John-Michael Gariepy

Step Right Up! Guess the Writer’s Gender and Win a Giant Teddy Bear!

This was going to be a simple post.

Recently, I stumbled upon some blowhard in the internet who claimed he could tell if an author of a book was male or female by reading their content.  Most of his claims were Texas Sharpshooting:  He painted his target on the side of a barn after he emptied his gun at it, then marveled how accurate his shooting was.

“Well, this would be a fun experiment!” I thought.  “I’ll just post an excerpt from 10 famous authors’ lesser known works and let people guess who’s the male and who’s the female.  We’ll see if people can figure it out by the context and language… and, Bam!  Easy article.”

So, I pulled out five female and five male authors and paired them up.  I got a selection of their writing and worked on the article.  Then I stepped back and realized something:  That’s a lot of words.  A lot of words left outside of the context of the books they were written in, and who wants to read that?  You want an example?  Sure.  Can you guess the gender of this author?

“I AM the native of a sea-surrounded nook, a cloud-enshadowed land, which,
when the surface of the globe, with its shoreless ocean and trackless
continents, presents itself to my mind, appears only as an inconsiderable
speck in the immense whole; and yet, when balanced in the scale of mental
power, far outweighed countries of larger extent and more numerous
population. So true it is, that man’s mind alone was the creator of all
that was good or great to man, and that Nature herself was only his first
minister. England, seated far north in the turbid sea, now visits my dreams
in the semblance of a vast and well-manned ship, which mastered the winds
and rode proudly over the waves. In my boyish days she was the universe to
me. When I stood on my native hills, and saw plain and mountain stretch out
to the utmost limits of my vision, speckled by the dwellings of my
countrymen, and subdued to fertility by their labours, the earth’s very
centre was fixed for me in that spot, and the rest of her orb was as a
fable, to have forgotten which would have cost neither my imagination nor
understanding an effort.”

Honestly, the challenge was nigh impossible.  Assuming you aren’t making blanket judgement based upon a novel’s genre (Most romance is written by women, and most war stories are written by men,) there’s no way to know a person’s gender based on the writing.  In theory, men are more direct and women talk more about feelings, but a good novel requires both directness and emotion (Emphasis on the word ‘good‘, Dan Brown.)  Unless the author calls out a detail about their own life, or possibly a philosophy built over a lifetime of being one gender, how could you tell?  And even then, how can you be certain the author didn’t do the research, and, yes, happens to know an intimate detail about shaving one’s legs that you wouldn’t have guessed from a man?

So, no, you’ll never know the gender of the author if they don’t reveal that information to you.  But, you might be able to guess.

At Hackerfactor.com there’s a little little JavaScript program called “Gender Guesser“.  It peels apart your sentences and looks for gender-biased words that you use.  The people at Hacker Factor say that the Gender Guesser is right 60% – 70% of the time… which is a very strange, non-scientific number.  They’d really like you to remember that this an estimate and not a science.  Oh, and it’s more efficient when looking at informal writing, than when scanning prose.  Casual writers are often inspired by their friends, who are often the same gender.  Formal writers, however, often emulate other writers who inspire them irregardless of gender.

So, since I already did the work, I figured I’d toss my short list into Gender Guesser and see what we get.  Let’s set aside science for a bit and have a little fun:

Authors from the Romance Period:

Edward Bulwer-LyttonThe Pilgrims of the Rhine
Female = 796
Male = 806
Difference = 10; 50.31%
Verdict: Weak MALE
The First Baron of Lytton isn’t a commonly touted author, I know, but you may happen to know about the Bulwer-Lytton Awards which are given out for terrible opening sentences. Poor Bulwer-Lytton… he’s a good read, but he writes off the top of his head and is prone to make a sentence last a page.

Already, we see a problem. Approximately 1,600 words were fed to Hacker Factor, and it barely recognized Edward as male. Eight feminine words and he would have popped up female, to his embarrassment.

Oh, you want an example of a Bulwer-Lytton award winner?  We’re really going off topic here, but sure.  This is from the 2010 winner, Molly Ringle:

For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity’s affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss–a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity’s mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world’s thirstiest gerbil.

Mary ShellyThe Last Man
Female = 711
Male = 659
Difference = -52; 48.1%
Verdict: Weak FEMALE

The example paragraph from earlier in the article was from Mary Shelly’s apocalyptic novel “The Last Man“, and I’m hoping it just reminded you that you should read more of Shelly. Don’t get too attached, however, because she’s betrothed to me.

After reading Mary Shelly’s seminal work “Frankenstein”, many claimed they were amazed a woman could fathom such a dark fantasy without some kindly male-type helping her out with the grizzly details. Gender Guesser was more comfortable with the idea, guessing correctly that Mary is indeed all woman.

