Women Doing Literary Things: Tina Biswas
Written by
Niranjana Iyer
June 2011
Written by
Niranjana Iyer
June 2011

A House for Ms. Biswas by Tina Biswas


Tina Biswas was born in England to Bengali parents in 1978. She read Politics, Philosophy & Economics at New College, Oxford. Her first novel, Dancing With The Two Headed Tigress, is a comedy of manners, set in England, Ireland, and India. Her second, The Red Road, deals with the Naxalite Uprisings in the 1960s and 70s of West Bengal. Biswas lives in London and is currently working on her third novel and first screenplay.

Tina may be contacted at tina121b(at) hotmail (dot) com

"During a recent interview, the esteemed writer V S Naipaul claimed that there is not a single woman writer (dead or alive) equal to him. So far, so good. He then went on to claim that women writers were defined by their “sentimentality” and their “narrow view of the world” and described writing by Diana Athill – the magnificent editor who helped put Naipaul on the literary map – as “feminine tosh”.

The Writers’ Guild of Britain, when asked to respond to Naipaul’s criticisms, said that it would not “waste its breath”. Other journalists have responded by listing women writers who they believe are devoid of sentimentality and are every bit as talented as Naipaul. Yet others have chosen to take personal digs at Naipaul – he is a sexual sadist, a misogynist, a racist – in countering his controversial claims.

Naipaul is the writer who inspired me to write. Indeed, along with Philip Roth (another male writer accused of misogyny, mistakenly I believe), he is the writer who I have felt most connected to and inspired by. So, although disappointed, if not at all surprised, by Naipaul’s latest outburst, I feel the need to examine more closely what he said, and establish if there is indeed any truth in it. After all, how could the man who has written so beautifully, so engagingly, so correctly about the world, get this so wrong?

First of all, I looked up the word “sentimental”, wondering if there was some meaning which I had missed.

1. expressive of or appealing to sentiment, especially the tender emotions and feelings, as love, pity, or nostalgia: a sentimental song.

2. pertaining to or dependent on sentiment: We kept the old photograph for purely sentimental reasons.

3. weakly emotional; mawkishly susceptible or tender: the sentimental Victorians.

That Naipaul used the word “sentimental” as an insult is not in doubt; that is now its common usage in literary criticism. But what exactly was he driving at? I do not think for a moment that he meant that women write only about puppies and rainbows, but that whatever they write about, they approach their subject in a manner which depends on weak emotion and not tough intellect. This in itself is a very dimidiated and skewed perception of what the world contains: on one side, there lives female soft-heartedness, feeble emotion (Love? Yuk!), and fuzzy feelings; the other side is inhabited by male clear-sightedness, hard sensibility (Anger? Huzzah!) and cerebral rigour. That Naipaul seems to believe that this male outlook (as implicitly defined by him) is manifestly superior is a rather foolish and simple way of understanding both writing and the world which is written about. There are a multitude of different lenses through which the world can be viewed and written about, and writers should not be judged on which lens they choose, but only on how well they use their camera and how their photographs turn out.

Yet, what is interesting is that many (not all) male and female writers still do tend to use quite different criteria when constructing their narratives. In these supposedly egalitarian times, why is that? I believe that it is because we, the reader, expect different narratives from men and women, and that this expectation comes from a very early age; the market supplies what is demanded. J K Rowling insisted on not using her first name on the covers of her books so that boy readers were not put off from picking up them up. In the UK, 74 per cent of the books featured in the London Review of Books were written by men, and 78 per cent of the reviewers were male, despite more than 50 per cent of literary fiction being written by women. When growing up, I would choose male authors over female ones, because of some misguided perception that men wrote about more serious matters (I’m now not sure what exactly constitutes a serious matter!), and even if they were not writing about serious matters, they were at least writing about silly matters in a serious way.

This sort of bias can only come from a deeply prejudiced society. The kind of society where men are chefs but women are cooks. Where men are just men but women are wives and mothers and daughters and sisters. So when Naipaul accuses women of having a “narrow view of the world”, he means that they have a domestic view of the world, and from his chauvinistic standpoint, this domestic view is petty and banal and uninteresting and can only ever be inferior to the grandly political. But for such an insightful writer, he therefore completely fails to comprehend the relevance and importance of the domestic and how even his own life story has been shaped by not only the great sweep of history but also the small but equally powerful brush-brush-brush of the interior life. So when women choose to write about personal relationships and men think that is not important or interesting, that is their failing and their inability to value that which is closest to home.

At the same time, I fervently hope that we reach the point where women can write about whatever they like, be it domestic or not, and not be judged on their women-ness but only their talent. It is rather depressing that even now, there are deemed to be feminine and masculine ways of writing and feminine and masculine subjects to write about, as opposed to just good or poor ways of writing, and interesting or boring stories. But the only way this point can be achieved is for both readers and writers to let go of their preconceptions and prejudices, and to approach a book with a spirit of openness, broad-mindedness and sensitivity, qualities which unfortunately seemed to have passed Naipaul by on this occasion."


