile phones & the net will get dated pretty fast. (Someone mentioned the uncanny valley in the Calvin & Hobbes / Hobbes & Bacon thread, and that's a soemwhat apt analogy here, too I think: when you get just slightly off from the status quo, it's often more disturbing than when you're way off. So it's easier for a middle-class American kid to read about an Afghan kid than a working class American kid.)
posted by lodurr at 10:08 AM on June 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


If I wanted an impersonal A-Z list of every woman writer ever, I'd probably have been able to find one with a quick google hey?

Staggering. This thread is filled with people sharing the names of excellent women writers. Articles responding to Naipaul's comments are filled with examples of excellent women writers. Naipaul personally, in his comments, attacks women writers that are generally considered Excellent Writers Of Historical Note.

On closer consideration, I'm pretty sure that I misread the poster's comment to mean that they were suggesting their slim female reading list indicated that there were few good female writers. I apologize for my rather arch tone, as it seems they were definitely looking to expand their reading list rather than making assumptions about the broader world based on it.

I will point out, though, that anyone who says, "Where are the good women writers? How might I possibly find them? There must not be many!" is just plain lazy. If they say, "Oh, those writers aren't good, they're sentimental," then that's a different discussion. If they say, "I want people to tell me what ones they personally enjoy reading, and why," that's a different discussion.
posted by verb at 10:09 AM on June 3, 2011


chaff, i really want to like Lessing's SF (and I likes me some thought-experimenty-stuff), but sometimes I feel like I'm reading a textbook.
posted by lodurr at 10:11 AM on June 3, 2011


I really really can't recommend Anne Michaels' Fugitive Pieces more highly. She's a Canadian poet and the novel is really beautifully written.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 10:16 AM on June 3, 2011


If they say, "Oh, those writers aren't good, they're sentimental," then that's a different discussion.

I actually think that's what Naipaul was on about. It's really no less egregious a claim, but it's a more complicated one. The small grain of possible truth in it could be explained easily in terms of the domains to which women have traditionally been restricted; but there are implicit claims (e.g. that he knows what "sentimentality" is, that it's bad, that women are naturally "sentimental", that whatever he's like is good, etc.) that are really, really narrow-minded, to say the least. Not what one expects of someone one hopes to gain some insight from.
posted by lodurr at 10:16 AM on June 3, 2011


Also, I find a lot of the comments regarding Austen in this thread to be rather odd, but perhaps that's from my own experience. We were never forced to read Pride and Prejudice in high school. We were forced to read A House for Mr. Biswas.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:18 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Tale of Genji. (Wikipedia: "It is sometimes called the world's first novel, the first modern novel, the first psychological novel or the first novel still to be considered a classic.")

That was written by a dick-swinging man, right?
posted by blucevalo at 10:21 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


lodurr: “I mean, I understand that she couches it in an intellectualized context. But all she's doing is rationalizing romantic love, and I think she damn well knew it.”

I understand someone who has just started reading Jane Austen thinking that, but that isn't it at all. There's a depth there that's pretty deceptive. In Austen, romantic love is a proxy for thought about the providential possibilities of universal chance. There's a lot more going on in her books than there seems to be.
posted by koeselitz at 10:22 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I try to read "great literature" to see if there's something to be gained from it, and often there is, but I'm not afraid to put it down if I get bored or can't find the value in it.

If there is one take-away from this long thread it is this. I mean reading, even great literature, should be fun! It should be something where you lose yourself so much you can miss your subway stop on your commute and only realize several stops away. You shouldn't feel when completing it the way you feel after you just went to the gym, or some other thing.

Then there's the current problem where men are still published or I guess promoted and lauded unequally. So there is basically much less great writing by women that is available.

I hear you, and I also think that women often tend to get relegated into, if not chick-lit, then "women's fiction," I can sort of see why that would be so from a marketing perspective, but it is wrong. Two extraordinary women writers, Willa Cather, and Doris Lessing, were not marketed like that when I grew up - they were just marketed as writers, and they are some of my favorite writers (although I admit Lessing sometimes misses the mark a bit) but now they *are* marketed as genre:women's literary fiction. Because of that people - women too - might make assumptions on what kind of fiction it is - and because of the assumptions might pass since they assume it is a genre.

Ditto Flannery O'Connor and Carson McCullers, how would/are they marketed today?

PS This is also probably true for black fiction, gay fiction, and Jewish fiction. And a shame in all of them, since Isaac Bashevis Singer, or Patrick White or Toni Morrison or Octavia Butler truly wrote about the human condition.
posted by xetere at 10:24 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


One day (soon) I will probably become a well known writer. In my fantasies, I use a male pseudonym, pull a Tiptree, and no one ever discovers that I am a woman for many years. Some years after that they discover that I am a sex-change by which time I am retired and can afford to sit back and laugh maniacally as heads explode all around.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 10:37 AM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Diana abu Jaber writing at NPR* makes a point I don't think I've seen here yet: Naipaul is behaving like the colonial oppressors of his Indian ancestors and Trinidadian neighbors.

