Sunday with Zin: STRIPPED (edited by Nicole Monaghan, PS Books 2011)

STRIPPED, ed. by Nicole Monaghan, cover art by Anne Buckwalter

STRIPPED, ed. by Nicole Monaghan, cover art by Anne Buckwalter

Hello, I am Zin, and I got STRIPPED! And here is how:

Back in March 2011, writer Nicole Monaghan mused in a blog post:

I’ve also been thinking lately about authorial gender and the differences in my reactions to male and female flash writers….When men can put down the words that I thought only the recesses of my girly heart harbored, I’m like, HOLY SHIT, how did they (he) know that? ….On the other side, when the women writers I read blow me away, I am crazy-excited….

But wouldn’t it be a curious and wondrous thing if for some allotted time period – I don’t know, we’ll say a year – flash writers had to remain anonymous and we all had to read them wondering, is this written by a man or woman? Would we be able to tell? How often would we be surprised by the author’s gender? How much as writers can we understand about the opposite sex so that we can flesh them out flashy, and do the deed right.

Blog follower Marc Schuster of PS Books (they knew each other from grad school) read the post and thought: this would be a terrific idea for a book! And a year later, STRIPPED was published! You can read more about the idea-to-publication-on-a-shoestring-budget process at his blog post, “ Hey! This Is Cool! (Or: How Books Happen).”

And now I have read it and you can too and we can see how well we can tell men from women by their writing, and see where our assumptions are flawed! And as Marc wrote on the back cover of the book: “More to the point, does it really matter? Or is there something bigger going on when men and women stretch their minds and imagine what it might be like to be the other?”

STRIPPED is a collection of 47 flash fiction stories from 25 to 685 words by both authors you know – Pamela Painter (whose excellent craft book What If? began this blog and is used in many college creative writing programs), Robert Swartwood (who invented the term “hint fiction”), Roxane Gay, Kathy Fish, Randall Brown, Myfanwy Collins, and on and on – and by more whose names might not be so familiar (yet). But while we know the names of the authors (a complete list is in the comment that follows this post), and we know twenty-six are women and twenty-one are men, we do not know who wrote what story! The stories have been stripped of the identities of their authors! We must figure out, who wrote what!

I became aware of this book when my friend Jeanne Holtzmann, one of the authors included, asked if I would like a copy. Of course I would! So she sent it to me and I have been working on it for weeks now, reading the stories, and trying to figure out which ones were written by men, and by women! And most importantly, trying to figure out just how I figure that out, and what it means!

And in February 2013 – one year after publication – Nicole will post the match-ups and we will know if our guesses are right! ADDENDUM: See “Un-STRIPPED” for the results!

Nicole told me:

I think it’s an important book because I think flash fiction is important. Very short fiction, to me, is a beautiful and aggressive artform, and every bit as worthy of our attention as other literary forms, and I love that this collection attempts to re-excite an audience of short fiction readers and rejuvenate a spirit of wonder.

It has certainly excited me!

I put the stories through two online gender analyzers! So I have included, in the comment that follows this post, a table of the data from this! By the way, I would love for anyone who knows something about data analysis to look at the table and see if there are any statistical patterns evident! Then, next February, when there is snow on the ground and we are complaining about the cold instead of the heat, I will bring the table out again and see how many I got right, how many the Gender Genie got right, and how many the Stevens Institute analyzer got right! More information on this is also in the comment after this post!

You too can read the stories, too, and see what you think! Did a woman get inside the head of Grover Cleveland? Did a man understand why a woman facing a medical trauma would travel to Italy to recapture a perfect moment from her youth? Who was it that told the story of Gorgo, Queen of Sparta, or The Last Taster for the Emperor of China? Does a woman show what it is to howl with the beasts?

And how do you decide?

That is what got me! How did I decide? I… just guessed! Sometimes it was the focus of the story, sometimes the language, sometimes the structure! I will tell you my biases, and please do not be mad at me, because I am being honest here, I could just keep it to myself but that is not what we are here for!

