Can You Tell Someone's Gender Just From Their Writing? Take the V.S. Naipaul Test and Find Out

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
June 2 2011 2:01 PM

Can You Tell Someone's Gender Just From Their Writing? Take the V.S. Naipaul Test and Find Out

The Internetis apoplectic today over V.S. Naipaul's recent comments about the worth orlack thereof of women writers. Intelligence Squared, who hosted the inflammatory May 31event, will have the full video andaudio up "soon," but according to the Guardian ,the main aspersions cast by the Nobel prize-winning author are that femalewriters are all "unequal" to him and that their work demonstrates a "narrow," "sentimental"view of the world.

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Diana Anthill, Naipaul's former publisher, camein for particular condescension for the "feminine tosh" she produced when the famededitor turned her hand to writing. Anthill responded,witheringly, in the Evening Standard today. "He always tended toward irritability, and it seems he is losinghis grip," she says. "It is ridiculous. Taking myself out of it, you only have to think ofauthors like George Eliot, or Jane Austen you cannot take itseriously." (Sir Vidia wouldn't find Austen a compelling counterexample,of course; he claimed in Tuesday's interview that he "couldn't possibly share" the belovedauthor's "sentimental ambitions.")

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LikeAnthill, I'm inclined to dismiss Naipaul's comments as the cranky ramblings of anotoriously combative old man and go about my merry way. But women writersand their difference from their male brethren whether inherent or institutionally -i nduced is a topic we've covered several times in Slate and DoubleX recently, so Iwas intrigued by Naipaul's claim that he has a kind of readerlysixth sense when it comes to an author's gender. "I read a piece ofwriting and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not,"he said in the interview.

It's hard to know whether to take Naipaul's declaration seriously, since in real life we so rarely encounter a piece of writing that'scompletely missing external clues, such as a book jacket, author photo, orbyline. But the Guardian has, helpfully, designed alittle quiz to see if you, too, can pass the Naipaul Test and suss out anauthor's gender in a paragraph or less.

I failed miserably and spectacularly. Can youdo any better?

[h/t to Vulture for the Times link above]

Photograph of V.S. Naipaul courtesy of Indranil Mukherjee/AFP./Getty Images.

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Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.

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