--
*Ignore the title of the piece. I doubt she intended it to be called "Shut Up, V.S. Naipaul"
posted by lodurr at 10:39 AM on June 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


Just use 'P. Lariat' (and maybe encourage people to think it's "Pete").

I'm sometimes a man of simple pleasures. I just enjoy the idea of discovering that a best-selling author's name is a concealed pun.
posted by lodurr at 10:42 AM on June 3, 2011


Pearl Buck.
posted by boo_radley at 10:49 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


The opinion of Naipaul is, of course complete, bollocks and not surprising to any woman who works in the field. It occurs to me though that not all Mefites may be aware of one of my favorite science fiction writers , Alice Sheldon aka (and more widely known as) James Tiptree, who often used gender differences as a theme in her works and whose life story is related to the original post. Especially the comments of writer/editor Robert Silverberg who , when faced with the rumors of Mr. Tiptree's gender had this to say.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 11:00 AM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Might I most highly recommend "Rebecca" by Daphne Du Maurier
posted by haveanicesummer at 11:01 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Interesting point, poet_lariat. In SF, hardly anyone will know who the hell you're talking about if you say 'Alice Sheldon', but everyone knows 'James Tiptree' (and most know she was a woman). WisCon even gives out what's regarded as a very prestigious award in her name -- except, it's in her pseudonym: The James Tiptree Award. So, WisCon (which is a feminist con, I guess) uses the male pseudonym.

(Fascinating person, Alice Sheldon. Take a look at the signatures on the page linked above this: 3 different pseudonyms, 3 different signatures, all looking like an authentic signature, all looking markedly different. She was a spook; I wonder if she learned that in spook-school. Also has associations with the Hemlock Society.)
posted by lodurr at 11:12 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


... oh, and I second recommending Tiptree. Cyberpunk as we came to know it would not have existed without her novella "The Girl Who Was Plugged In."
posted by lodurr at 11:13 AM on June 3, 2011


So who are the great woman writers that we should all read? I'm reading Atwood right now, but that's a pretty slim cross section.

A few of my faves are Flannery O'Conner, Harper Lee, Willa Cather, Toni Morrison, Rita Dove, and Edna St. Vincent Millay but I'm out of touch with more recent authors... So here's a great big Wikipedia list of writers of the female persuasion to choose from.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:16 AM on June 3, 2011



I will point out, though, that anyone who says, "Where are the good women writers? How might I possibly find them? There must not be many!" is just plain lazy. If they say, "Oh, those writers aren't good, they're sentimental," then that's a different discussion. If they say, "I want people to tell me what ones they personally enjoy reading, and why," that's a different discussion.



Yeah, I was looking for suggestions. Because I looked at my reading list, and it was really awkwardly white and male. I'd like to change that; not because I see anything wrong with my reading list, but because diversity is exciting, and hell, I'm always open to additions to my list.

I know how easy that could've been to misunderstand, so no hard feelings either way, the snark can get a bit thick around here sometimes.

Also, thanks for all the ideas everyone. I'll look out for some of the more interesting names next time I'm in a used bookstore or library.
posted by Stagger Lee at 11:27 AM on June 3, 2011


I am concerned that I have not yet advocated reading Lydia Davis enough in this thread.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:41 AM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


but sometimes I feel like I'm reading a textbook.

I can see that, I haven't read all of her books, but there's certainly a kind of distancing effect in some of her stuff that can feel kind of clinical . . to me it kind of underscores the eerie psychological weirdness of her SF, but it probably works better in the short novels and YMMV. For instance I'll probably never plow through the whole Canopus in Argos series because it looks a bit dry and wonky . . I never got into Foundation either for that same reason.
posted by chaff at 11:42 AM on June 3, 2011


Not yet mentioned:

Eudora Welty.
Yasmina Reza.
Caryl Churchill.
Anne Sexton.
E. Annie Proulx.
Jhumpa Lahiri.
P.D. James.
Patricia Highsmith.
Jane Smiley.
Suzan-Lori Parks.
Alice Munro.
Nadine Gordimer.
Shirley Jackson.
Anna. Deveare. Motherfucking. Smith.

Are some of these women arguably less "worse" authors than BS Naipaul? Sure. Are others arguably better authors? You bet.
posted by tzikeh at 11:44 AM on June 3, 2011 [6 favorites]


Hey, what about the inverse: crappy male writers who, were they not men, would never ever be considered even close to "great"? Hello Philip Roth.
posted by speicus at 11:46 AM on June 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


Lydia Davis is fabulous. So is Shirley Hazzard, Marilyn Robinson, Mary Robison, Mary Gaitskill, Barbara Comyns, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Susan Sontag, Deborah Levy, Jamie Gordon, etc.
posted by OmieWise at 11:47 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hey, what about the inverse: crappy male writers who, were they not men, would never ever be considered even close to "great"? Hello Philip Roth.

Phillip Roth is a great writer, male or no. There was a long discussion of Roth's worth in this thread about his recent Booker International win. It's fine to not like him, but he's a very good writer.
posted by OmieWise at 11:50 AM on June 3, 2011


Shirley Jackson.