This post also appears on the Women Doing Literary Things site.

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  • Martha Wolfe

    Having just joined shewrites, I've only just read this lovely essay. Thank you for it. It's well crafted and beautifully put. I hope, over the last four years, that things have changed...but I kinda doubt it. Good luck!

  • I am a little bit late to the conversation, but I can't help but chime in.  I hope someone, somewhere tells the esteemed Mr. Naipaul the word is sensibility, NOT sentimentality.  (And I'll say right here and now Mr. Naipaul only needs to pick up a copy of Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway to eat his words).  I wonder if perhaps his own kind can be guilty of the other extreme (his comment is evidence)- stoicism.  Could there, perhaps, be a lack of sensibility in some male writers?  I for one picked up a copy of The Corrections by a Mr. Jonathan Franzen and put it down after the first three pages due to the deadness of the language. Also, there is always that 300 pound gorilla in the room that male writers continuously ignore:  women give birth.  Well that lends us an exclusive perspective, now doesn't it.  I wonder if Mr. Naipaul has considered that.



  • Sharon D. Dillon

    Well thought out and so eloquently stated. Thank you for moving beyond the obvious mysogeny and adress the deeper implications of Naipaul's comments.

  • Sue Ann Bowling

    Recent research has suggested that choices--in both sexes--are often guided more by emotion than by intellect. (See the behavior of our government for all too many examples.) With that in mind and taking sentiment as the emotional content of what happens, good writing should engage both.

  • Dear Tina,

    I recently read an interview with Lan Samantha Chang, the new head of the Iowa Writers' Workshop (and the first woman to be in that position.) She said that while she feels there may not be a lot she can teach her students, she always tells them two things: never be afraid of being too sentimental or of being too grandiose.


    Now, personally, I don't really care what Naipaul says. I have never read anything more sentimental than Dickens at his finest. The Scarlet Letter reeks of sentiment. A Portrait of a Lady? Come on. Not to mention King Lear and oh, think of The Tempest. Or Cyrano De Bergerac.


    I have noticed that in recent years, the more distancing and sterile a novel, the more critically acclaimed it has been, but Naipaul aside, that certainly does not mean it is best, nor that it will stand the test of time.


    I would also say that I learned early on that when I read, say, sci fi, to only look for titles by women, since they wrote about what happens between people, as opposed to between rifles.


    Only men deserve our respect, I suppose. Of course, they've been showing us how and why in politics lately, world-wide, from crotch shots on down. (pun intended.) I wish it were possible to simply not waste time with silly people--even highly successful ones, even highly pompous ones--saying silly things.


    Sara Selznick



  • Kate Rosen

    When I taught junior high and was selecting books for the entire class, I was surprised to discover how I shied away from anything even vaguely "feminine," knowing that if boisterous male voices were to loudly dismiss it, the girls would, too.  However, both genders (and their teacher) would accept more "masculine" stories. It surprised me to discover this bias in myself - someone who's actually lost a job by pointing out to the higher ups how gender-biased certain literary selections were - and made me realize how subtle and pervasive our attitudes towards "masculine" and "feminine" really are.  And if they aren't recognized and questioned, the result is Naipaul's kind of arrogant, ego-driven strutting that some people might call "typically masculine."  

    Not me, of course.  I would never do such a thing.  I'm just going to sit here with my embroidery and weep over tales of sick kittens.  

  • Thank you, Tina, for an astute and carefully-thought piece. I wonder how Naipaul would describe Eliot (George).

    Middlemarch is a study of male power, patriarchal authority, morality in politics, social mores, women in the marriage market, the psychology of power and money in marital relations, domesticity, philosophy - the list is endless.

    What would the first reviews have been had she published under Mary Ann Evans one wonders.

    Thank you again.


  • Judy Lujan

    Naipaul's comments brought to mind Bobby Riggs'boasting about his ssuperior male attributes and how no woman could ever beat him in tennis.  Billie Jean King kicked his ass in a 3 round match.  Too bad there is no writing match.  There are many, many women writers who would kick Naipaul's ass.

  • Shawn Hanel

    While reading this post, I was surprised to find I unconsciously evaluate books on the author's gender as well. As a reader of mainly political and economic subjects, it's a rare female-penned book that grabs my attention. This habit is so deeply ingrained I didn't realize I was doing it. It speaks to the truth of what Ms. Biswas states; serious subjects are expected to be the domain of men. In future I'll purposely seek out books on these subjects written by women. It should be refreshing to learn how other women view the financial world.

  • Carla Sarett

    Since Willa Cather -- a far greater writer than Mr. Naipaul could hope to be-- is neither sentimental nor domestic, his comment seems wildly off the mark.  Ditto Muriel Spark whose style Mr. Naipaul would be hard-pressed to match.