Try to contain your excruciating, nearly mind-numbing boredom at this newsflash: there has been another dumbass-dude comment about all women writers, living or dead! The latest offender? Nobel Prize Winning writer V.S. Naipaul. In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society, Naipaul said that no woman writer was his equal, singling Jane Austen out for particular derision for her sentimental tosh, and claiming that within one or two paragraphs of every piece of writing he can immediately tell if it was written by a woman.
When I first read of Naipaul's idiotic comment, all I could think was, "Who was the idiot who asked him that question?" The transcript and audio recording of the interview have not yet been released, but reportedly it was something along the lines of, "Is there any woman writer, living or dead, you regard as your match?" Is it any surprise that it was a man who asked it? Or that it was a man who took it seriously enough to answer?
The exchange between these two men brought to mind an old Saturday Night Live skit, "Da Bears." In it, Chris Farley and friends sit around eating wings, swigging beers, burping loudly and inventing ever-more-absurd fantasy matchups between their favorite football team of all time, the Chicago Bears, and just about anybody or anything else. The gag was that no matter what the opponent or the activity, in any contest these guys picked The Bears. Bears versus all the cars in the Indianapolis 500? Da Bears! Bears versus the Assembled Choir of Heavenly Angels? Da Bears! Chris Farley, god bless him, knew what he was doing: parodying the obsession of boys and men with contests, winning, and a never-ending game of who-beats-who. My four and seven-year-old sons would not see the humor in this just yet. They take the question of who-beats-who extremely seriously. A longhorn versus a badger? Superman versus an asteroid? Superman versus an alien asteroid on fire? Derek Jeter versus Obama? And on and on...
It doesn't matter if the two combatants are from different planets, or run on entirely different kinds of fuel, or even whether they are real. What matters is knowing who, in a battle to the death, would win.
It is almost impossible to imagine a woman either asking or answering a question like, "Is there any male writer you would consider your match?" But between two men the exchange is woefully predictable, and had Jane overheard such a conversation in her drawing room, she would have parodied it with relish, quite clear as to what it revealed about the men in question and their obsession with who-bests-who. (Whereas V.S. Naipaul would have failed to see the irony. Round Two: Jane!)
And yet every year our most revered cultural institutions and our most prestigious publications do just this. First there is awards season, predicated on the notion that it is possible to anoint one book in a genre "the winner", the best one of all! We have "The Best [X] of the year" season, and pretend that these lists originate somewhere aside from the brains of flawed, subjective human beings. We have lists coming out of our ears, in fact: the 100 best books of all time, the 100 best albums of all time, and on and on, and the self-important publications that produce them act as though they set the contenders down in a ring and let them fight it out like cocks, with the resulting lists as unbiased as the notes of a spectator recording which combatants were left standing after the fight.
To be sure, I believe that literature can be judged. Like porn, good writing is one of those things that is difficult to define, but relatively easy to distinguish from the other kind (writing that is bad). The range of writing that people like, however, is as broad as humanity, and once certain things have been established -- good sentence structure, good story-telling, good fact-checking, and so on -- what appeals to one reader or another is anybody's guess, and everybody's right to decide for themselves. Informed decisions are preferable, and to that end I am grateful for the critics and scholars who devote themselves to the study of the craft; but only so long as education, not declaration, is their aim. Writing is not a contest, and by definition can never be. There are too many variables, far too much subjectivity, and the work itself defies definable metrics or binary judgments. It is this confounding of clearcut "answers" that makes writing, and reading, such pleasurable activities and such singular joys; our tastes are something each of us owns, and defines.
Which is why, to be frank, I don't care what V.S. Naipaul thinks about his writing or Jane Austen's. Instead I care what I think about it. And when I do that, refusing to let Top Ten lists or half-wits distort my own judgment, I win.