Everyone go out and read We Have Always Lived in the Castle because it is better than sex.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:52 AM on June 3, 2011 [6 favorites]


I have come to love this thread! My dirty secret: I've been meaning to post an askme request for great female authors, but have been too ashamed to admit my own sexist reading habits. I was considering asking anonymously!

Although I've read a lot of the women recommended here already (some I've liked well enough, a couple I consider "great") there are many who are new to me. I have about 10 open tabs now to remind me get all these new authors added to my library holds list.

Thank you!

/female person who earns her living as a writer
posted by serazin at 11:54 AM on June 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


Kelly Link
posted by nathancaswell at 11:59 AM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Oh oh yes Kelly Link. She's awesome.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:01 PM on June 3, 2011


You know, Poet_Lariat, your link makes it look as if Sheldon committed suicide partly because Tiptree was outed as a woman.

Which would mean that, for all her brilliance, Sheldon was still an inmate of the prison built of bricks of opinions like Naipaul's of women writers, and could not even take herself seriously except by looking in from the outside and seeing herself as a man:

Ten years later, shortly before her death by suicide, Alli Sheldon wrote:

"My secret world had been invaded, and the attractive figure of James Tiptree--he did strike several people as attractive--was revealed as nothing but an old lady in Virginia."


What a tragedy.
posted by jamjam at 12:02 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Everyone go out and read We Have Always Lived in the Castle because it is better than sex.

One of my secret dreams is to adapt that story as an opera. Merricat's arias would bring down the motherfucking house...literally.
posted by Asparagirl at 12:03 PM on June 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


That would be awesome and I would buy ten tickets.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:10 PM on June 3, 2011


Me too. I love that novel, and I've given it to a lot of people to read.
posted by OmieWise at 12:11 PM on June 3, 2011


You know, Poet_Lariat, your link makes it look as if Sheldon committed suicide partly because Tiptree was outed as a woman.

How you get to that conclusion is beyond understanding. A 30 second google search would bring up anything anyone needed to know regarding her suicide, anyone who wasn't simply trolling for reaction that is. And not even a good troll at that.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 12:13 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


jamjam, i hadn't noticed that about Poet_Lariat's link, but as far as I know it's not the case. Sheldon euthanized her terminally-ill husband and then killed herself; I believe it was classified as a murder-suicide under VA law. At the time she died, she was fantastically popular; there may have been personal backlash but since she hardly saw anybody in person that probably didn't bother her. As I recall from the time period, she was resolutely not pigeonholed as a "woman writer".
posted by lodurr at 12:16 PM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


This thread is a lot more better when we talk about books that are awesome rather than whether some dipshit is a dipshit or not.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:16 PM on June 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


I was giddy when Hilary Mantel won the Booker... I love all her work, though it can be strange, and perhaps not for everyone – but I highly recommend "Wolf Hall" to anyone. I never imagined I would find Thomas Cromwell so compelling.

We have really only now entered a time when being a woman and an author doesn't necessarily require a significantly atypical set of circumstances. Historically, women writers (women achievers of all flavors, in fact) needed to have some combination of independent means, unusual support, or particularly free-thinking/advanced social setting. Virginia Woolf, for example, had all three. And it's probably no coincidence that so many woman writers were unmarried... or abandoned husbands and even children. Had Jane Austen actually married, I suppose we would have been unable to enjoy far fewer of her trenchant observations about courtship and marriage in her time – perhaps none at all.

In the case of nearly every successful woman writer before present times, it's not difficult to look at their bios and find how/where their lives were a significant departure from the life of a typical woman of their age. They had to be able to survive, which usually meant having control of their own money; not at all a given, even for the wealthy. They had to believe they could write, when all opinion was they could not, because they were female, and that they should not, because it wasn't seemly. They had to be liberally educated, when that sort of education for girls was unusual. They almost always had to have the (eccentric) support of families, and husbands if they did marry, or be at the center of some pivotal place and time in history that allowed the lucky few access to opportunities and experience not available to the many.

But even for educated women of means with supportive families or husbands, it's always been fairly difficult to be anything like a traditional wife and mother and do great works. If VS Naipaul had to even deal with getting his own supper together every night, I suspect he would feel profoundly discommoded. The fact that none of this has seemed to intruded on his consciousness at all makes me think he is stupid or about a half-inch deep. Why the proclamation when he clearly hasn't given it any degree of thought? It feels very much like something is gnawing at him in this regard, and I am curious what it might be. By all appearances he seems a very jealous/suspicious and discontented little guy; I wonder what strange bee is in his bonnet?
posted by taz at 12:16 PM on June 3, 2011 [7 favorites]


(By which I mean Naipaul)
posted by shakespeherian at 12:17 PM on June 3, 2011


I'm feeling better for only getting halfway through Half a Life.

Also, I just realized a couple of nights ago that I don't really read that many female writers, and I'd like to change that. This thread is full of fantastic suggestions.
posted by no mind at 12:22 PM on June 3, 2011


taz: ... stupid or about a half-inch deep.

