Nobel laureate's remarks about 'inferiority' of female authors provoke furious responses from Keri Hulme and Francine Prose
VS Naipaul has been described as a "misogynist prick" and a "slug" by the Booker prize-winning New Zealand novelist Keri Hulme for his dismissal of female writers.
Earlier this month, in an event at the Royal Geographic Society, the Nobel laureate claimed that "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." He criticised women authors for their "sentimentality" and "narrow view of the world", going on to reject Jane Austen for her "sentimental ambitions" and Diana Athill for writing "feminine tosh".
But the reclusive Hulme, who won the Booker for her only novel to date, The Bone People, in 1985, was far from sentimental in her response, calling Naipaul "a misogynist prick whose works are dying". Writing on the New Zealand books site Beattie's Book Blog, she said that Naipaul "accurately foresaw their relevance three decades ago. 'They will not survive me.'"
"As he ages, his nasty behaviours – and judgments – become ever more wince-making. Many thousand women writers both outrank, and will out-survive, this slug," said Hulme.
Hulme's feelings about Naipaul were echoed by the bestselling American author Francine Prose, who has revisited the acclaimed essay Scent of a Woman's Ink: Are women writers really inferior? which she wrote for Harper's Magazine in 1998. Thirteen years ago, Prose explored what she dubbed gynobibliophobia, pointing to Norman Mailer's comments that "the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquillé in mannequin's whimsy, or else bright and stillborn" and that "a good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls".
Then, Prose wrote that "in the future ... the only distinction that will matter will be between good and bad writing". Going back to the topic again today, she said that the Naipaul controversy "has made it clear (in case it needed clarification) that 'before' is 'now'".
"The notion of women's inferiority apparently won't go away. Of course, the idea that Naipaul imagines he is a better writer than Jane Austen would be simply hilarious if the prejudice it reveals weren't still so common and didn't have such a damaging effect on what some of us have chosen to do with our lives," wrote Prose. "I suppose a writer should be happy when a piece she wrote more than 10 years ago seems as fresh and as pertinent as if it had been written yesterday. But in this case, I don't find it a reason for celebration or self-congratulation. Honestly, I'd rather that 'Scent of a Woman's Ink' seemed dated: a period piece about a problem women no longer have."
Perhaps both writers have been taking tips in literary feuds from Christopher Hitchens, himself no stranger to a writerly battle, who told the New York Times that "a really first-rate bust-up must transcend the limits of 'an entertaining side show' and involve playing for high moral and intellectual stakes".