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Women Writers: A Caste Apart

V. S. Naipaul’s comments to the Royal Geo­graphic Society in late May reignited the flame wars over “women’s writing.” “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not,” the Nobel Prize-winning novelist said. Women writers are inevitably sentimental, they have a “narrow view of the world,” because none of them is “a complete master of a house.” The most hilarious of Naipaul’s self-parodic remarks was that no English novelist who also happened to be a woman — not even Jane Austen, to whom my teacher J. V. Cunningham once said it would be indecorous to ascribe a fault — is “the equal to me.”

The best reply to Naipaul would have been silence, with mockery as a second best. (Naipaul goes to a restaurant. His meal is brought to the table. “I think it is unequal to me,” he says.) But what was surprising — or, come to think of it, not so surprising — was that his scornful and angry critics agreed entirely with Naipaul about one thing. Women writers are to be treated as a caste apart, who share a mutual understanding — not because they are writers, but because they are women. The complaint (repeated in Harper’s by Francine Prose) that women are published less often and reviewed less widely than men, the call (made by the Australian novelist Sophie Cunningham) to set up A Prize of Their Own, saluted Naipaul’s ideas by suggesting that women do indeed require a compensa­tory boost.

The notion, as Prose said, “apparently won’t go away.” Neither, apparently, will the bankrupt notion of what she herself calls “women’s writing.” When I praised her last year in COMMENTARY, I ignored her gender and placed her in a different literary tradition altogether: “[I]t was not until she began to find inspiration in the English tradition,” I said, that she began to be a really good novelist — “very different from most American novelists now writing, and in a manner that elevates her far above them.” Would she like me to go back and rewrite my conclusion?

One of Prose’s best novels is Hunters and Gatherers (1995), a novel (as I described it) that takes her feminist heroines and “plops them down in an exotic, hostile landscape where their civilized habits and spiritual airs prove inadequate to the test of interpersonal savagery.” The tradition to which the novel belongs includes Gulliver’s Travels, Heart of Darkness, and Lord of the Flies. As it happens, Ann Patchett has just published a novel that mines the same tradition — State of Wonder (Harper, 368 pp., $26.99). Patchett’s novel is nowhere near as good as Prose’s, but not because of a “sentimentality” or “narrow view of the world” that distinguishes “women’s writing.” The reasons for its mediocrity, though, aren’t far removed from that sort of thinking.

Patchett won the Orange Prize a decade ago for Bel Canto, a novel celebrating the possibility of love and friendship between terrorists and hostages. Despite being published just three months before 9/11, no one seemed particularly upset by her theme — perhaps because her terrorists were Peruvian Communists, not Arab Islamists. In State of Wonder, her sixth novel, she returns to South America. Marina Singh (“a doctor who worked in statin development”) travels to Brazil to track down the elusive Annick Swenson, who is up river somewhere in the Amazonian interior, cooking up a new fertility drug for a big pharmaceutical company. Thus Patchett sets out to rewrite Heart of Darkness with women in the roles of Marlow and Kurtz. She takes about three-and-a-half times Conrad’s length to reach the opposite conclusion. Instead of a primal savagery, Patchett’s heroine finds more human civilization — a differ­ent civilization, but a densely complicated civilization nevertheless — deep in the jungle.

Here is Marina’s arrival among a tribe of cannibals, to whom she has journeyed in search of her colleague Anders Eckman, who had been reported dead:

The arrows had fallen at least three feet away from them and Marina was willing to take this as a good sign. It wouldn’t have been so difficult to hit the target had they meant to. . . . Minutes passed. She called out to the jungle again, a sentence without meaning, and it echoed through the trees until the birds called back to her. She saw a movement in the leaves and then, slipping out from between the branches, a single man came forth, and then another. They were created wholly from the foliage, one and then one more stepping forward to watch her until a group of thirty or more were assembled on the bank of the river, loincloths and arrows, their foreheads as yellow as canaries. The women came behind the men, holding children, their faces unpainted. . . . [T]hough she waited for her own fear it did not come. She was finally here. This was the place she had been trying to get to from the very beginning and her she would wait for the rest of her life.

The cannibals accept her gifts of oranges and peanut butter, and then they take the young boy she has brought along in exchange for Anders. But it turns out that he is a prince of the tribe, who had never been returned to them after Dr. Swenson treated him for fever several years before. Who, then, is the real cannibal?

State of Wonder is a dreadful novel, but not because it was written by a woman. Its sentimentality is merely the syrupy emotion behind the multiculturalism that Ann Patchett requires nearly 400 pages to affirm. And if the novel has a narrow view of the world, the reason is that its view of the world is wholly determined by the dominant and unquestioned ideology of the current literary moment.

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