This encapsulates my issue with the "[s]he's a dipshit but boy what a writer" defense/deference: What I'm looking for from "great" writing isn't just flashy prose, but some kind of deeper observation. And I just feel like that's a lot less likely to get from someone who has such a shallow outlook.

It happens, of course, though I feel like I see it more with people who are obsessed than who are shallow. Hunter Thompson, who overall I don't much care for, had some wonderful insights. (I think we "lost a great writer" in him.) When it's with someone obsessed you can suppose that it's talent or the result of deep involvement with their obsession; when it's from someone who's shallow, I first suspect accident above anything else.
posted by lodurr at 12:25 PM on June 3, 2011


While Shirley Jackson's most famous piece is undoubtedly "The Lottery," I also highly recommend the short story What a Thought, which, to my mind, is infinitely more upsetting.
posted by tzikeh at 12:39 PM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


You know, Poet_Lariat, your link makes it look as if Sheldon committed suicide partly because Tiptree was outed as a woman.

How you get to that conclusion is beyond understanding. A 30 second google search would bring up anything anyone needed to know regarding her suicide, anyone who wasn't simply trolling for reaction that is. And not even a good troll at that.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 12:13 PM


Advocates for Sheldon like you do indeed render detractors such as Naipaul purely superfluous, Poet_Lariat.
posted by jamjam at 12:52 PM on June 3, 2011


Glad to see Murasaki Shikibu has had her shout-outs. Sei Shônagon is another. Not many (any?) French women mentioned, so: Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras, Nathalie Sarraute (love her stuff), Annie Ernaux.

If you're into dark psychological theatre, try some Sarah Kane.

Haikus by Ryôkan might have been lost were it not for the poetess-nun Teishin.
posted by fraula at 12:56 PM on June 3, 2011


I'd like to see how the response would be different if he had said women are better than men at writing.

I'd agree if he cited Dickens. That guy was worse than Austen.
posted by hal_c_on at 1:02 PM on June 3, 2011


What I'm looking for from "great" writing isn't just flashy prose, but some kind of deeper observation.

It's a quirk of human psychology that someone can really cut to the core of one aspect of life, like, say, the experience of being an immigrant (male) Indian in 1950's London, and can be totally blinded by his views on another subject to the point that whole swathes of experience will be inaccessible to him and he won't even know it. Surely we can't treat "depth" as some kind of primary quality that one either has or doesn't. It's always more complicated than that. From what little of Naipaul I've read he hasn't struck me as "flashy", so much as very focused on certain kinds of experience from certain kinds of people. It's a shame that he's a raging sexist and I'm glad that this post has spurred such interesting critical dialogue. Also, keep it coming with favorite/brilliant female writers! I think Hilary Mantel will be next on my reading list.
posted by no mind at 1:04 PM on June 3, 2011


Surely we can't treat "depth" as some kind of primary quality that one either has or doesn't.

And I for one wouldn't. Hence my comments.
posted by lodurr at 1:08 PM on June 3, 2011


And it's probably no coincidence that so many woman writers were unmarried... or abandoned husbands and even children.

O HAI THERE MURIEL SPARK.

Had to make sure she got mentioned in this thread somewhere.
posted by Asparagirl at 1:09 PM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think that quality prose can unearth those deeper observations. And equally so, I think that we're all capable of deep observations, but without the language to express ourselves, we're incapable of properly sharing those observations. I really honestly believe that the "depth" we're talking about can not be isolated from prose.

"They should have sent a poet."
posted by Stagger Lee at 1:16 PM on June 3, 2011


Why are there two instances of "maybe Gertrude Stein" in this thread? No maybes! No qualifications for Gertrude Stein!
posted by naju at 1:29 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


/smacks Naipaul across the face with a copy of "Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell"

Sabers at dawn. My seconds will be in touch.
posted by Celsius1414 at 1:32 PM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think that quality prose can unearth those deeper observations

But can it still do so if they've never been made?

An empty glass remains empty, even if it is very fine indeed.
posted by lodurr at 1:34 PM on June 3, 2011


This thread is a lot more better when we talk about books that are awesome rather than whether some dipshit is a dipshit or not.

Fifty comments into this thread, I would not have thought I'd be favoriting it and returning to it with my Goodreads open so I can add all the books of the women writers that I didn't know of previously.

So, weirdly, thanks, Sir VS, for being such a dipshit so I could grow my to-read list with lots of great women writers.
posted by gladly at 1:38 PM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


A link so you can test whether you can recognise penis writers vs vagina writers

Mixed results on this: on the one hand, I only got two out of ten right (admittedly, I didn't spend much time thinking about it). On the other, one of my few successes was identifying V.S. Naipaul as a man -- so he must be very manly indeed. I stand in awe of his manliness.
posted by steambadger at 1:39 PM on June 3, 2011


More recommendations, that I think nobody's mentioned -
Elizabeth Hand is a seriously badass writer.

So is Joy Harjo.

