Scent of a Woman

I think Francine Prose is vastly overplaying her hand here:

But I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Because the recent controversy about the Guardian interview in which V. S. Naipaul claimed that no woman was his equal and that he too could instantly sniff out that telltale estrogenic ink has made it clear (in case it needed clarification) that “before” is “now.” The notion of women’s inferiority apparently won’t go away. Of course, the idea that Naipaul imagines he is a better writer than Jane Austen would be simply hilarious if the prejudice it reveals weren’t still so common and didn’t have such a damaging effect on what some of us have chosen to do with our lives.

Granted, Prose may be right that the lot of female writers hasn’t changed one bit in 10 years, but I doubt it. And leaning on buffoons like Naipaul to prove the argument is futile. There will always be people like Naipaul to provide the soundbyte, but that doesn’t mean things are the same as they were.

I also think that too much is made of the “damaging effect” of sexism. I don’t mean to dismiss it, but all kinds of writers face all kinds of prejudices. (Doesn’t some of the best writing you can think of essentially come from the fact that said writer is a consciously marginalized, looked-down-upon figure?) For instance, you have translators, whom still tend to be mostly female–wouldn’t they then face the double prejudice of being a woman and being someone whose brand of literary practice is generally marginalized and looked down upon?

And yet, they continue to live and do very good work, and the ones I know don’t have any readily apparent self-esteem issues.

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I’m not sure “self esteem” is what Prose or anybody is talking about — I have a hard time imagining Prose use those words with anything but scorn. Systemic sexism is a hugely limiting and self-replicating force. Naipaul is tangential to it — as you say, a buffoon. But the strong response to him comes, I think, from a general feeling that he’s just saying what a lot of people are too polite to say, but still basically feel, and those feelings are ones that are at least tacitly sanctioned by all sorts of social structures (and, for writers and readers, publishing practices).

Your argument that obstacles are good for writers is a bit dangerous — by that logic, black writers were better off in, say, Alabama of 1850, women’s writing has been all downhill since suffrage, etc. Of course, marginalization within the publishing world is not the same as not being allowed to vote in federal elections, but where’s the line between useful obstacles and oppression?

It’s not about self esteem, it’s about material realities, and it’s about the narrowing and limiting of writing. The folks at VIDA have done good work looking at statistics of what gets published and reviewed, and the attendant essays make for interesting reading (Manijeh Nasrabadi’s in particular shows how various ignorances and prejudices are not at all inspiring). Life gives us all plenty of material for writing; institutional, systemic prejudice isn’t something anybody should be grateful for.


I don’t doubt that obstacles exist, I only mean to say that lots of different writers face varying amounts of scorn and prejudice in different ways. Yes, too much oppression is poisonous, but I don’t think anyone would compare the lot of female writers today to that of a black writer in 1850. What I’m talking about is the kind of solidarity and feeling of purpose that a writer can have when he or she feels unfairly marginalized. This happens in all kinds of art, and I think it has historically been a very inspirational force.

I’m aware of the VIDA stats, but just look at how many works of international literature the Times reviews, or how many writers who could seriously talk about them that it lets write for them. Those are awful stats too.

My point isn’t to doubt the obstacles that women still face, only to say that making too much of gender-based prejudices obscures all the other kinds of very real prejudices that are out there.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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