Monday 13 June 2011

Naipaul's agender...

V.S. Naipaul hit headlines recently for claiming that all female writers were inferior to him, and "I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not." Well, Naipaul, put your money where your mouth is - and, on the offchance that you don't read my blog, some of you others can have a go.

Here are the openings of ten novels - five of them are by men, five of them are by women. I'm hoping you won't know what they are... they've been picked more or less at random off my shelves.

Pop your guesses in the comments box! There might be a prize... but I'm rather hoping that we can prove Naipaul wrong, and that nobody gets them all right. But bonus points if you can guess the authors... and also let me know which makes you most keen to read the book!

1.) One evening, shortly before Christmas, in the days when our forefathers, being young, possessed the earth, - in brief, in the year 1879, - Mrs. Garden came briskly into the drawing-room from Mr. Garden's study and said in her crisp, even voice to her six children, "Well, my dears, I have to tell you something. Poor papa has lost his faith again."

2.) "Oh, dear, oh, dear!" said Henry Clare.

His sister glanced in his direction.

"They are pecking the sick one. They are angry because it is ill."

"Perhaps it is because they are anxious," said Megan, looking at the hens in the hope of discerning this feeling.

3.) In order to pay off an old debt that someone else had contracted, Austin King had said yes when he knew that he ought to have said no, and now at five o'clock of a July afternoon he saw the grinning face of trouble everywhere he turned. The house was full of strangers from Mississippi; within an hour the friends and neighbors he had invited to an evening party would begin ringing the doorbell; and his wife (whom he loved) was not speaking to him.

4.) Even in what Julia now thought of as "the old days" - a year ago, and more - Terry had always minded things.

Whenever anything went even a little bit wrong he was almost certain to be fearfully upset. Sometimes he cried, even at twelve years old.

Daddy said Terry was a neurotic little ass.

Mummie said he was highly-strung, and that she'd been the same herself as a child.

Click!... Here it was again! He was walking along the cliff at Hunstanton and it had come again... Click!...

Or would the word 'snap' or 'crack' describe it better?

"You'd like you tea up here, father?"

There was a moment before the old man replied. Then he turned in his chair by the open window and stared bewilderedly at his daughter. She stood in the low doorway to the small study which overlooked the orchard, a thin, black-haired woman whose ringed hands were red and coarse from years of housework. Fenner's thoughts had wandered very far and he could not immediately relate the woman to his own life. It seemed to him that she was not his daughter, only one other individual in a haphazard dream world of unrelated human beings.

The sun shone down on a beautiful morning, edging the beech trunks copper and the beech leaves gold. The paddock lay like virgin land, the thin frost lay on it unbroken by human footfall, the grass only darkened here and there by delicate hoofprints where the deer had passed by when the mist still lay sorrelhigh, their sandy bellies brushing drops of dew from thistles, and had passed on and left the paddock still and silent as before in deep dreaming sleep.

Kulay, a fair, skinny, whip-wielding boy with grey, stony eyes, guards the border between a Shillong mansion, once home to a British tea planter, and its drab tenants' quarters. A forget-me-not hedge separates the drab houses from the magnificent mansion.

He is twelve and is wearing a red polo-neck sweater. He dances in circles like a ribbon of stony sunlight.

The long, long road over the moors and up into the forest - who trod it into being first of all? Man, a human being, the first that came here. There was no path before he came. Afterward, some beast or other, following the faint tracks over marsh and moorland, wearing them deeper; after these again some Lapp gained scent of the path, and took that way from field to field, looking to his reindeer. Thus was made the track through the great Almenning - the common tracts without an owner; no-man's land.

Sir Henry Roxerby was dead. As far as Brokeyates was concerned, he might well have died years earlier, for the place had begun to go to rack and ruin long before he took to his bed. During those last five years, the main drive had never been used. Sir Henry had no visitors, and the butcher and the baker preferred to reach the house by the stable entrance, near the churchyard. It was thus possible almost to avoid the Park altogether, and none of the village people cared about going further into that than was absolutely necessary. It had a haunted look.


  1. Simon, this post interests me for lots of reasons apart from the question you're testing. The way you've set up your test is interesting, and echoes a famous (for Statisticians) experiment related to a lady testing tea. There's a special way to analyse a test of this sort, with the result that picking 4 out of 5 male writers correctly at random isn't that unlikely, but getting all 5 right would be.

    I've been surprised too often by the genders of writers to believe that I can discriminate, but I'll give you my guesses anyway. In order they are: MFFFMMMFFM. Only the last passage would have tempted me to read on.

  2. I've often thought of doing something similar to this, since I know I make assumptions about a writer's gender when reading a book, but only really notice that I do so when I'm proved wrong. I think you're right - it's pretty hard to pick someone's gender from their writing style! But here are my guesses: FMFMMFMFMF

  3. 1,2,4,6,7 female
    3,5,8.9.10 male
    But I am probably wrong!

  4. 1,4,5,6,10 female.
    2,3,7,8,9 male.
    The first and last would tempt me to read on.

  5. I think it is pretty much impossible to guess, but quite randomly I'd say:

    1,2,5,8,9 men

    3,4,6,7,10 women

    and I would be most tempted to read on by 7 and 10.

