Could you spot the female author?
Nicola Griffith’s recent analysis of six major literary awards has once again stirred up the long-running debate about gender and authorship. Having surveyed the winners of multiple awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the Man Booker Prize, from 2000 to 2015, Griffith concluded that a novel is more likely to land a prize if the focus of the narrative is male.
When women win literary awards for fiction it’s usually for writing from a male perspective and/or about men. The more prestigious the award, the more likely the subject of the narrative will be male. … the more prestigious, influential and financially remunerative the award, the less likely the winner is to write about grown women.
Much of the ensuing debate has focused on Griffith’s assertion that “The literary establishment doesn’t like books about women” and the critical role played by women-only prizes in rectifying this imbalance.
What we haven’t seen is discussion on the relevance of gender in the reading experience itself. Perhaps the question we should be asking is not, why do books about men win more prizes, but does the gender of the author influence us as readers and if so, how? Does it sway our decision to choose a particular book for example? Does it change our response to what we read to know whether it was written by a man or woman? What if you didn’t know the author’s gender in advance, could you detect it from the text itself?
Virginia Woolf was one of the first to try and answer some of these questions. She felt there was a direct connection between gender and the form and style of the work. There existed for her a ‘feminine sentence’; one that was “of a more elastic fibre…. capable of stretching to the extreme, of suspending the frailest particles, of enveloping the vaguest shapes” (Times Literary Supplement 1923).
Exactly what constitutes a ‘feminine sentence’ I’m not exactly sure.
I thought it would be fun to test out whether it’s possible to detect the author’s gender if all you had to work from was the text itself. Below are extracts from a range of twentieth century novels. The only clues I’ll give is that they are all by authors who have won the Booker Prize and each extract is from the opening of the novel. See if you can guess which are by a male author and which by a female. What influenced your decision. I’ll reveal the answers next week.
In the beginning was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.
In that land of beginnings, spirits mingled with the unborn. We could assume numerous forms. Many of us were birds. We knew no boundaries. There was much feasting, playing and sorrowing. We feasted much because of the beautiful terrors of eternity. We played much because we were free. And we sorrowed much because there were always those amongst us who had just returned from the world of the living. They had returned inconsolable for all the love they had left behind, all the suffering they hadn’t redeemed, all that they hadn’t understood and for all that they had barely begun to learn before they were drawn back to the land or origins.
The sea which lies before me as I write glows rather than sparkles in the bland May sunshine. With the tide turning, it leans quite against the land, almost unflecked by ripples or by foam. Near to the horizon it is luxurious purple, spotted with regular lines of emerald-green. At the horizon it is indigo. Near to the shore, where my view is framed by rising heaps of humpy yellow rock, there is a band of lighter green,icy and pure, less radiant, opaque however not transparent. We are in the north and the bright sunshine cannot penetrate the sea. Where the gentle water taps the rocks there is still a surface skin of colour. the cloudless sky is very pale at the indigo horizon where it lightly pencils in with silver. Its blue gains word the zenith and vibrates there. But the sa looks cold, even the sun looks cold.
I had written the above, destined to be the opening paragraph of my memoirs when something happened which was so extraordinary and so horrible that I cannot bring myself to describe it even now after an interval of time and although a possible, though not totally reassuring explanation has occurred to me. Perhaps I shall feel calmer and more clear-headed after yet another interval.
The departed, the gods,on he day of the strange tide. All morning under a milky sky the waters in the bay had swelled and swelled, rising to unheard-of heights, the small waves creeping over parched sand that for years had known no wetting save for rain and lapping the very bases of the dunes. The rusted hulk of the freighter that had run aground at the far end of the bay longer ago than any of us could remember must have thought it was being granted a relaunch. I would not swim again, after that day. The seabirds mewled and swooped, unnerved, it seemed by the spectacle of that vast bowl of water bulging like a blister, lead blue and malignantly agleam. They looked unnaturally white, that day, those birds. The waves were depositing a fringe of soiled yellow foam along the waterline. No sail marred the high horizon. I would not swim, no, not ever again.
Someone has just walked over my grave.
For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well. On Thursday afternoons he drives to Green Point. Punctually at two p.m. he presses the buzzer at the entrance to Windsor Mansions, speaks his name, and enters. Waiting for him at the door of No 113 is Soraya. He goes straight through to the bedroom, which is pleasant-smiling and softly lit and undresses. Soraya emerges from the bathroom, drops her robe and slides into bed beside him. “Have you missed me?” she asks. “I miss you all the time,” he replies. He strokes her honey-brown body, unmarked by the sun; he stretches her out, kisses her breasts; they make love.
Soraya is tall and slim with long black hair and dark, liquid eyes. Technically he is old enough to be here father; but then technically one can be a father at twelve. He has been on her books for over a year; he finds her entirely satisfactory. In the desert of the week Thursday has become an oasis of luxe et volupté.
All day the colours had been those of dusk,mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths. Briefly visible above the vapour, Kanchenjunga was a far peak whittled out of ice, gathering the last of the light, a plume of snow blown high by the storms at its summit.
Sai, sitting on the veranda, was reading an article about giant squid in an old National Geographic. Every now and then she looked up at Kanchenjunga, observed its wizard phosphorescence with a shiver. The judge sat at the far corner with his chessboard, playing against himself. Stuffed under his char where she felt safe was Mutt the dog, snoring gently in her sleep. A single bald lightbulb dangled on a wire above. It was cold. but inside the house, it was still colder, the dark, the freeze, contained by stone walls several feet deep.