Yesterday, the Nobel Prize winning author, V. S. Naipaul, said a lot of very stupid things about women writers. As an English professor, as a woman, and as an author, these comments obviously pissed me off. I ranted a bit about them on Twitter, and they helped set the tone for what was a really bizarre day for me, yesterday.
That said, one of the things that bothered me was seeing tweets, Facebook comments, and online commentary in which people expressed the idea that they will either no longer read Naipaul, or that they will refuse to start reading him. In other words, they've dismissed him as a writer because, when it comes to women, he's a first rate twat.
And yet, he's also a celebrity--and not just a celebrity, but a celebrated intellectual, a Nobel laureate, even a knight! How can he get something so utterly wrong, and be right about anything else? And does that mean he's not worthy of anything he's won?
The fact is that really, really intelligent people can have enormous blind spots. They can be awesomely intelligent in many, many realms--but be ludicrously stupid when it comes to particular issues. Naipaul is a great example of this sort of shortfall: before he harangued women, he'd made offensive comments about Africans, various former colonies, former-colonials in general, and the overweight, to name but a few.
So what do we do with our celebrities, especially our intellectual celebrities, when they reveal their hidden depths of twatocity? Do we throw out the baby, the bathwater, the tub, the water, and the rubber duckie?
My problem with this stance can best be summarized in two points, which I think are mutualistic of one another.
First of all, Naipaul isn't saying anything that I don't hear, all the time, as a female writer and reader. Men and women constantly ask me, "Would a man enjoy your books, or are they just for women?" Think about everything that statement implies, people. Have you ever asked the ticket booth person at the movie theater, "Will a woman enjoy this action film?" And yet, in discussing Naipaul on Facebook, a very funny male writer friend of mine talked about how, upon buying tickets to a movie for him and his wife, the boy behind the cash register warned, "You know this is a chick flick, right?" On the other side of the cultural spectrum from the spotty teenager, meanwhile, Brett Easton Ellis warns that "women can't direct," as they lack "the male gaze."
In other words, across the cultural spectrum, women are dismissed every day as artists. We write "books for women" and enjoy "chick-flicks," and it's our own brothers, husbands, sons, friends, neighbors, and/or colleagues who are doing the dismissing. We even do it ourselves! I've heard myself saying, "Yes, it's written by a woman, but I think you'll like it," or, "I hate chick-flicks." I think I'm being either helpful or honest, but what I'm really doing is pandering to cultural stereotypes about the efficacy of female art (which such usages suggest is specific) in comparison to male art (which such usages suggest is universal).
So Naipaul isn't alone, and--at least to me, as a woman--he's not the scariest shark in the waters. Give me a hundred Ivory Tower academics making vaguely feudal pronouncements over the spate of active politicians in office, people with actual power, currently trying to strip away women's reproductive health rights or redefine rape.
Secondly, I think the stance of refusing to read Naipaul because we disagree with his personal politics means we cut off any insights we might gain into his character, empathy for why he's gone on such a silly path, and any understanding of how his particular prejudices are part and parcel of why he's considered a genius. We're never going to understand prejudices, be they racial, religious, or gender-based, unless we engage with those who embrace them. Nor are we going to understand how people benefit from having such prejudices in our society, unless we explore their thinking and how their thinking fits into the world they live in. Think about it: Naipaul has been given the greatest awards a man can win in Western society. Instead of assuming he's won them despite his politics, I think we're better off assuming he's won them because of his politics.
We need to understand how those politics work, if we're to combat them. And boy, are we living in a day and age where women have a shocking amount to combat.
Don't get me wrong: I can understand not wanting to financially support Naipaul. To be honest, I'm probably not going to put him on a syllabus, or buy his own work myself. That doesn't mean, however, that it's not available in libraries or on the shelves of friends.
Furthermore, as women and as rational thinkers, I think we owe it to ourselves not only to understand the enemy, but understand why that enemy is considered a genius, and how that "genius" is intertwined with his plethora of prejudices. For, while I wish Naipaul was just a kooky writer living in antiquity, as some have dismissed him to be, I think he's very much of his time. And while we've come so far, ladies, we can't assume we get to rest on our laurels.
Not least because those laurels keep getting given to men like V. S. Naipaul.