I was a bit flippant in suggesting no one get bent out of shape over Naipaul’s absurd sexism without giving further explanation.  And Nicole, over at confessions of a booklush, makes a series of strong points in favor of getting all sorts of bent out of shape. She writes:

Because that would require me to act as though Naipaul’s words aren’t symptomatic of this culture, that he didn’t just express what I bet a lot of other people actually BELIEVE.

Here’s my thinking.  First, have you read Sir Vidia’s Shadow?  If no, you should.  It is a beautifully crafted portrait of literary friendship and mentor-ship over thirty years and shows how young writers developed before the existence of MFA programs (by doing exactly the same things they currently do in MFA programs).  If yes, you know that V.S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux are lowly, womanizing, misogynistic  human beings. And exceptional writers.  So, why tacitly seek V.S. Naipaul’s approval of women writers?   Not going to happen. Your sweet, but old-fashioned, status-conscious grandmother from Virginia is never going to approve of your African-American boyfriend.  The alcoholic, abusive, stuck in a dead-end job, father is never going to approve of his child’s fancy college and humanities degree.

These may not be the best analogies, but my point is, some people by their pre-disposition, are never are going to stop being ignorant and demeaning.  And just like you can placate and move past your grandmother’s worn-out thinking, so too, can we move unfazed past Naipaul’s screeds.  No one who matters is listening to Grandma, or to Naipaul.

What mature reader chooses books based on the author’s gender?  We choose by recommendations from friends, from authors we’ve discovered in English class, from the handy little tables over at Barnes and Nobles, from the litter recommended for you side-bar on  We may note the gender of the author as we begin reading, but then the story takes over and the decision to finish the book lies solely with the content of its characters.

But there are some other strong points–and a sexy picture of a nude woman reading–over at booklush.

I then thought about Esquire and its list of 75 books all men should read that only had a single female writer on there, Flannery O’Connor, whom they probably thought was a man.

This is an excellent point.  All I can say, is a list of book for “men” as opposed to 75 books “you” must read, would be slanted towards stereotypical masculine authors and characters.  I suspect a similar list of books for “women” would have a disproportionate amount of women writers, though probably not to the same extent.  So I agree, this is a problem.

I thought of Bret Easton Ellis’ recent tweet “Am I the only person who can’t get through the Stieg Larsson books even if the original Swedish/European titles are “Men Who Hate Women”?…” a comment where Larsson detractors rushed to say, yeah I thought they sucked too! without realizing that the latter part of his statement is deeply disturbing.

I’ve reread these lines quite a few times and I’m not sure why this bothers her.  Does she think Bret Easton Ellis is surprised he doesn’t want to read a book about men who hate women because normally he loves reading about women-hating men?  Perhaps he’s an SVU fan.  I’m not sure what BEE is going for, but if it’s that, I suspect it’s a joke, or maybe BEE is a total P.O.S (I really know very little about the man)  But I think we can agree those Dragon Tattoo books were impossible to put down, poorly-written, and that replacing the original title was an excellent move.

My mind went to the stats VIDA Lit uncovered, that Jennifer Egan won the NBCC award for fiction yet Franzen’s pic was used in the announcement and his name was in the headline.

This VIDA stuff is legit, though one day I’ll make some mildly salty arguments.  But how about the fact Jennifer Egan won the NBCC award over of the media’s darling golden boy and his newest opus?  My mom and sister-in-law’s all female book club was very unimpressed by A Visit From the Good Squad, though I dug it.  So the fact a newspaper used a more famous author’s pic and name in a headline, for an article I suspect was maybe more about the literary upset, in an effort to get more readers, doesn’t seem like so bad, considering the woman did win the award.

And here is something else that gets to me: why was he asked if he considered any woman writer his match? Do women get asked this same question?

I have no idea.  Was he asked if he considers any man writers his equal?  I bet even if he did, he’d have to think pretty hard to come up with someone.

And are we so certain it is an advantage to be a man in the literary world?  Agent Nat Sobel disagrees. in this 2008 interview with Poets&Writers.

