Sunday Salon

Gender reading – the results

A week ago I asked:  Can you detect the author’s gender simply by reading their words? Asking you to do this with some Booker prize winners proved to be rather challenging — no-one got all five right though Biblioglobal  got close with four correct answers.

The number of responses wouldn’t be enough to provide robust data from which I could draw conclusions so I won’t.

Here are the answers:

Exactly what constitutes a ‘feminine sentence’ I’m not exactly sure.

Extract One: Male Author. This is the opening to The Famished Road by Ben Okri . It won the Booker Prize in 1991. I tried reading it earlier this year but gave up  (you can see why here.  The extract below is the opening of the book

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: Female Author. This is the opening of The Sea The Sea by Iris Murdoch which won the Booker Prize in 1978. This was the extract that had the highest number of incorrect answers. 

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 sea 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: Male Author.  Another landscape opening;  this one is from The Sea by John Banville, winner of the Booker prize in 2005 and one of my favourite Booker titles. 

The departed, the gods,on the 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: Male Author. This is a book upon which opinions are very divided because the male protagonist proves to be such a thoroughly distasteful character. The author is the Nobel Laureate J.M Coetzee and the book is Disgrace, winner of the Booker prize in 1999. Most people judged this correctly as a male author. Maybe it was the perspective of the author that led to that conclusion>

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: Female author. The Inheritance of Loss, of which this is the opening, was the second novel written by the Indian author I Kiran Desai. With it, she won the 2006 Booker Prize. Most people judged the gender of this correctly.

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.




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

7 thoughts on “Gender reading – the results

    • I suspect this has been done as part of an academic study since it sounds like a good subject for a thesis

  • I am often shocked when I learn that an author is not the gender I thought. Good test.

    • the author’s gender often just doesn’t register with me

  • readerbuzz

    I just couldn’t tell the difference between the male and female authors from these small selections.

    • Maybe if the extract was longer it would be easier to tell, then again maybe it wouldn’t be


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