Nothing New Under the Sun: Books, Gender, and Haters

Theroux on Naipaul: “a grouch…tantrum-prone”
Have you heard the latest, shocking literary news? A well known, highly esteemed, award winning male writer recently claimed that no women writer is his equal, nor could one ever be, because women are just not capable. The male writer in question? V.S. Naipaul who is known to court controversy.

Some media outlets report the controversy as if Naipaul simply “proclaimed” this statement out of the blue. As if he called a press conference to make an announcement. In reality, he was asked a question in an interview at the Royal Geographic Society.  According to the Guardian article that I read Naipaul was asked, “if he considered any woman writer his literary match.”  In a nutshell, Naipaul says that no woman can touch him because women are never the masters of their homes and so end up writing “feminine tosh.”

There’s a wonderful reply by writer Diana Abu-Jaber that takes Naipaul to task for the implications behind his use of the word ‘master’ that you can read here. Diana Athill, Naipaul’s former editor, had this to say

I am not saying that Naipaul was “set up,” by any means, but the interviewer who asked this question knew it was loaded, perhaps wanted to spark controversy. Surely the interviewer knew he was talking to Naipaul and not to a more amiable writer, say, Pat Conroy? So why not take the questioner to task as well? Why even consider Naipaul’s comments “newsworthy?”


All of this talk about Naipaul made me think of Nathanial Hawthorne. His quote about the “damned mob of scribbling women” has been making the rounds for decades now. Sometimes it seems like people think its a cute quote, a harmless quote, captured in a moment in time when Hawthorne was frustrated by the success of popular writers like Susan Warner (The Wide, Wide World), Maria Susanna Cummins (The Lamplighter), and Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin).

The Wide, Wide World, published in 1850, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, saw phenomenal sales their first year in print: at least 300,000 copies. The Lamplighter, published in 1854, was an immediate hit, too, selling 20,000 copies in 20 days, 40,000 copies in eight weeks, and 65,000 copies in five months. Those are great numbers for today, let alone the mid-nineteenth century.


Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter was published in 1850. How many copies did it sell in its first year on the market? Only 7,000, with 2,500 of those in the first ten days. A nice showing, but nowhere near the blockbuster success of the popular writers of the day.

So you can see why Hawthorne might be a tad upset and ask in an 1855 letter to his publisher, William D. Ticknor, “What is the mystery of these innumerable editions of the Lamplighter, and other books neither better nor worse?” He answers himself, saying, “America is now wholly given over to a d—d mob of scribbling women.”

But there are two other sentences by Hawthorne, also in a letter to Ticknor, that are less well known.  In 1852, two years after The Scarlett Letter came out, Hawthorne wrote, “All women, as authors, are feeble and tiresome. I wish they were forbidden to write, on pain of having their faces deeply scarified with an oyster shell.” 

What? One of America’s literary giants wants to carve up the faces of women who write? I was stunned when I first came across the quote and had to read it several times to make sure I was understanding it correctly.

Hawthorne was a 48 year old man when he wrote those words. Not that it would be more acceptable coming from an angry adolescent, but at least you could excuse it as teenage melodrama and hormonal overkill. But a middle aged man of letters?  Who is going to do this scarification?  Whoever does it, Hawthorne wants it done deeply, apparently to insure there is a permanence to this punishment, no chance of the scars fading over time.

It could be argued that for Hawthorne, such a punishment is akin to a death sentence. I can’t help but think of his short story “The Birth-Mark” (1843) about a scientist who inadvertently kills his wife by trying to remove a birth-mark on her cheek that others find charming. It pretty much establishes that Hawthorne knew the implications that an “imperfection” on a woman’s face could have.

Julia Ward Howe got off much easier.  The woman who wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” according to Hawthorne, “ought to have been soundly whipt” for publishing Passion Flowers (1854).

Don’t get me wrong, I “love” Hawthorne and even considered writing my dissertation on him, but I have to wonder about a guy who can write such sentiments. His anger and desire for physical violence seems to go beyond the need for selling more of his own books or keeping women and men in their separate spheres.

Coming about 160 years after Hawthorne’s rants, Naipaul’s remarks seem beyond outdated and rather pathetic. You’d think the man who has been referred to as “the greatest living writer of English prose” had a bit more heart & soul, but apparently they were eaten by his ego.

But before I read about the latest Naipaul scandal this morning, I read a reaction to The Library Journal’s summer reading lists–one for men and one for women. Men read “action/adventure” novels written by men and women get “the usual romance and fun” books written by women. The list for men was written by a man and the list for women was written by a woman. It seems like they were just adding filler because neither list is all that hot. I didn’t find either list compelling, but if I had to choose, I’d be a man for the summer.

It seems to me that the danger here is not sexism in literary history or in one award winning author’s opinion, although both can be harmful to the psyche of others, be they budding young readers or older scholars. What I find most alarming is when people in the book industry–publishers, librarians, etc–claim that only men write great literature (for a recent example of the feud, click here) or that men only read men and women only read women.  

After working in a bookstore for over ten years, I’ve seen first hand that men tend to read books by men (except for Doris Kearns Goodwin) and women tend to read books by women and men, but perhaps if the industry wasn’t quite so heavy handed about pigeon-holing books and readers there would be more cross-pollination and more openness as to what constitutes a good read. I’m not totally naive, I know that marketing has its good points, too: helping people find what they want. I’m mainly thinking about gender segregated recommended reading lists for something as genderless as a season, cover design, displays, where ads are placed, etc.

Personally, I consider genre before gender when choosing what to read next. But gender does matter to me: I enjoy a good mystery written by a woman writer with strong female characters. I also enjoy war novels and memoirs which are mainly written by men at this time.

What I want to say is that reading around in a variety of genres written by both women and men is what has made reading so fascinating for me. I feel like I truly get to enter different worlds when I want to. Although I’ve tried to be ‘balanced’ in my reading selections, I have often found myself going through periods of reading mainly women or mainly men.

Gender and writing, gender and reading. Do you think about the gender of the writer when you pick up a book?  If so, why?  If you hear about a great read from a friend does the gender influence your decision to read or not read it?

One comment

  1. Great Blog! Gender matters not to me. I love Millman, Bach, Austen and Peters. I have to say though I've never been a huge fan of Hawthorne I'm extremely disappointed to what he had to say. Perhaps he should have turned to Austen: “if you don't have anything nice to say then please restrict your comments to the weather!”

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