We’ve read a number of pretty good novels by male writers that we know just won’t go. Male coming-of-age novels are impossible to sell….outside the thriller genre, there aren’t too many male fiction writers who are succeeding. And I don’t think that’s going to change for a while…..So if a male writer can write from the female point of view, or has a story that will interest a woman’s audience, I think he has a better chance than somebody who’s writing the kind of Hemingway-esque stuff we read in school.

If I may be allowed some liberties with the subtext: So you’re a young male writer who has written a novel?  Are you sure you’re not a minority?  Maybe you could be gay?  Lived on the streets for part of your life?  No.  Hmmm?  Well, the writing is really strong.  How about you write a book that women will like, with a female narrator, and maybe we’ll just make your pen-name suitably feminine.  (Sort of like Tina Fey doing Sarah Palin, in that last part I didn’t actually change anything that wasn’t said)

Now, I excuse while I–a cis-gendered straight white male from a privileged background–try to find motivation to keep working on my coming-of-age novel.


  • Seth Marlin says:

    Excellent points, all. For the record, I know it’s supposedly a travesty, but I think I’m the only person I know who really doesn’t care for O’Connor. Something about being force-fed Southern Gothic over the years. Don’t get me wrong, I get the reasons for her artistic importance, and her writing is certainly solid, but one can only take so many hill-country yokel stereotypes painted in mocking, unsympathetic tones. After a while, it bordered on cliche.

    • Geneva says:

      I feel the same way about O’Connor.

    • Brendan says:

      Me too. I loved reading the five or six short stories assigned in various undergrad classes, but never felt a desire to see more of her work. Those few stories though, wow, they are amazing.

  • Seth Marlin says:

    On another note, the above statement feels strangely cathartic, like finally admitting that, despite years of trying, you just cannot enjoy Coheed and Cambria.

  • Kathryn says:

    There’s more than a little bit of irony here that this in all in response to an original comment that said that people shouldn’t get bent out of shape about stuff like this. So I’m more than a bit confused about saying that she’s got strong points then working to refute them one by one.

    As she said, there are a whole ton of reasons to get bent out of shape and the “this is the way things are” argument, to me, has always represented an inability or, more often, a lack of desire, to effect any change.

    And the BEE tweet says exactly what you wondered: a (hopefully) tongue in cheek disappointment that he couldn’t even love a book that was about hating on women. Whether or not that’s how it was intended, that’s how it reads, and as writers we know, or should know, that your reader’s interpretation is kind of…everything.

    I’m also more than a bit confused about the end. Are you implying that changing the author’s name to something feminine, and having a female narrator, will somehow trick women into otherwise disliking a book?

    So yeah, this whole thing is offensive, and Naipaul doesn’t get off because “he’s just like that,” and being told to not get bent out of shape feels inherently paternalistic. What the women who are upset (and I’m one of them) are asking for is empathy, and allies. Because the existence of a boys’ club and girls’ club in literature, as that quote above points out, hurts all writers, and readers. And if that’s not worth fighting against then I have to wonder what is.

    • tanya.debuff says:

      I agree. While I won’t dwell on Naipaul’s comments and opinions, they still need to be taken for what they are, which is hateful, and I think the louder the outcry gets, the better.

    • “Because the existence of a boys’ club and girls’ club in literature, as that quote above points out, hurts all writers, and readers. And if that’s not worth fighting against then I have to wonder what is.”


      • Brendan says:

        I’m also not hugely against “boys’ and girls’ clubs in literature. A small turning point in my literary and just life in general was in tenth grade English class. Dr. Greenberg saw me suffering at the mere thought of having to read “Jane Eyre,” and let me read “All Quiet on the Western Front.” (what an example of girl v.s. boy book)

        Anyway, I suspect she let me, and a few other boys, read the boy book because we little 15-year-olds and reading something we were more likely to enjoy would make us more likely to enjoy English class, and more likely to keep reading. At least for me, she was right. And lo and behold, by the time I was a college senior, I’d matured enough to enjoy Jane Eyre when I read it for comps, although I remember thinking, “wow, this is 19th century soap opera, and I need to know what happens next!”

      • Brett says:

        The impact of the individual reader/consumer should be considered here. If girls/boys club does exist, it may be market-driven, and that may not be entirely a bad thing. (People are free to read whatever they choose to read.)

