Sunday Salon

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.

Extract One 

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.

Extract Two

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.

Extract Three 

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.


Extract Four

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.

Extract Five

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.



If you’re interested in the discussions around Nicole Griffith’s analysis, take a look at a post on Whispering Gum’s blog site via this link or the article in the The Guardian here.  


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

28 thoughts on “Could you spot the female author?

  • Fun game! I bet by 2-3 men and 1-4-5 women.

    For me there is of no importance that the writer, or the protagonist of the novel, is male or female, the only thing I care is that I like what I’m reading.

    Anyway, it is curious that here in my country, Spain, the statistics say that the percentage of women readers is vastly greater than that of men. I don’t know if in your country this happens, because it would be strange that they are almost always those who take the prizes.

    • Two of your guesses are correct Desiree 🙂 I haven’t looked at the statistics in quite some time but I think it would be the same gender mix of readers here. I do remember something about the problem where fathers don’t read to their children as much as women do so there are not many good role models for boys

  • This is an interesting issue and there’s nothing like a test to really make me consider things from a new perspective. I never really pay attention to the gender of the author, with the exception of this year when I’m trying to make a conscious effort to read more women. Still, gender isn’t one of the first things that I register when looking up a book.

    Nevertheless, I’ve been exposed to the ideas of gendered writing and thought that based on those I’d be able to deduce the correct answer from the examples. However, after a while I called bluff on some of the extracts, and not a moment later double-bluff. Needless to say, it got all very confusing and in the end, I found out that I didn’t really care that much. I do have a hunch on some of the extracts but mostly I just registered the writing style and whether or not I’d want to continue reading.

    Overall, this was a wonderful article and I’ll definitely check out the article that you’ve linked!

    • I would have ended up guessing too – like you I don’t pay particular attention to the gender of the author. I’m more interested in whether the style appeals and the subject is interesting.

  • What a great exercise! I never thought of my reading as being gender biased before this year. I think of myself as liking female authors and classics, but as so much of the canon is by men I like to think these equal out. Now that I’m doing my Russian reading project, which is heavily male, my non-Russian reading has shifted and I’ve found myself craving contemporary books by women.

    • I can quite see after a heavy dose of the dark Russians, why you need something a little less intense maybe

  • What a fun exercise! Here are my guesses: 1. Male, 2. Male, 3. Female, 4. Male 5. Female. I don’t get the feeling that in the long run I’d do any better than chance unless I happen to recognize the passage. (Unless I recognize the passage, which I have a suspicion about for #5)

    I’m curious, did you choose these extracts at random out of the books or according to some scheme? Four of the five have landscape description, which makes me think they aren’t random.

    • Good effort – you got three of the five right (but now you’ll have to wait till next week to discover which). I chose the books by random from my Booker shelf – and then always chose the first paragraph or two. It was purely a coincidence that most of them were landscape

  • An interesting post – I read far more books written by women as they hone in on the subjects I’m interested in and typically have female protagonists which I can identify (if not with) That said as I pick books by subject rather than looking at the gender of the author and don’t think that style is something that is typically male or female…

  • Thanks for the link Karen. Interesting question. I do make a point of reading books by women, partly because I do like books hone in on the domestic and the interior, but I don’t particularly think of women having a particular style. And men can do these things too. I also read women because I want to support women. But is also try for diversity. I’d achieve more diversity if I could actually manage to read more in a year … Life seems to get in the way so my reading is unbalanced, but my prejudices are more about genre than gender or nationality, etc, of the author. As for your choices, I’ve read no. 3, love that opening, and I’m fairly sure I’ve read no. 2 and 4. But can’t recollect which they are. No. 4 is driving me berserk! Just to play along, though I don’t know that I can really tell about style, my first reaction was the same as Jen’s so I’ll go with that too, ie 1&5 women, the others men. There may be a trick here though about men and women writing protagonists not their own gender.

    • Ah I’ve just worked out 4 … I know why it was driving me mad … it’s a gut wrenching book. Knew I recognised it.

    • Three of the five you got right…. hope you don’t lose too much sleep over number 4

      since your interest is in the domestic then its easy to see how that means you read many women writers though of course this isn’t the exclusive domain of the female writer.

  • This continuing debate is a fascinating one. I don’t think I could positively identify the gender of any of those extracts. I don’t ever consider gender when I read, although I know I read far more by women.

    • Not even going to give it a guess?? You might be surprised Ali

        • In the words of Francis Urquhart, you might very well think so Ali but i couldn’t possibly comment 🙂

    • You’ve set me off thinking whether I have any preferences in that direction. I’m not conscious of making any choices though

  • Very interesting. I do think that elements of our identity whether they be our gender, race, ethnicity, age, impact how we approach certain content and this likely impacts writing.

    I personally set diversity goals into my reading selections and I’ve done so for a long time. I make a conscious decision to read a mix of books by women and men, from different countries, different sexual orientations, etc. however since all the recent discussion about this issue in the book world, I’ve been making a stronger effort to read books by women. I certainly don’t have assumptions (that I am consciously aware of) about the quality of books based exclusively on gender.

    I couldn’t read gender of author in any of the examples you gave. I guess 1&5 women and 2, 3, 4 men but those are all blind guesses except for one which I recognized.

    • Three out of five correct is good going Jen. How are you finding the experience of reading with diversity in mind? Are you making any unexpected discoveries about your reading preferences?

      • I’m trying to make my way through the 1001 books to read before you die list so in some ways it has been a challenge because the list is dominated by white male authors. So, many of my diversity goals are filled by reading I do outside the list. The only discovery I have made is that I like to read books by a very diverse author set. My current favorite authors are a British man, a Japanese man, and an African woman. I have noticed that I’ve been reading more books by women. The last four books I have read were all written by female authors, only one of whom was a white woman. I do feel frustrated by the lack of women in award categories.

        • Im with you in enjoying the diversity I’ve experienced by pushing myself to read outside the tradition of USA/British authors.

  • This is really interesting. I heard that they have used this kind of analysis before to also find anonymous authors.

    • Really, I hadn’t heard about that – if you have any further info please do share with us

  • Funny that this post popped up today as I just finished a book I loved: The Truth and Other Lies by Sascha Arango. It features exactly the type of character I enjoy reading about: the slimy male. Where are the slimy females of fiction? Any pointers? Noir I suppose.

    • Slimy females? now that is what I would call a three pipe problem. Nothing is coming instantly to mind though. I’ll keep thinking. Maybe someone here has a suggestion??


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