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[Commentary]

On Women Writers and V. S. Naipaul

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I’m still asked surprisingly often about “Scent of a Woman’s Ink,” which Harper’s Magazine published more than a decade ago — an essay in which I tried to understand why and how the work of women writers was not taken as seriously (or read the same way) as that of men. I tell people that I was lucky enough to find quotes from male critics and writers (such as one from Norman Mailer about always being able to “sniff out the ink of the women,” from which I took my title) that were written before men learned it wasn’t acceptable to say such things.

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.

When “Scent of a Woman’s Ink” appeared, it stirred up a storm of debate. I was denounced and discussed in many newspaper book sections that no longer exist. I will always be grateful to Harper’s for hosting a dinner party a few weeks later at which I could be pleasant to some of the editors whose publications, I’d noted, too rarely published or reviewed women—and thus could salvage what remained of my career. Now when the subject of “women’s writing” comes up, as it periodically does, the result is more of a dust devil than a typhoon. Women are distressed and disheartened all over again—and then the subject quietly, politely disappears.

I suppose a writer should be happy when a piece she wrote more than ten years ago seems as fresh and as pertinent as if it had been written yesterday. But in this case, I don’t find it a reason for celebration or self-congratulation. Honestly, I’d rather that “Scent of a Woman’s Ink” seemed dated: a period piece about a problem women no longer have.

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