I wish I could remember who-all I'm forgetting here, because it'll probably come back to me as soon as I hit 'post.'
posted by hap_hazard at 1:41 PM on June 3, 2011


Offhand, some of my favorite women writers not yet mentioned (I think): Ann Radcliffe, Dawn Powell, Colette, Sybille Bedford, Rebecca West, Elizabeth David, Elaine Dundy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Kennedy Fraser, Jan Morris, Olivia Manning, Mary McCarthy.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:44 PM on June 3, 2011


Mixed results on this: on the one hand, I only got two out of ten right

It's funny - I took the test and guessed randomly, barely skimming the examples, and got 7/10.
posted by rtha at 1:50 PM on June 3, 2011


Let us not forget Mary Shelley, even if she must be tarred with the "genre writer" brush given the science fictional nature of Frankenstein.
posted by ashirys at 2:04 PM on June 3, 2011


I'll enthusiastically second Elizabeth Hand, hap_hazard.
posted by taz at 2:08 PM on June 3, 2011


Maud Newton helps put Naipul's proclamations in perspective.
A rundown of his recent assessments:
# Henry James is “the worst writer in the world.”
# Thomas Hardy is “an unbearable writer” who “doesn’t know how to compose a paragraph.”
# Dickens is repetitive.
# Jane Austen was a “terrible vapid woman.”
# Hemingway was “so busy being an American” that he “didn’t know where he was.”
I'm not sure if I think he's less of a sexist and more of a crackpot now, or if he's just quite a bit of both.
posted by gladly at 2:09 PM on June 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


Interesting, gladly. So, if Theroux is right, we should be on the lookout for the appearance of a new Naipaul work of distinction for people to add to their lists, but never actually read.

Also, we need to add Lionel Shriver to our lady list, though I have to admit that I've only read "We Have to Talk about Kevin" (which was absolutely searing) so far.
posted by taz at 2:28 PM on June 3, 2011


Ask Henry Miller while you're at it. If you want to talk about self-indulgent tripe, he wrote a lot of it.

His nonfiction is actually quite good; a very passionate & eclectic arty-literary autodidact, who devoured books by the bucketload & was onto a lot of writers (especially outside of the European canon) at a time when they were far from household names.

In particular, I'm thinking of Stand Still Like the Hummingbird, Big Sur & the Oranges of Heironymous Bosch, The Airconditioned Nightmare and The Books in my Life - the latter of which I've re-read more than any other book, and which was a springboard to a lot of further reading, including writers like Ionesco & the Comte de Lautreamont. He was wrong about Jean Giono, though; that guy's a total hack.

Seconding Murasaki Shikibu (The Tale of Genji) & Sei Shonagon (The Pillow Book, which is sublime), Ivy Compton-Burnett & also a shoutout to Luisa Valenzuela. See, I knew they'd come with a bit of prompting and a good night's sleep!

I have to respectfully disagree with Simone de Beauvoir as a novelist, though. She was as terrible a writer of fiction as Sartre; all cardboard characters as leaky vessels for their polemics.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:29 PM on June 3, 2011


Oh, Lionel Shriver's already at the top of the to-read list; thanks, taz.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:31 PM on June 3, 2011


Margaret Atwood has a posse.

I've found Atwood's work to be almost entirely meritless. Flat, overlong, unoriginal.

Alice Munro (to name Canadian who can fuckin' write), Flannery O'Connor, and Connie Willis come to mind immediately as writers who I'd rank head and shoulders above Naipaul in every way.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 2:50 PM on June 3, 2011


I don't think it is unreasonable to teach Caryl Churchill side by side with Samuel Beckett. Indeed, most modern dramatic literature courses do just that, and not just because she's the "token female playwright." She's included because she's one of the modern eras great playwrights.

There's obviously no objective way to determine whether one is a "better" playwright. Beckett might be a better known playwright, but it still comes down to subjective judgment when one likes one more than the other.

I'll add playwright Paula Vogel to our list of top dramatists as well.

As well as Lady Gregory.

And, of course, there's also Hrotsvitha.
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:52 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


You know another great female writer? Evelyn Waugh.
posted by Deathalicious at 3:05 PM on June 3, 2011


Prospero (Economist) sums it up pretty well; concluding 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.
posted by adamvasco at 3:16 PM on June 3, 2011


I actually believed Evelyn Waugh was a woman for far, far too long.

I said it upthread, but I once again have to mention bel Canto, because this thread has had me thinking about it all day long. It's just such a perfect answer (in my mind, anyway) to not only Naipaul's bullshit, but to any of the standard claims made about female authors.

1.) It's not genre. It could have been, could have looked like it from the description, but even then it would be classified as, I don't know, a thriller, maybe? In any case, it takes a thriller set-up and turns it into something absolutely genre-defying. (And I have absolutely no problems with genre writing, it's just that Patchett does so much more here.)

2.) It's not sentimental. Are there love plots in it? Oh lord yes. But they are mature and, more than anything, fucking earned. Never in my life have I read a "romance" as affecting as the central one in this book, which, again, is hardly the entire point of the novel.

3.) Limited world view? The dozens of characters come from all over the globe and from as many different viewpoints. She shows a mastery of knowledge of South American governmental strategies regarding both economic growth and P.R. disasters, the top-to-bottom organization and internal politics of guerrilla cells, the Japanese electronics industry, and opera at it's most subtle and serene layers of appreciation.