  6. How interesting!
    My guesses
    men: 1,3,5 (and is it Hangover Square?), 7
    women: 2,4,6,8,9,10

  7. My guess would be:


    But expect I am very wrong!

  8. What a great puzzler you are, Simon! Really enjoyed this. funnily enough I don't usually make assumptions about the writer's gender, and often forget who the writer is. I quite like having that mystery until I've finished a book. However, my guesses, for what they're worth, are MFMFFMMFMF

  9. Don't want to sound like V.S. Naipaul
    But I really think I can guess them all.
    But will I? Shall I? In a word, no.
    Cos then I can say, "I told you so!"

  10. Oh, Diana, not good enough! Put your money where your mouth is!

  11. He said that!? I'd love to attempt your test but I really need to find my smelling salts first.

  12. I don't know these books but my goodness how I long to read the first one and they all sound really interesting.
    Erika W.

  13. What fun!
    1, 3, 4, 5, 8 male
    2, 6, 7, 8, 10 female

    1 & 10 attract most to read on.

  14. Just for fun I'll go with MFMFMFFMMM

  15. I think the odd-numbered are by men and the even-numbered are by women. Please give us the titles and authors when you reveal the answers.

    Several are quite intriguing but I think I'd most like to read the first one and the last one, though I think I may have actually read the first one before, it seems very familiar. Will be racking my brains until I figure it out!

  16. There was an article about this on the Guardian with a very similar quiz. Surprisingly, I got 8/10 correct. I managed to mistake Salman Rushdie for a woman! For your quiz, I'd have to guess MFMMMFFFMM.

  17. Simon, I've given you an award because I like your blog. :) I want this to be a compliment and not a burden, so please take it in that spirit!

  18. What fun! W,W,M,W,M,M,W,M,W,M.

  19. To me they all seem like thy could go either way. I think the bigger issue surrounding Naipaul's ridiculous comments is the notion that the male voice (if there is such a thing) is inherently better and more valuable than the female. And as much as I think Naipaul is an idiot for these remarks, it won't keep from reading more of his books.

  20. I do think Naipaul's comment was a bit naff! I wonder if (assuming he's never read either book), given an extract from George Eliot's 'Romola' and another from George Meredith's 'Ordeal of Richard Feverel', he'd really be able to identify the gender of the two writers?
    Anyway, on to your challenge! I guess F/F/M/M/M/F/F/M/F/M.

  21. 1 - I think male but then again it's rather hard to say
    2 - male
    3 - female
    4 - female
    5- female
    6- male
    7- male
    8 - female
    9 -male
    10 - female

    I have no clue what the book titles are and I'm sure I guess wrong on all of them. they all sounds like older books from before the 21st century. I don't think I read any of them.

  22. My guess is
    I would be tempted to read on in the first three.

  23. My guess is MFMFMFFMMF

    7 is the one I want to read more of.

    Apparently Naipaul was also very critical of Diana Athill's writing. She of course was his long-time editor at Andre Deutsch. Her take is that when he'd been particularly troublesome she used to comfort herself with the fact 'at least I don't have to be married to Vidia'

    Carol N

  24. re > V.S. Naipaul hit headlines recently for claiming that all female writers were inferior to him...

    I'm glad you read that, Simon. Back when you included him in that list of authors you think you should read, I thought of it and thought about posting a link to the comment, but didn't.

  25. Okay, I'll guess F, F, M, F, M, F, M, M, M, F. I want to read more of 1 and 10, but don't recognize any of these. 9 makes me want to run screaming in the opposite direction.

  26. How interesting that we all have different answers. Mine are FFMMMFMFMF-and I didn't count up until the end when I found I did have five of each gender. 1 is the one that makes me want to read on. I can't guess any of the titles.

  27. My guesses: F, F, M, F, M, F, M, F, M, M,

    Is 6 Fenny by Lettice Delmer? If I hadn't guessed the novel then I would have guessed female anyway - the domestic setting. This exercise challenges our own preconceptions as well as Naipaul's misconceptions.

  28. Female: 1,3,4,8,10
    Male: 2,5,6,7,9

  29. How interesting!
    My guesses are :
    1,2,4,5,7 - Female
    3,6,8,9,10 - Male

    Most keen to read book 1 & 10.

  30. Oooh, this is a tough one. My guess is MMMFFFFFMM. I think I'd like to read no. 10.

  31. Thing is, Naipaul claimed that no woman can write as well as His Marvellous Self AND that He can tell the difference.

    But where's the connection? Men and women may have identifiably different writing styles -- or not -- but this doesn't inherently mean that Male = Good and Female = Bad.

    Except, it seems, in Naipaulcentric universe.

    intrigued by No. 8

    As for old Nr N, does he mean hew would most like to read stuff written by him? That's because he like his own writing.
    My sister is a writer and most of the men just don't get her first novel. When she was asking people to rad and comment, the parts the men suggested should be changed were the parts I loved the most.
    So as someone else said it's not a question of right or wrong but different.

  33. I went with my first instinct which is F, F, M, F, M, M, no idea, M, M, no idea. Statistically I have 3 women, 5 men so I suppose I could guess 7 and 10 as women.


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