I think men are more likely to experiment with format and style. Maybe that is because men are allowed to experiment, expected to be adventurous, while women are encouraged to be “good girls” and color within the lines! Maybe I will discover it is not the case at all – many women write strange stuff! In any case, most of the time unusual structures and forms struck me as male! And a focus on internal emotional conflicts and relationships struck me as female whereas power and external conflict seemed male! Is that stereotypical? Probably! But it is what it is, and the first step to change bias is to understand what is! The real danger comes from saying one is “good” and one is inferior, not in noticing a difference!

Many of the stories are available online in one form or another! And it just so happens some of these are among my favorites!

You can watch videos of readings of several stories from the STRIPPED launch party (the readers are not the authors of the works they are reading; that would be silly!):

Nicole gives an introduction to the project and the book and then reads “Found Objects” – a house gives back! One of my favorites!
Kiersten Bridges reads “Marooned in a Borrowed Mansion” – you can run and you can hide but not forever! Another of my favorites!
Robert Swartwood reads “Akimbo” – I feel the earth move! Another favorite of mine!
Sherrie Flick reads “The Bear” – a grim decision!
Randall Brown reads “Grover Cleveland Has It Out With America On The Eve Of His Second Election” – I thought I knew who wrote this, but that writer is not in this collection! An election year treat! I love it!
Devan Goldstein reads “Beasts and Men” – what it is to howl!
Jess Charest reads “Let’s Get Together Again Soon” – we have all been there on that couch!
Marc Nieson reads “Sculpted” – a sensual prose poem.

A few other stories are available in online publications. Shelf Unbound, April/May 2012, (pg. 52 online, pg 50 hard copy) offers an interview with Nicole and three stories:
The Turn” – a suspenseful drive to a party.
Sniffing Out The Boundaries” – a charming story of youngest love. Another favorite.
Waffles & Honey” – an enigmatic micro whose author I think I know! But I will have to wait to find out!

Philadelphia Stories, publisher of PS Books, offers four more stories on their website:
Dog Beach” – everyone always goes for the lifeguard!
Jerry’s Life As Sung To ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’” – When I started this project, in addition to the gender analyzer systems I used “I Write Like” which determines which of 20 famous authors a work resembles in style; I gave up after a while because half of them – half! – came out Chuck Palanhiuk, but one result that made me laugh was that this story was considered similar to Gertrude Stein! Just imagine, Gertrude Stein wrote one of the stupidest pop songs to come out of the 60s (no of course not, the lyrics to the song are a very small part of the story, but I still love the bizarre association)!
The Taster’s Last Meal” – of love, and duty. Another of my favorites!
Afterglow” – some people should not be parents!
A Conservator In The National Museum Of American History Rigged Into A Suspended Harness Floats Inches Above The Star-Spangled Banner” – the shortest story (25 words) and the longest title (21 words). I love the confidence it takes to do that!

Most of my favorites are included above, but I must also mention:
Moratorium” – “No more fucking moons!” – a non-traditional narrative; the last paragraph hits perfectly!
Rosalia” – I can not help it, I love it, and I know I should not! But it is done so well!
What Is Best In Life?” – I may know who wrote this, too! Probably not, but I keep thinking I do!
The Ballad of This and That” – “This spotted That through the crowd…” A very Zin story!

Let me note that because the authors are unknown, I have not talked to them about their stories (other than the briefest email conversation with Jeanne when she sent me the book), how they approached them for this volume, how they think about writing a character of the opposite sex! Or the same sex, for that matter! But face it, writers write all kinds of characters, and the best writers find ways to get inside corporate execs, drug dealers, doctors, politicians, mothers, genius kids, dorks, and the six billion other varieties of people, male and female that cohabit this tiny world! You can read “an online discussion” with four of the authors (whose identities have been obscured), led by Nicole and posted on the Necessary Fiction blog – it is a must for writers to see these approaches and techniques, whether you write beyond your own sex or not!

The book is divided into four sections: It, Her, Him, Them. Because I was uncertain about the division – some stories seemed to belong in different sections, to me – I asked Nicole to talk about it a little bit:

I very much like the “chunking” of stories in a collection like this for a dual purpose: 1) to give the reader a sense of organization and 2) to inform the pieces. These titles came to me because pronouns very much denote objectivity, gender, and singularity or plurality. Once they popped into my head, I really liked the simplicity of the single words as titles and all that each could suggest about every story under that umbrella.

