I have taken two writing courses with Professor Elizabeth Tallent and during both courses, the same question came up: “Do men and women have discernible writing voices?” In another word, when you read an unidentified paragraph or two, can you guess the sex of the writer?
I used to think that the answer was obvious. Ever since I was a kid, I have had the habit of picking up a book, opening to a random page, reading a few sentences and thinking to myself: “The author must be a woman” or “the author must be a man”. Then I saw the author’s name and realized I was correct most of the times. However, in both workshops, I was surprised at how many people argued that it was a no. Some said that my attempt to identify the author’s sex was to reinforce the gender stereotypes: “Are you saying that because I’m a girl my proses are lengthier and more flowery?” or “Did you just assume my gender?” Man, there is no way I could possibly win that argument.
So today, after years of agonizing over the question, I decided to own up to it and google the answer. To my delight, I was not alone in this sentiment. One of my favorite authors, V. S. Naipaul, said in an interview that “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not.” [As a side note, he also suggested that woman writers are “sentimental” and “unequal” to him.] The Guardian took it a step further and created what they called the “Naipaul test”: a test that consists of 10 paragraphs taken from 10 books. After reading each paragraph, you will have to guess if it was written by a male or a female author.
It took me 5 minutes to do the test. For most questions, I realized that I didn’t even have to read the whole paragraph. After reading one or two sentences, I was pretty sure of the author’s sex. To me, male and female authors do have very distinct writing voices. I would have posted my reasoning for the distinction, but then, I don’t want to risk “reinforcing gender stereotypes”. I got 8/10 questions correct.
It’s a shame The Guardian didn’t publish the results so I can’t say how an average person does. I’d really appreciate it if you could spend a few minutes to do the test and let me know how you did and who you got wrong, either by commenting or by messages. When I get enough data, I will post the results here. It’d also be interesting to see what author often gets their sex confused by the way they write.
Here is the link to the test. Thank you!