4.) Oh, and she writes men as well or perhaps better than any male author I've ever read.

Please, if you haven't yet, read this book. Please.
posted by Navelgazer at 3:30 PM on June 3, 2011


"I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not."

Naipaul sounds like a pretty poor reader. I can tell by the second line, because it's generally the author's name, which comes after the title.
posted by tumid dahlia at 4:01 PM on June 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


And I'm not sure if we've yet pointed out the irony of an author complaining about a "limited worldview" while simultaneously disregarding the human experience of over half the world's population.
posted by Navelgazer at 4:04 PM on June 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


Mate, that puts blokes in the minority. Therefore we are oppressed.
posted by tumid dahlia at 4:05 PM on June 3, 2011


So who does he like?
posted by IndigoJones at 4:24 PM on June 3, 2011


Or marguerite duras?

I want to third Marguerite because every time I open one of her books I'm sucked in and next thing I know the book has ended and the cat is purring on my lap.
posted by ersatz at 4:28 PM on June 3, 2011


Willa Cather, a thousand times, yes. And Elizabeth Bishop, yes. yes. yes.

As a disclaimer, level-setting exercise I should say that I loved Persuasion best of Austen's books, mostly because I thought the characterizations were the finest cut, and that it was as much the story of Anne's liberation from her own constraints as it was a romance. It does have the closest relationship to the modern romance structure (Love enables a woman to grown into herself and she is rewarded by heroic love), but Austen transcends what later becomes a genre formula through careful pacing and strong (sometimes hilarious) characterizations.

Among the unmentioned: Irène Némirovsky's Suite Francaise was the best thing I read last year. Hands down. It's a remarkable book, especially when you consider she was writing it in 1941-2, as events were unfolding.

I also loved Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God when I read it in High School, and I don't think she's been mentioned yet. I found her characterizations vivid, almost painterly, and it captured my imagination in a way that made me so sad when I finished the book and it was over.
posted by julen at 4:30 PM on June 3, 2011


LYNDA BARRY!

Is a wonderful writer as well.
posted by hap_hazard at 5:00 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'd also like to launch a defense of J.K. Rowling, if only because of the furious defense being given to Roald Dahl (Rowling's most appropriate point of comparison) in another thread taking place right now. She doesn't much need it, of course - she's richer than God and won't see her legacy fade for a long, long time at least - but what she has done is relevant here, I think.

For one thing, she published initially under the name "J.K. Rowling" because it was believed that her books wouldn't sell if her name was "Joanna Rowling." I know that hindsight is 20/20 but seriously, Bloomsbury was worried about Harry Potter making a mark because of a feminine name being attached. Hell, maybe they were right; we'll never know.

The second thing is that obviously her books are never going to be compared to Joyce or Proust, partially because they lack the flare of reading them for the sake of winning at reading. (For the record, I adore Joyce, and find his works to be worth the difficulty of them, but far too many net-critics make the mistake of believing that if difficulty brings reward, that equals literary superiority. I've never read Proust, though I guess I should.)

More importantly and to that fact, they are going for very, very different things. Ulysses turns an absolutely pedestrian day in the lives of two Dubliners into something epic. The Harry Potter series, in contrast, turns an almost-decade-spanning saga of a boy learning magic to take on the apocalyptic dark wizard who killed his parents and threatens the world into something, well, everyday. This is a compliment, as the books wouldn't have worked nearly as well without this touch.

Time and time again, she makes the fantastical commonplace, on purpose, with that purpose underpinning her theme that decency and humanity are paramount no matter what power you may hold. She makes an impossible world feel normal, so that when trouble comes it feels more real than any fantasy had ever portrayed it.

It will be said that her writing showed little of an authorial voice, which misses the point and is also untrue. She has a voice, which shines through in her greatest passages, when we need to understand the full import of events not just to the world but to individual characters. But for the most part she's writing a rollicking story, which also happens to be a classic bildungsroman spanning thousands of pages.

She is, more than anything else, a craftswoman building as epic a tale as we've seen in our lifetimes, with intricate details, enthralling millions not just intellectually, but emotionally, and she deserves the proper credit for her enormous accomplishment.
posted by Navelgazer at 5:05 PM on June 3, 2011 [16 favorites]


If you need any further convincing that Naipaul is an idiot, read this interview.
posted by A dead Quaker at 5:13 PM on June 3, 2011


Oh and chalk up one more vote for Lydia Davis. Read the Marie Curie story that was in Harpers and immediately bought her collection.
posted by nathancaswell at 6:00 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh oh yes Kelly Link. She's awesome.

Have you read Aimee Bender? Quite similar, though I read her first novel and didn't like it as much as her collection of short stories.
posted by nathancaswell at 6:02 PM on June 3, 2011


Navelgazer, that's the best outline of Rowling I've yet encountered, and you have encouraged me to give the Potters a try.
posted by tumid dahlia at 6:10 PM on June 3, 2011


I would quibble with some of your phrasing, Navelgazer: as epic a tale as we've seen in our lifetimes andit feels more real than any fantasy had ever portrayed it in particular, since I don't believe either of those statements are literally true. I mean, Tolkien is still "in our lifetime" for a lot of people and that's clearly far more epic a tale. But quibbles aside I agree with your main thrust that Rowling's writing has emotional power and that some of the criticism of it misses the point. I'm not a great fan of hers but I understand why others are.

