The Gendered Sentence

Last week the Guardian published an article on V. S. Naipaul’s claim that no female author living or dead is equal to him. You might think that this is the most sexist thing he could say, but the article went on to quote him saying that writing by women is “different” (i.e. worse) because of their "sentimentality, the narrow view of the world", and that because women are not the complete masters of houses that even the best among the literati can only write “feminine tosh”. But don’t fret your pretty little head! He says he doesn’t mean this in an unkind way. Naipaul also claimed that within a paragraph or two of reading anything he could tell whether the author is a woman or a man. So The Guardian invented a quiz, rather mocking of Naipaul, but also I think to try and satisfy that curiosity: can we tell? Is there such a thing as a gendered way of writing, a gendered sentence? Gendered subject matter? Is it obvious?

This wasn’t a test on which I wanted to score highly. To the above questions I answer no: subject matter is only gendered according to the reader; women’s writing is not all characterized by sentimentality; sentence rhythm and vocabulary cannot be differentiated by sex. And yet I scored a 6 out of 10, which (if you pretend this is statistically significant data) means that 60% of the time I can correctly guess the gender of an author based on one paragraph.

I wasn’t motivated to write this post because of Naipaul’s blatant sexism in particular. He has been known to say offensive, egotistical things in the past. This post is really about a culture where I am asked to guess the gender of an author based on a writing sample, and where I am then able to guess with a fair amount of accuracy. What was I looking for, when I attempted to determine the gender of each author?

I was looking for evidence of some major generalizations: if the character is female, maybe a woman. If the character is male, likely a man. Romantic subject matter: female. Paragraph about death: male. Flowery language: female. Direct, minimalist prose: male.

Did The Guardian know this? Did they (consciously or unconsciously) craft a quiz that catered to these assumptions (and then cleverly thwarted them, in the case of Nicholas Sparks)? Or am I just looking at the world through Naipaul-colored glasses? I remember this discussion from one English class in undergrad, the possibility of a gendered sentence. The professor introduced and then dismissed the idea as a fallacy, and I was left wondering: why introduce it at all then?

Perhaps because it’s still a widely perpetuated myth, still a topic of discussion. Note that ten years ago, Francine Prose published an article about the exact same thing in Harper's and that she has recently pointed out the sad relevance of that article to 2011. Perhaps we’ll next decide if we can guess race, nationality, sexuality, age and socioeconomic class based on blind writing samples. Or perhaps all of these things are only in the eyes of readers who have been enculturated into certain expectations and assumptions. Maybe V. S. Naipaul isn’t the only one who needs to examine the fallacy of the gendered sentence.

I invite you to take the quiz and share your thoughts.