Shortly after V S Naipaul said, in an interview at the Royal Geographic Society, “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not,” I spoke to a book group at Sandhurst library in Berkshire. To test his assertion, I brought with me to the group twenty extracts from novels. I passed these around and asked the group to decide, in the case of each extract, whether it was a. written by a man or a woman, and b. whether the style was literary or commercial (a distinction I dislike, but one which is commonly made). The “bookies” studied each extract and came to some interesting and well-defended conclusions. In only one instance was their decision unanimous. This is the extract:
Hurley Reed now raises his champagne glass. ‘I would like us to
drink to Margaret and William and their future.’ William Damien
smiles. Everyone toasts the newly married pair.
Hurley Reed, at his end of the table, is now conversing with Helen
Suzy on his right. Helen looks uncomfortable since it is impossible
to avoid hearing her husband’s list.
‘That was last week,’ says Helen.
‘Rape,’ comes her husband’s voice. ‘It felt like rape.’
Helen looks at the plate of salmon mousse that has been softly and
silently placed before her. She takes up her fork.
Hurley takes up his and, while passing the tiny rolls to Ella
Untzinger on his left, continues his conversation with Helen Suzy.
‘Have you ever heard’, he says quietly, ‘of St Uncumber?’
‘A medieval saint,’ he says, ‘to whom people, especially women,
used to pray to relieve them of their spouses. She was a Portuguese
princess who didn’t want to get married. Her father found her a
husband. She prayed to become unattractive and her prayer was
answered. She grew a beard, which naturally put off the suitor. Her
father had her crucified as a result. She’s depicted in King Henry
VII’s chapel in Westminster Abbey, with long hair and a full beard.’
‘I’d better not pray to St Uncumber,’ says Helen, whose husband at
the other end of the table could not be hushed, but was continuing
to lament his robbery; ‘I might’, says Helen, ‘grow a beard.’
‘Not at all likely,’ says Hurley.
‘Then I might try the Uncumber method,’ says Helen.
The group decided it was a. by a woman, and b. literary. Spot on. The extract is from Symposium by Muriel Spark.
I've taken different extracts to several book groups, but never found total agreement on an extract since then.
Here are some of the extracts I've used.
Male or female author? Literary or commercial?
(Answers at the end.)
1. Let us start with the river – all things begin with the river and we shall probably end there, no doubt – but let’s wait and see how we go. Soon, in a minute or two, a young man will come and stand by the river’s edge, here at Chelsea Bridge, in London.
There he is – look – stepping hesitantly down from a taxi, paying the driver, gazing around him, unthinkingly, glancing over at the bright water (it’s a flood tide and the river is unusually high). He’s a tall, pale-faced young man, early thirties, even-featured with tired eyes, his short dark hair neatly cut and edged as if fresh from the barber.’
2. He looked at her face between him and the fire. She was leaning back in the chair and the firelight shone on her pleasantly lined face and he could see that she was sleepy. He heard the hyena make a noise just outside the range of the fire.
“I’ve been writing,” he said. “But I got tired.”
“Do you think you will be able to sleep?”
“Pretty sure. Why don’t you turn in?”
“I like to sit here with you.”
“Do you feel anything strange?” he asked her.
“No. Just a little sleepy.”
“I do,” he said.
He had just felt death come by again…..It moved up closer to him still and now he could not speak to it, and when it saw he could not speak it came a little closer, and now he tried to send it away without speaking, but it moved in on him so its weight was all upon his chest, and while it crouched there and he could not move, or speak, he heard the woman say, “Bwana is asleep now. Take the cot up very gently and carry it into the tent.”
3. Mungo drove with verve and dash. They had spent the night in a hotel by the Helford river. He had feared, when Alison insisted on stopping at a chemist in Truro, that she was planning one of her fucking headaches (to be exact a non-fucking headache) but this fear had been groundless. After dinner with Rory, who entertained them during the meal with a description of his life as a milliner, he had, elevated by circumspect consumption of wine, gone up to their room to find that she had bought not, as he supposed, soluble aspirin, but a choice of contraceptives. ‘Which do you prefer?’ Alison presented her offerings. ‘Arousal? Elite? Fiesta?’
4. Why had she married him? – For solace, for children. But at first the insomnia coating her brain got in the way of her first aim; and children don’t always come at once. So Amina had found herself dreaming about an undreamable poet’s face and waking with an unspeakable name on her lips. You ask: what did she do about it? I answer: she gritted her teeth and set about putting herself straight. This is what she told herself: ‘You big ungrateful goof, can’t you see who is your husband now? Don’t you know what a husband deserves?’ To avoid fruitless controversy about the correct answers to these questions, let me say that, in my mother’s opinion, a husband deserved unquestioning loyalty, and unreserved, full-hearted love.
5. Bernie Harrison liked quality in a restaurant. He liked stiff white tablecloths, and heavy cutlery and his fish to be filleted with a flourish at the table, and presented to him complete with a half-lemon neatly wrapped in muslin. He liked carpets, and thick curtains, and properly dressed waiters who said things like ‘Mr Harrison, Chef has some guinea fowl he’d very much like to offer you today.’ Booking a table at his favourite restaurant in the centre of the city, he specified a particular table for two, and was not in the least pleased to be told that the table had already been reserved.
‘Then unreserve it,’ Bernie said to the young woman – Dutch? Scandinavian? Eastern European? – on the other end of the line.
‘I’m afraid I can’t do that, Mr Harrison.’