Literature from The Lost Generation

Virginia WoolfFlush: A Biography
Female = 1766
Male = 2100
Difference = 334; 54.31%
Verdict: Weak MALE

Gender Guesser takes a wrong turn with the woman who is often pointed to for pre-World War II feminist literature. Of course, I don’t know if a biography about a dog can really be classified under “girl power”.

Not only is Gender Guesser wrong, but it’s a strongish wrong, making Virginia look more like Orlando.

F. Scott FitzgeraldFinancing Finnegan
Female = 1213
Male = 1585
Difference = 372; 56.64%
Verdict: Weak MALE

Gender Guesser makes up for its previous gaffe with Virginia Woolf by giving Fitzgerald an even healthier difference towards manliness. This makes me wonder how much a literary style influences the manliness of your words. If Baron Bulwer-Lytton and Virginia got into a fist fight, would her flapper days know-how give her the where-with-all to give him a good lickin’?

Modern Horror

Clive BarkerMister B. Gone
Female = 1347
Male = 1412
Difference = 65; 51.17%
Verdict: Weak MALE

Mr. Barker squeaks in at being male, but male none the less, and Gender Guesser wins another round.

Anne RiceThe Vampire Armand
Female = 738
Male = 1028
Difference = 290; 58.21%
Verdict: Weak MALE

Yipes! Maybe Anne Rice knows something we don’t, but Gender Guesser is close to calling its verdict straight-up male. Clive Barker calls up Anne Rice for workout tips. Anne Rice suggests leaping from rooftop to rooftop.

American Humorists

Dorothy ParkerBut the One on the Right
Female = 758
Male = 534
Difference = -224; 41.33%
Verdict: Weak FEMALE

Dorothy Parker helps put the gravestone in the theory that The Lost Generation was full of manly writers. Gender Guesser is feeling pretty cocky. 41.33% is striking compared to the other women in this round-up.  That’s rather interesting, since Parker’s work was considered brassy for a woman living in the early to mid-twentieth century.

James ThurberThe Night the Bed Fell
Female = 1204
Male   = 1423
Difference = 219; 54.16%
Verdict: Weak MALE

Thurber, with his fear of women, and preference for dogs, can’t get manlier than Parker got feminine. I’m sure if he was here, he’d probably point out that while banging away on his typewriter, his wife was talking about the new next door neighbor, or some hat, and that somehow all that information ended up in his work. You’ll have to forgive him some. He wrote during a time when men were losing ground to very talented women in the workplace, and the idea that he would have to compete with two genders broke him.

Detective Fiction

Dorothy SayersWhose Body?
Female = 2836
Male = 3458
Difference = 622; 54.94%
Verdict: Weak MALE

When you spend most of your career writing volumes about the exploits of a foppish English detective named Lord Peter Wimsey, does the maleness of your character permeate your brain, and filter into your writing? I couldn’t tell you. What I can tell you is that this is the third time that Gender Guesser guessed wrong.  While the guesser is mostly passing, the success rate among women is very low.  I can relate.

Dashiell HammitNightmare Town
Female = 820
Male = 1646
Difference = 826; 66.74%
Verdict: MALE

Well, well.  Seems the hard-boiled detective author is a hard-boiled man.  Ladies, look out!  Dashiell ain’t shaving his mustache for any woman.  If you want a piece of Mr. Hammit, you need to wear something slinky and shiny, and when his back is turned to fix you a highball, slip a revolver out of your purse.

Stereotyped Male/Female Authors

Ernest Hemmingway – A Movable Feast
Female = 654
Male = 880
Difference = 226; 57.36%
Verdict: Weak MALE

Our last category is an attempt to see what happens when we toss a dangerously masculine author, and a woman who writes to an almost exclusive female audience into our great big batter of guess.  Ernest Hemmingway does what you’d guess he’d do.  Enough maleness to let you know that he enjoys bullfights and hunting, but a little reserved for those moments that he cries himself to sleep at night.  But check this out:

Stephanie MeyerTwilight
Female = 342
Male = 526
Difference = 184; 60.59%
Verdict: MALE

Granted, the excerpt I took from Meyer was smaller than most, but that’s a healthy portion of maleness hanging out in her writing. Perhaps there’s a reason why women flock to her books. Does Twilight exude machisma that’s strong enough for a woman? Does Meyer’s work appeal to the ladies by pulling them in with romantic intrigue, but following it up with the coarse full-bodied language of a man?

Gender Guesser leaves us guessing, and, man, let me tell you, I’m okay with that. Maybe some day authors won’t be able to confound our robot overlords into thinking our writing is someone other than Bill Westersminds, 137 Main St., Dorchester, Massachusetts. By that point, however, I assume it doesn’t matter, because humans won’t need to write books anymore. Computers will upload video-sonoma to your cerebral cortex while they use your hippocampus for extra storage.  In the meantime, however, you’ll have to assume that this post was written by John-Michael Gariepy, because I told you it was, and not by, say, Christine Rousseau.

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