        I’d say such a club is certainly prevalent in mass market fiction (thrillers are often written by men, romances by women, mysteries by both). Perhaps this is because these authors are simply better at understanding their audiences and what they want/expect.

        I don’t see a girls’/boys’ club occurring in literature/academic literature, and if one exists, it’s nowhere near as prevalent as in mass market work.

        That’s why Naipul’s comments are, in my view, less than noteworthy: It’s quite clear that he’s wrong. There are oodles of female writers who could take him in a literary deathmatch.

        The only reason this is news is because he won the Nobel. If it came from anyone else, we’d simply scoff and move on.

        • “I don’t see a girls’/boys’ club occurring in literature/academic literature, and if one exists, it’s nowhere near as prevalent as in mass market work.”

          Literary and academic female authors obviously disagree since that is the whole reason why VIDA (Women in Literary Arts) was founded in 2009.

          • Brett says:

            Right, but I’d argue that Vida’s stats are unconvincing, as we’ve debated before on Bark.
            If a journal prints more men than women it doesn’t necessarily mean that this is due to sexism; it could be because women don’t submit work in equal amounts to journals.
            That is the underlying assumption I have serious qualms about, as it conflicts with what we see in everyday life.

            Males pursue some careers more than women. (The opposite is
            also true, of course.) In some fields (say, fighter pilot) this is due to sexism.

            But is writing a field where there are more men than women? That’s an interesting question. Or, as I suspect, does it break down by genre? (I have a hunch that more women are poets and that more men are fiction writers; or at least that more men submit fiction than women.)

            If any of these assumptions are right, why? That’s a question that merits more study. (And yes, sexism could certainly be an answer, but I’m not convinced yet.)

            Nevertheless, assuming that a lack of equity (I’m paraphrasing VIDA here) is due largely to sexism seems like a bit much, especially since we don’t know the underlying data to begin with.

            (Now that KO has reopened submissions and transitioned to an electronic submission manager, I’m working up a post about KO’s numbers.)

            As for the latest VIDA article (about the Best American series), I was disappointed with it, especially because the Best American series is guest edited, and those guest editors have a bunch of leeway about what makes it into the book, so those inclusions aren’t indicative of the culture at large.

            • Brett says:

              As if I needed to type any more: The only relevant data I could find was from the Bureau of Labor Management, and it was inconclusive, as it’s pretty darn hard to tell by one’s occupation whether one is active in the literary community as we know it and submitting work, where, and that they are being rejected.)

              Sadly, poet is not an applicable occupation according to the Fed.


            • It wasn’t created because of the stats Brett. It was created because of how many panels and talks by women or focused on women writing were turned down during AWP conferences. The stats is something VIDA has started collecting since it was created.

    • Brendan says:

      Kathryn, is it ironic that I find you calling me offensive to be extremely offensive. And I’m sorry you are confused that I can find a writer’s arguments to be strong, and yet still disagree with some of them, and then write to explain why. Would you prefer I say she has “weak points” and then work to refute them, or should I simply not attempt to refute any points?

      As for BEE, I’d say this shows the weakness of twitter more than anything.

      Again, very sorry to hear you got confused. I was being sarcastically self-pitying by saying making my name and writing and narrator more feminine would give me an advantage in selling my book. The Nat Sobel interview shows that he believes those things do make it easier to sell a book.

      I can’t stop you from feeling people are being “inherently paternalistic” when they give advice, and you are more than welcome to disagree with all of my ideas and arguments, but I’m not your enemy. Naipaul doesn’t get off “because he’s like that.” He doesn’t get off at all. He should be ignored. Or better yet, laughed at for his bordering-on-self-parody comments.

      Self-righteously calling my entire post offensive, as if there is only one way to think about this issue, could at best be easily be seen as confirming Naipaul’s ignorant view of women and at worst alienating people who already are your allies.

      • Kathryn says:

        It’s Naipaul’s attitude that’s offensive, as well as the view that we should just let it go. Telling women how to act or feel about their own state of otherness, that you can’t, through no fault of your own, empathize with, is the very definition of paternalism. And if you can’t see how that’s not acting like an ally, then there’s nothing more to talk about.

        • Brendan Lynaugh says:

          Through no fault of my own I am a man and through no fault of your own you are a woman, but it’s to both of our faults if we decide we can’t give each other advice on how to feel or act.