Sometimes I think that the value of a plain ol' engrossing, fun tale is overlooked by many. Yes, prose style is important. But so is telling a good story.
posted by Justinian at 6:35 PM on June 3, 2011


My favourite author is Anne Tyler. Her writing just sings. Helen Garner is also excellent.
posted by h00py at 2:43 AM on June 4, 2011


Well said, Navelgazer. I love defending Rowling any chance I can get, but since you wrapped that up nicely I can instead do my favorite literary parlor trick and dissect the opening line of the book.

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

A part of making kids who've never read a book read books is coming up with ways to ensnare them, and this might be one of the best hooks I've ever read. This is the line that's to frame the rest of the series, and it's not Harry's or a wizard's perspective... it's the Dursleys, Muggles and proud of it, proud to a nasty degree. We've established our first antagonists of the books, and they are the bad guys simply because they normal. What a way to shepherd in a bunch of abnormal children to your world!

With this one line we establish them as adults who are not only proud to be "perfectly" normal, but who have that little snotty jab at the end just to establish their own self-righteousness. They're aggressive to defend their normalness. (And we'll find soon that they're aggressive because one of their relatives is so abnormal; eventually we'll learn that Petunia Dursley's obsession with being normal has roots in her childhood growing up with her witch sister.)

God, I used to have a whole essay dealing with the way the first few paragraphs slowly unwind away from the Dursleys and towards Harry. They're terrifically precise. Rowling has sloppy moments, especially in her final, superlong books, but she always has passages of great intelligence, even when their style is humble.
posted by Rory Marinich at 4:19 AM on June 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


One of the best things I can say about Rowling is that she makes me not particularly care about her series' failings.
posted by haveanicesummer at 6:11 AM on June 4, 2011


I'm pretty disgusted with myself: A Literature-teaching feminist with a bookshelf sadly freighted with a 5:1 ratio of male to female authors. I came in to mention Edith Wharton. I can't believe she hasn't been mentioned here yet. Wow.

Also Rose Tremain, Pat Barker, Jane Smiley, Isabel Allende [House of Spirits is one of my favourites], Zadie Smith, Anne Michaels [Fugitive Pieces is a masterpiece], even Annie Proulx at a pinch. I love Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown. It's mentioned with disdain in Educating Rita, but it's a wonderful book.
posted by honey-barbara at 7:27 AM on June 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


In my reading life, "The Stone Angel," by Margaret Laurence has compared to Tolstoy, Nabokov, Garcia-Marquez and others. I hope some of you will read it. Seems a shame that her name hasn't come up 270 comments into the thread.
posted by Trochanter at 9:12 AM on June 4, 2011


I believe J.K. Rowling had the best idea for a children's book of our time. But, to have her name even mentioned with the other names in this thread is... well, what time's the next rapture.
posted by Trochanter at 9:34 AM on June 4, 2011


I'd like to second tzikeh's nomination of Eudora Welty, whose short stories are flawless and wonderful. Start with "Why I Live at the P.O." and go from there.
posted by steambadger at 10:50 AM on June 4, 2011


I believe J.K. Rowling had the best idea for a children's book of our time.

Ideas are dime a dozen and others had this one before she did. It was the execution, as it always is. Execution and luck.

She has narrative flow and some invention, but the characters are flat and the plots have holes too wide even for magic to fill up. I suppose she will last, but you know, I'm not positive I would put money on it.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:43 PM on June 4, 2011


A few women prose writers from South Asia, who have written in English and Urdu, just from the top of my head, and who have are up there with the men. Incidentally VS is now married to Pakistani woman, named Nadira, who for years was a columnist in one of the national dailies:

Ismat Chughtai (Urdu)
Arundhati Roy
Sara Suleri
Bapsi Sidhwa
Atiya Hosain
Kiran Desai (and her mum, Anita, who has not received the same acclaim)
Mumtaz Shahnawaz
Kishwar Naheed (Urdu)
Kamila Shamsie

Sarojini Naidu (who wrote verse in English)
Fehmida Riaz (who wrote verse in Urdu)
Parveen Shakir (who wrote verse in Urdu)

Here is a more comprehensive list:

In history: Hameeda Bano, Mughal Emperor Humayun's wife, who penned the "Humayun-nama" in the 16th century. There were others too ... I just can't recall at this time!

From the Arab world, from the top of my head:

Nawaal el-Sadawi
Ahdaf Soueif
posted by Azaadistani at 5:45 PM on June 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


There were others too ... I just can't recall at this time!

