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And Now For A Word…

with 3 comments

A couple of days ago, I started to write a post for this blog on the subject of V.S. Naipaul and Edith Wharton.  For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, V.S. Naipaul is the ethnically Indian, Trinidad-raised, London-resident novelist who won a Nobel Prize in Literature a few years back, and who has recently gotten himself in a lot of hot water for saying that he looks at women writers and just knows that they’re not his equals.  Even Jane Austen isn’t his equal.  She doesn’t see the wider issues.  And she’s never been master of a house.

I’d go find a link to the actual interview, except every time I try I seem to cause another thunderstorm.  We’ve had a lot of weather around here lately.  Wednesday afternoon there was an enormous storm, not bad just where I am, but really horrendous a few towns over.  The friends who do this web site for me had a tree come down on one of their cars and bash in the roof, the hood, one of the sides…and last I checked, they hadn’t got it all dug out yet.

So I’m a little nervous about looking for the link.  The other thing about the weather is that it was a hundred degrees a few days in a row.  And I do not do well at a hundred degrees.

Still, the V.S. Naipaul thing struck me, on a number of levels.

The first is the obvious–no, he isn’t as good a writer as Jane Austen. 

If we’re dealing with his fiction, he isn’t even as good a writer as Daphne du Maurier. 

His fiction tends to be suffocatingly depressive, written about immigrant communities in London–especially his own, but not limited to that–and filled with characters who obsess endlessly about their social status, their perceived social status, the humiliations of being poor (like, appearing badly dressed in front of richer people).

If you want a look at Naipaul as a first class writer, you go to his nonfiction.  There, he can hold his own with anybody.  He is, in fact, the world’s best writer on the subject of tourists at the revolution, and he has an uncorrupted and apparently uncorruptible bullshit detector on the subject of Western “progressive” fantasies about revolutionary authenticity.

You’d have to be schizophrenically delusional to read one of his “travel” books and come out believing in the noble savage.

But I’ve talked about Naipaul’s nonfiction before, and that’s not what’s on my mind now.

Unlike a lot of people, I didn’t respond to that interview by spewing All The Usual Rhetoric.  Enough people did, however, to make me wonder if there was a cabal of academic feminists whose only purpose in life was to try to prove Naipaul’s point about women writers.

Mostly, that sort of thing just made me tired, and proved to me again that the present day practice of the Humanities in college English departments does more to disable people from understanding their world than give them insight into it.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think Naipual is a “self hating” other trying to suck up to the dominant White Establishment.  I think he fully feels himself superior, fully experiences his life as of being one of those superior beings–and that if you don’t understand that that’s what’s going on, or that such a perception could be fully true for a London writer who happens to be dark-skinned, then you’re never going to know what’s going on here.

But fascinating as a foray into Mr. Naipaul’s psychological make-up might be–okay, maybe not–what really struck me about his remarks is that they were almost identical to the kinds of things people said about women and the writing of fiction when I first marched off to college at the end of the 1960s.

In fact, it was the standard take on “women writers” for most of the sixty years prior to that.   Even Jane Austen herself was considered…well…not really first rate, because–well, because she wrote about getting married and domestic problems and that kind of thing.

Adventure was declasse, of course, but the marriage worries of middle class virgins were even more so.   A woman writer could only become a writer of the first rank if she–well, no, she actually couldn’t.  She was always going to be too housewifey.  It was her nature.

All of that sort of thing fell about in the early 1970s, of course, and when it did a great many women writers of fiction were catapulted into the curriculum.  Most of these writers–Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kate Chopin, Virginia Woolfe–were what I think of as “good enough.” 

They were interesting and technically accomplished writers.  They sometimes had interesting things to say.  Most of them seemed to me to be “minor” in the way that word was used about fiction at the time.

The one exception was an American writer named Edith Wharton, who wrote close to the beginning of the twentieth century.  She was born into an old-money New York family.  She wrote about old money New York and, even more so, about the collision between the socially ambitious upstarts and the “society” they wished to enter. 

Towards the end of her career, she spent a fair amount of her time writing about the collision between newly rich Americans and the European societies that wanted to exploit them.

If all this sounds familiar, it should.  It’s the same subject matter that concerns Henry James.  And Wharton was a great admirer of James and his work. 

In fact, when she started out, she consciously attempted to model her work on James’s.  To American literary critics–academic critics, not reviewers–she was treated as a James wannabe, and largely dismissed as unoriginal and derivative.

But she’s not.

In fact, of all the women writers hauled out of attics and steamer trunks when feminism hit the English departments in a wave, Edith Wharton is problem the only one who was an undiscovered and unsung genius.

Her prose is considerably cleaner and more direct than James’s, and her observations about people are clear and insightful.  She gets the tone of that world and that time so clear that I don’t really care if it was accurate–I can feel it, and I can live it.

I have no idea if Wharton was ever “master of a house,” as Naipaul explained as one of the reasons women couldn’t be really good–although a sillier thing to say, in this era of single mothers, I can’t imagine–

Anyway, I don’t know if she was ever master of a house, but I do know she was master of her milieu, at least on paper.

And all that leads up to saying that I have just unearthed The Custom of the Country from one of my book stacks, and I’m going off to read it.

There’s about to be more weather.

Written by janeh

June 11th, 2011 at 8:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'And Now For A Word…'

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  1. I read the Naipaul piece. You know, I believe he’s going to score the Edmund Wilson Award for Cluelessness in Literature this year. The competition is fierce, but I think he’s beaten out Harold Bloom on STARSHIP TROOPERS.
    The terrible danger of winning a Nobel Prize is that when you say something foolish–as we all do–it’s published and circulated. And a century from now, Naipaul may only be remembered because that rant gets included in a collection of Austen essays.

    The really big issues don’t go away: growing up and learning, finding a mate, earning a living, raising a family and facing one’s death are things inherent in us. Right after them come government and war, the cause and consequence of civilization. They can be written about well or poorly, and we’re individually interested in them to different degrees, but to say they are unimportant is to be unusually obtuse. Austen picked one of the permanent issues. Everything else is, by comparison, transitory.
    Which includes social class. Money and power are, or can be, real. Social class in the sense of who gets to attend which dance or belong to which club is something better abandoned after high school. It’s just not a game for grown-ups, however many nominal adults play it. If DeBret’s won’t tell you when new money becomes old, whether rail money trumps coal money or Skull and Bones comes before or after Porcculine, surely a computer program could. Consult it and have done.

    And yet…Professor Nocolo Benedetti said (roughly) that the critical questions are what do we know? how do we know it? and what then ought we to do? Great fiction can be written–and great fun had–with characters whose “of course” assumptions about knowledge and right conduct are fundamentally different. I’ve worn out copies of A CIVIL CONTRACT, which is the only novel on social class conflict that I reread at all, because Jonathan Chawleigh and Adam Deveril aren’t two people who use different forks for the meat course, but two people with very different understandings of what a man must and must not do. THAT is important. The staff at Pym’s publicity, sniping at one another over which public school they each attended, is only sad.

    None of this speaks directly to Wharton, whom I have not read. Generally, being told that a book deals with social class affects me much like being told a science fiction movie has terrific special effects. It’s not a detriment, but it’s not of itself something I’m looking for. What else is there about Wharton?


    11 Jun 11 at 1:19 pm

  2. robert_piepenbrink

    12 Jun 11 at 6:19 am

  3. There’s also a link to a quiz.

    I got ‘You scored 6 out of a possible 10

    Sloppy thinking. You clearly need to read more books by men.’


    12 Jun 11 at 8:38 am

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