          And the fact I got something hanging between my legs doesn’t not disqualify me from empathizing with women.

          I see Naipaul’s comments as asinine, and also symptomatic of a broader problem, which I think you do too. We just have different ideas/ strategies for combating it.

          Someone who shares my goals, but has different beliefs on tactics, is within my big tent of an ally. Although certainly I would work to convince him my tactics were better, I would try to insult him or apriori negate his arguments.

  • tanya.debuff says:

    I feel differently about the Jennifer Egan thing. The “upset” may have been a big deal, but I’m having a hard time seeing it as a tip of the cap to Egan.

  • Good points here Brendan, but personally it isn’t Naipaul’s comment that has me bent out of shape. It’s the fact that it’s accepted for him to say something that asinine. And by “accepted” I mean that we react by excusing his behavior because he’s old, of another generation, culturally from a more male dominated society, etc. If he said a similar comment about African-American authors by generalizing a particular black stereotype, we would call him racist and boycott his books.

    It’s the fact that we don’t react as strongly to misogynistic comments that has me bent out of shape. Why is it okay to shout sexists comments during a female political candidate’s speech? We don’t accept racist ones when minority candidates speak. Why do the media comment more about Michele Obama’s, amazingly toned arms, her hair, and designer outfits (true for Hilary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and others) rather than what they talked about during a rally or what their position is on particular issues? Each time a woman is marginalized, it makes me feel like I am and my contributions are valued less than if I were a male.

    Every time I’m put at a disadvantage because of my gender, I get bent out of shape. Every time I present something in a business meeting, get interrupted by my boss, and then hear a male colleague suggest the same thing and get accolades, I get bent out of shape. This stuff all adds up, so that when an asinine comment like Naipaul’s shows up in the media, I don’t just get bent out of shape—-I get rip-roaring furious and can’t keep quiet anymore.

    That’s why you’re getting such a strong reaction for something that might not seem like a big deal, but for a lot of us it really is a HUGE deal because we deal with this kind of asinine comments and behavior every day in most aspects of our lives.

    • Brendan says:

      Asa, I largely agree with your points about sexism in broader culture, politics, workplace, etc. One quibble: I’m pretty sure the GOP’s “southern strategy” and continued efforts to “other” Obama make clear that playing on racism is just as accepted as playing on sexism as a political tactic.

      And I don’t think we “accept” his behavior “because he’s old, of another generation, culturally from a more male dominated society, etc.” I think we should laugh at it, and at him, and maybe even feel a little sorry for his narrow view of excellent writing.

      • Oh, I’m not saying there isn’t racism out there, I’m just saying that if someone threw the N-word out there, they’d be fired. If they say people don’t like a female candidate because “her voice makes men think of their wives nagging them to take out the garbage,” they still show up on primetime.

        • Brendan Lynaugh says:

          Right, but calling someone the n-word is not a lot more blatant, than “her voice makes men think of nagging wives,” which is why they still show up on primetime, just like people can’t call Obama the n-word on primetime, but they can talk about “how different his childhood was, and how he inherited his father’s anti-colonial behavior, etc.”

          These are both ways Republicans use to attack Democrats for being black or women. And they are dangerous because a large percentage of the voting population buys into it.

      • Melissa says:

        I don’t think anyone disagrees that Naipul’s comment was idiotic and should be laughed at. But people are upset because his comments are indicative of a larger cultural problem. So if we laugh off Naipul, even by labeling him as a jerk, we’re ignoring the larger problem. The larger cultural problem is something that many people are passionate about and that we all struggle with on a daily basis, which we’re seeing evidence of here. And I mean “we all” to mean both genders: it is difficult to navigate gender issues on a daily basis, in about a hundred small ways I won’t list. It seems like most of the responses are trying to get at the heart of that issue, the idea that of course his comments are infuriating, but where do we go from there? Either you fume and say nothing, because reposting his comments gives them a broader audience; you repost them and call him mean names; or you analyze the whole debacle and try to figure out whether his comments reflect a common school of thinking (which I think they do), why that is, and how to combat that. I’m glad there have been multiple posts and multiple responses on this, because it’s something we should be talking about, but as we keep seeing: it’s incredibly hard to talk about and navigate.

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