Deciding which stories should go into which sections was a challenge, but a very satisfying one, and I felt that once placed, they very much belonged, and that relationships formed among the pieces as a result. There weren’t specific criterion but rather my own “gut” sense of who and what the central perspective and sensibility of each piece was. The stories I put in “It” were ones I felt either had objects as their center or used an inanimate thing to reveal the desire(s) of the character(s) and motivation(s) of the character(s). If I felt that a male character was at the heart of a story, I put that piece under “Him.” Likewise if a female character was at the crux of a piece, I put it under “Her.” The stories in “Them” were ones I felt gave a hard look into both male and female perspectives or struck me as portraying their characters as connecting as humans, with gender being less of a focus. I liked that focusing on objectivity, gender, and singularity or plurality of the characters had nothing to do with the authors. I wanted the characters to emerge here, and the authors to lie dormant, for a time.

One more thing I’d like to say about the chapter titles is that I liked the way the development from “It” to “Them” gave an ultimately optimistic or hopeful feeling about men and women “getting” each other. I hoped readers would be left with a sense that authors, just like the characters we create, are all very much the same.

This explanation, though it should have been obvious to me, still added to my appreciation of several stories – particularly, “The Bear” in the “It” section, and several of the stories I might have expected to have been “Them” stories – “Jericho Beach” for example – and most particularly “What is Best in Life” and “Rosalia” which are among my favorites, but I would have had a hard time figuring out where to put them!

So do you think you can tell which stories were written by women and which by men? Join me in the Comments to compare notes and keep track! And in February I will revisit and we will see just how right, or wrong, we were!

ADDENDUM: See “Un-Stripped” for the results!

4 responses to “Sunday with Zin: STRIPPED (edited by Nicole Monaghan, PS Books 2011)

  1. Hello, I am still Zin, and here is the data I collected from my STRIPPED study!

    (Addendum: See “Un-STRIPPED” for the table with the correct authors included!

    My process: first, I read the stories; before I read anything about the book, I just read as I would any collection. After I finished each story I jotted down whether I thought it was a male or female author. I forced the choice! And sometimes it was difficult! Then I put them into the two software programs (thank you Nicole for providing the text file and saving me so much typing!) and noted the results and the word count. Then I read all of the blog posts from Nicole and the interviews online and watched the videos of the readings and asked a few follow up questions! So my impression of the stories was as “pure” as possible.

    Stvns = the Stevens Institute of Technology (NJ) gender analysis tool (and thank you to Rohan and Mouli for answering my questions!). While they designed this for use with emails, memos, and other conversational writing, they feel it should work for fiction, though there may be a slant towards the gender of the narrator. It returns a percentage indicating Male, Female, or Neutral, meaning not enough gender markers to tell, as might be the case in a scientific paper.

    GG = Gender Genie, an older system that is more intended for fiction. (addendum: Gender Genie is gone; there is, however, an updated version in the form of Gender Guesser but I am not going to do this all over again!) It returns scores for Male and Female; I calculated the percentage. It advises that text being analyzed be 500 words or more; in most cases, stories were shorter, sometimes much shorter, so perhaps this is not the best tool. But we will see!

    The three of us – GG, Stv, and Zin – agreed about a third of the time (16 out of 47) – Not bad!
    Out of the 24 times we disagreed, I agreed with GG 15 times
    Out of the 24 times we disagreed, I agreed with Stv 7 times

    The two software packages only agreed almost half the time – 23 out of 47!
    They agreed, and I disagreed, 7 times!

    The totals: we know there were 21 male and 26 female authors.
    GG found 17 male and 26 female authors!
    I found 19 male and 28 female authors! (I did not keep track as I was reading; I could take two I was undecided about – I was undecided about several – and change them to make it come out right, but that would be cheating!)
    Stevens found 25 male, 16 female, and 6 Neutral authors! For whatever reason, Stevens slants more male!

    I am sure there are very interesting observations to be made (by section, by protagonist gender, by word length, etc etc etc), but I do not have the data analysis skills to make them! If anyone out there in Cyberspace does, I would be happy to hear more!

    Feel free to record your own data here! If there is enough I will even incorporate it into a master table before the February announcement so we can calculate it all!

