I have an old female dog, Jozy, who snarls at our cat if he dares to join us beside the fire, and who yelps with indignant pain if visitors accidentally pinch a little of her abundant tail fur beneath their shoes – something they can hardly avoid doing since Jozy likes to sleep in the narrow passageway that leads to our lavatory. For obvious reasons, I am thinking of rechristening Jozy “V.S. Naipaul” and taking her with me to literary festivals.
Even though Jozy is female and therefore not a good writer, she will provide good value for money at literary festivals. Among the otherwise sedate panels discussing anodyne subjects such as “Discipline or sheer talent?” there is always at least one already sold-out head-to-head between two participants preselected to have a go at each other on a red-flag topic completely unrelated to books, such as “This entire audience/panel/festival is guilty of war crimes”. I expect my furry friend to perform well under these circumstances.
It’s a pity my cat will probably refuse to take part. He makes no claims for himself, is horrified by the cheap glare of publicity and refuses to be confined to a travelling basket. Even though he is male and therefore an excellent writer, I am thinking of rechristening him Jane Austen. When the bitch V.S. Naipaul chases Jane Austen on her arthritic legs, Jane jumps elegantly to a slightly higher position, a pedestal really.
Allegories can be boring, so I’ll leave it there and return to the real-life V.S. Naipaul. Or rather, not to him but to counter-questions suggested by his recent public remarks. Naipaul says that he can tell instantly if a text has been written by a man or a woman (and therefore whether or not it’s sentimental tosh).
I wonder if he means purely on the basis of style rather than content, since it goes without saying that any mention of non-literary nappies, engagement rings, entailments, cancer, marital abuse or oatmeal would be to show one’s slip. Women don’t write about the more important subjects of imperialism, “peoples”, bauxite dust or human endeavour. (I will set aside, for the sake of this already absurd argument, the anecdotal account of how my Stellenbosch students once declared that a very beautiful Chris Mann poem, “Bedtime Story”, was written by a woman because of its subject matter.)
But say, for instance, ten writers of mixed gender were asked to write a paragraph on a gender-free subject – a description of a subway, say – would Jozy be able to tell the male adjectival clause from the female? If the female writers could be persuaded to try out sentences like: “The subway made her long to be penetrated in the secret place of love by a Nobel prize winner,” could they pass for male? If these female writers were able to restrain themselves from writing, “What that subway needed was a good dousing with Jik,” would Jozy still know them by scent?
Maybe not, but what she would know for certain, even without going to the trouble of any reading, would be that not one of the ten were a patch on her own subway scrawls. (Did I mention that she tries to keep enough piss in her at all times to cover any territorial peeing committed by her younger brother, Tigger?)
Naipaul, too, is wonderfully sure of his superlativeness. Not even Jane Austen holds a candle to him. Has he not been greatly praised? Did his Nobel citation not declare him to be Conrad’s heir? (Apparently you can waive an inheritance if you suspect it will end up being a liability.) Is he not, by the purely objective standards of the Times, the seventh-greatest writer in the world since 1945? (But not, oh painful thing, the greatest since 1818!)
There’s a temptation for writers to believe their own blurbs and puffs, to quote them, even. I remember a Greek restaurateur in Sea Point in the 1980s who kept playing his own voice on a reel-to-reel, blaring it out into the traffic, “Ari Souvlaki – I am the greatest”. I ate there once and all I can say about Ari’s hype is that it was funny rather than justified.
Only the truly great make no claim to greatness. When it comes to writers being offered a chance to play in their own wind section, I prefer Ivan Vladislavić’s spare response to Janet van Eeden’s question about whether his nomination for the 2011 Sunday Times Fiction Award will change his approach to writing in any way: “No.”
Virginia Woolf wrote an essay entitled “Character in Fiction”. But what about the character in fiction writers? To me, the question of whether women write differently from men, whether it is possible by means forensic or knee-jerk to determine the gender of the writer, is not an interesting one. What I find intriguing is the question raised by Walt Whitman’s injunction:
Understand that you can have in your writing no qualities which you do not honestly entertain in yourself. Understand that you cannot keep out of your writing the indication of the evil or shallowness you entertain in yourself … There is no trick or cunning, no art or recipe, by which you can have in your writing what you do not possess in yourself.
I wouldn’t go so far as to accuse Jozy of evil and shallowness. Rather I’d say, “Her bones are old; she envies the cat and fears the usurping puppy. She craves love and petting; she is in pain.”