The furor is at least a week old and has seemingly given way to newer feeding frenzies such as Weinergate. Yet, the uproar over VS Naipaul's recent pronouncements lingers in my mind.
Heralded for decades as the greatest living writer of English prose, Naipaul is no stranger to controversy. He has been characterized as a sadist, wife beater, whore-chaser and adulterer. His arrogance is legend.
So what has Naipaul, fellow Trinidadian, winner of the Nobel prize for literature, done this time to provoke the wrath of readers everywhere? Exhibit A: Excerpts from his interview with the Royal Geographic Society . When asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match, Naipaul replied: "I don't think so." Of Jane Austen he said he "couldn't possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world". He elaborates: "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."
According to the great one, women are sentimental and have a narrow view of the world. "And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too." He tosses the expression "feminine tosh" around.
Cue collective screaming on the part of discerning readers of both genders, a stampede to hurl the work of acclaimed women writers in his face, and impassioned avowals to boycott his books.
My initial horror fast gave way to restrained amusement, then outright mirth. Just reading the comments on the Guardian article elicited numerous guffaws; I even had to Google British slang to find out the meaning of some of the more anatomically baffling insults wielded at the man. Here's a random sampling of the epithets:
"Delusional and sick" - "A waste of space" - "Narcissistic old bore" - "A total tool" - "Silly old fart" - "Mega-misogynist" - "Grumpy old git" - "A bit of a d**k" - "A twat" - and this beauty, "A prize berk". (Wow.)
Why my lighthearted reaction? To quote one Guardian commenter: "Perhaps Naipaul the man is worthy of contempt [but] his novels are generally sublime." I have learnt never, ever, to confuse the writer (or actor, or painter) with his creative work. If we were to dismiss writers on account of their character flaws we readers would have lean pickings indeed.
As a matter of fact, we might have no pickings at all.