Bernie glared ahead of him. He usually had his personal assistant telephone restaurants for him, but he found he did not particularly want Moira to know that he was giving Margaret Rossiter dinner.
6. In the water, the few times that she swam out on her own, she felt that the waves were stronger than at home, not so much in the way they broke but in the way they pulled out. She realised that she would have to be careful not to swim too far out of her depth in this unfamiliar sea. Tony, she saw, was afraid of the water, hated her swimming away from him. As soon as she returned to him each time, he made her put her arms around his neck and he lifted her from below so that her legs were wrapped around him. When he kissed her and then held her face back and looked at her, he seemed not to be embarrassed by his erection at all but proud of it. He was all boyish as he grinned at her; she, in turn, felt a great tenderness towards him and kissed him deeply as he held her. As the day waned, they were almost the last remaining in the water.
7. Howard stood up and rearranged himself decently in his bathrobe. ‘Do we have their address at least?’ he asked. ‘Home address?’ Kiki pressed her fingers to each temple like a carnival mindreader. She spoke slowly, and, though the pose was sarcastic, her eyes were wet. ‘I want to understand what it is you think we’ve done to you. Your family. What is it we’ve done? Have we deprived you of something?’ Howard sighed and looked away. ‘I’m giving a paper in Cambridge on Tuesday anyway – I might as well fly to London a day earlier, if only to – ’ Kiki slapped the table. ‘Oh, God, this isn’t happening – Jerome can marry who the hell he wants to marry – or are we going to start making up visiting cards and asking him to meet only the daughters of academics that you happen to – ’ ‘Might the address be in the green moleskin?’ Now she blinked away the possibility of tears. ‘I don’t know where the address might be,’ she said, impersonating his accent. ‘Find it yourself. Maybe it’s hidden underneath the crap in that damn hovel of yours.’ ‘Thanks so much,’ said Howard and began his return journey up the stairs to his study.
8. ‘Have you got a singer called Patsy Malone?’
‘Not in stock. I’ll see what’s available.’ He tapped into the computer by the till and gazed intently at the screen.
‘She sang with a showband in the seventies. Did a lot of country music. Then she went solo as a folk artist. She’s a big name in Germany.’
‘Germany?’ I said.
‘Oh, yes,’ he said. ‘Irish music is popular over there. They can’t really play their own traditional music. It’s a bit, you know,’ he lowered his voice, ‘Third Reich. Hitler was fond of it apparently. Then there’s a thing called Volksmusik which has nothing to do with folk music at all. So they play Irish music instead.’
‘Or very German,’ he said. ‘Depending on where you’re coming from.’
9. ‘It’s for you’ said Erich, wearily proffering the telephone receiver with its tangled flex to Elizabeth. ‘It’s a man.’
‘A man,’ said Elizabeth. ‘Erich, you’re so precise.’ It was Robert. He was going to find himself unexpectedly in London that evening and wondered if she would like to come to see him in his flat.
‘I’m sorry it’s such short notice,’ he said. ‘I’ve only just found out. I don’t suppose you’re free.’
Elizabeth was going to the cinema and then to a party somewhere in south London. ‘Of course I’m free,’ she said. ‘Shall I come round at about eight?’
‘I’ll see you then. We’ll stay in, shall we? I’ll buy some food.’
‘Don’t worry. I’ll get it,’ she said with a swiftness based on experience of Erich’s shopping.
When she had disentangled her earlier arrangement, she went through into Erich’s room to see if she could help him.
‘So,’ he said, the sound causing half an inch of ash to tumble down the front of his cardigan, ‘the errant knight is paying a call.’
10. Miles and Samantha sipped their coffee, waiting for Howard to come back. Samantha’s dressing gown gaped open as she sat at the kitchen table, revealing the contours of her big breasts as they rested on her forearms. Upwards pressure made them appear fuller and smoother than they were when they hung unsupported. The leathery skin of her upper cleavage radiated little cracks that no longer vanished when decompressed. She had been a great user of sunbeds when younger.
“What?” said Howard, back on the line. “What did you say about hospital?”
“Sam and I went in the ambulance,” Miles enunciated clearly. “With Mary and the body.”
Samantha noticed how Miles’ second version emphasized what you might call the more commercial aspects of the story. Samantha did not blame him. Their reward for enduring the awful experience was the right to tell people about it.
11. Carrying her basket back up the bank, she sat down under the trees and stretched her legs in front of her. Her back, shoulders and fingers were stiff, but she felt pleased with what she’d achieved. She leaned over and took Jacques’s jar of wine from the hollow. The stopper came loose with a gentle pop. Alaïs shivered a little as the cool liquid trickled over her tongue and down her throat. Then she unwrapped the fresh bread and tore a large chunk out of it. It tasted of a strange combination of wheat, salt, river water and weed, but she was ravenous. It was as good a meal as she had ever eaten.
The sky was now a pale blue, the colour of forget-me-nots. Alaïs knew she must have been gone for some time. But as she watched the golden sunlight dancing on the surface of the water and felt the breath of the wind on her skin, she was reluctant to return to the busy, noisy streets of Carcassonne and the crowded spaces of the household. Telling herself a few moments more couldn’t hurt, Alaïs lay back on the grass and closed her eyes.
Now see how many you got right......
1. Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd
2. The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway
3. Harnessing Peacocks by Mary Wesley
4. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
5. The Other Family by Joanna Trollope
6. Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
7. On Beauty by Zadie Smith
8. Singing Bird by Roisin McAuley
9. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
10. The Casual Vacancy by J K Rowling
11. Labyrinth by Kate Mosse