Don't forget Mirabai!
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:40 AM on June 5, 2011


I wish I could resuscitate Dorothy Parker from the dead right now so she could smite this man with a raw couplet of mass destruction.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 4:42 AM on June 5, 2011 [5 favorites]


Well, I was thinking, from what we've learned about his personal life and point of view, it's clear that Naipaul is severely emotionally stunted – so it's really no wonder that he finds a great deal of work "sentimental." For him, reading any book that actually encompasses any of the tenderer normal human emotions must be like a colorblind person reading "The Book of Red and Green."
posted by taz at 5:43 AM on June 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm just going to mention Anne Tyler again because she should never, ever be dismissed. She is just amazing. Her books are slices of life. She should be renowned as one of the most superb writers ever to be published. I would definitely put her up there as one of the best.
posted by h00py at 6:15 AM on June 5, 2011


Ideas are dime a dozen and others had this one before she did. It was the execution, as it always is.

I'll buy that only in the sense that she was workmanlike enough to finish her book. That old "ideas are a dime a dozen" aphorism is about the thousands of people who never suck it up and write their books. Library shelves are stuffed with YA books written by authors of Rowling's calibre that rot there because they have ideas at their core that don't capture a YA's imagination.

Superbly skilled execution can take a lame idea, like say "rat wants to be a chef" and turn it into something that sort of works.

But, "kids go to old-timey wizard school" is a (let me check) 798 million dollar idea.

I guess she could have blown it. I'll give her that. She didn't blow it.
posted by Trochanter at 12:26 PM on June 5, 2011


798 million is only Rowling's worth, by the way. Lord knows what the franchise has actually done.
posted by Trochanter at 12:28 PM on June 5, 2011


The most financialy rewarding idea is not the "best" idea, when it comes to literature, in my opinion.
posted by serazin at 7:47 PM on June 5, 2011


Here's a question: Is it possible that we are turning a corner on marginalization of women in literature?

If so, how will we be able to tell? What measures will we look at, going forward? (I take it as given that women have been heavily marginalized in the past and continue to be so in many if not most regards.)

Related question (& which inspires my initial question): Is the nature of "genre" changing, as a result of changing publishing and book-marketing models? And as a result, are we coming to a point where genre is no longer a form of ghettoization?
posted by lodurr at 6:30 AM on June 6, 2011


Since this is a list of great Women Writers, I want to mention Elizabeth Knox, and her novel Black Oxen, which changed everything.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:52 PM on June 6, 2011


But, "kids go to old-timey wizard school" is a (let me check) 798 million dollar idea.

It's been done before elsewhere, more than once.

As I said, execution and a lot of luck. Diana Wynn Jones for one could write circles around her. And with a very similar idea, did so.

And frankly, although I do believe that authors come to similar ideas independently, I find her claim to have been utterly unaware of any of her predecessors to be - unproven. Perhaps the lawyers told her to dummy up.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:45 PM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Maybe you're right. She made good use of the idea. Or maybe by "idea" I mean "idea" in the sense of her outline. The index-cards-on-a-bulletin-board stage of the process. How about: it's a good story, but not a good book.

I remember a school teacher who said she was reading the first book aloud to her class, and that there was a huge cheer at the climax of the Quiddich match.

That's successful writing of a sort definitely. And really, my impression of the first book was positive. Although with BIG reservations. Again, I loved the story, but her writing never had anything numinous about it, to me.
posted by Trochanter at 8:12 PM on June 7, 2011


I've read a lot of kid's SF&F, as a kid and as an adult. (In fact, I'm reading a children's novel by Terry Pratchett right now).

J.K. Rowling is not at all original. The opening of the first Harry Potter is cribbed from Dahl, the later part from dozens of boarding school novels from the early to mid 20th century. People always said HP was a modern "classic" - that's because it's style completely apes classic children's lit.

But what Rowling brings - and what makes HP 1,2 and 3 more successful novels than many more complex and thoughtful books - is a clear, engaging writing style and a tight and driving plotting which kept me up all night reading the end of HP 1. Her novels are simply more exciting than most books. I might be far more moved and affected by Pratchett, but his plots are not quite as gripping. (And I'm consciously saying "plot" not story -- what I'm talking about is pacing, organization of the events in the story, etc).

Sadly, she lost that driving plot by HP 4, and the series began to drag. I haven't even read HP 7.
posted by jb at 3:37 PM on June 8, 2011


Exactly. It was the plotting and a few little details that got me hooked on HP, not any particular originality or skill with dialogue, etc. The Dursleys giving him an old sock for a present, and Dumbledore's speech before the first feast ("I'd just like to say a few words before we begin: sherbert. fizz. cupboard. and boing." or something like that) made me giggle out loud. Oh, and the boarding school angle - I miss the old English style school stories, with midnight feasts in-between adventures. But by the fourth book she'd lost a lot of the sense of fun and had built the plot up into an unmanageable quantity.
posted by harriet vane at 11:36 PM on June 8, 2011


Just to be clear, I wasn't making a claim for originality. One of the impressions the first book had on me was that of a pastiche.

The only legal scuffle I had heard of, before IndigoJones pointed out the others, was the one over the "muggles" term, and it didn't surprise me that it had been used before because, even on first reading, it sounded trite to me. A lot of the book did.

Agree that the later books plowed into a slough of plotting and a phone book of names.
posted by Trochanter at 6:28 AM on June 9, 2011


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