    Following the table is a complete list of all 47 authors!

    Title Zin Stvns GG GG-f GG-m Stv% GG% #wds
    Boy-Girl M M M 571 701 61 55 616
    Found Objects F M F 390 314 63 55 356
    The Bear F M F 447 410 57 52 259
    Moratorium M M M 146 492 72 77 256
    Afterglow M F M 528 721 53 58 435
    Marooned in a Borrowed Mansion F M M 593 760 54 56 574
    Cisco F M F 243 182 62 57 244
    Sculpted F M F 445 214 60 68 232
    A Conservator… M M M 0 30 59 100 27
    Title Zin Stvns GG GG-f GG-m Stv% GG% #wds
    Momma M M F 690 593 62 54 442
    Behind the Eight-Ball F F M 475 520 68 52 429
    The Distance Betw the Bridge & The River F F F 972 769 66 56 500
    Santa Caterina F F F 911 707 68 56 612
    Jericho Beach M M F 1016 898 65 53 598
    Chips From the Broken Sky F F F 975 574 67 63 607
    Rosalia F F M 632 701 69 53 601
    Seven Happy Endings M F F 888 511 55 63 620
    Gorgo, Queen of Sparta F F F 1030 865 71 54 610
    Eruptions M F F 760 538 91 59 580
    Go Deejay F M F 812 642 78 56 608
    The Turn M N F 810 392 96 67 294
    Porch Light F F F 500 204 52 71 277
    Love Letter F F F 801 612 73 57 454
    Title Zin Stvns GG GG-f GG-m Stv% GG% #wds
    Limp M M M 130 197 60 100
    Almost Ivory F N F 545 438 96 55 497
    Life Without Operas M M F 248 191 58 56 218
    Grover Cleveland… M M M 380 447 64 54 371
    Jerry’s Life… M M F 1032 741 60 58 601
    Dog Beach F M M 459 760 92 62 510
    Give Me License F N F 867 632 96 58 577
    What Is Best In Life? F N F 764 661 97 54 579
    Hard F M F 1504 567 67 73 623
    And The One Guy Turns… M M M 485 742 59 60 685
    Sniffing Out the Boundaries F M F 215 83 60 72 124
    One More Thing I Didn’t Do M F M 562 685 54 55 618
    Beasts and Men F M M 548 687 82 56 591
    The Taster’s Last Meal F F F 721 668 57 52 618
    Title Zin Stvns GG GG-f GG-m Stv% GG% #wds
    Breaking Tradition F F F 1019 604 61 63 615
    The Ballad of This and That M N M 407 564 96 58 439
    Locked F M M 282 610 63 68 391
    Waffles and Honey M M F 339 131 66 72 92
    Circling the Flame F N M 549 577 100 51 403
    The Breaking Heart of God F F F 606 472 58 56 514
    Lies F M F 623 345 59 64 231
    Emergency M M M 9 23 52 72 99
    Let’s Get Together Again Soon M F F 502 222 54 69 201
    Akimbo F M F 228 152 59 60 230

    The authors:
    The Women
    Erin Fitzgerald
    Ethel Rohan
    Gay Degani
    Gill Hoffs
    Heather Fowler
    Jeanne Holtzman
    Jessica Charest
    Kathy Fish
    Kerri Schuster
    Kierstin Bridger
    Meg Tuite
    Michelle Reale
    Myfanwy Collins
    Nicole Monaghan
    Pamela Painter
    Rae Bryant
    Roxane Gay
    Sara Lippmann
    Sherrie Flick
    Tara Laskowski
    Tara L. Masih

    The Men
    Casey Hannan
    Christopher Allen
    Curtis Smith
    Devan Goldstein
    Eric Bosse
    J. Bradley
    Ken Pobo
    Len Kuntz
    Marc Nieson
    Marc Schuster
    Michael Martone
    Nathan Long
    Peter Schwartz
    Randall Brown
    Robert Swartwood
    Robert Vaughan
    Rusty Barnes
    Scott Garson
    Sean Lovelace
    Sheldon Lee Compton
    William Henderson

  2. Pingback: Bennett Sims: “House-Sitting” from Tin House, Summer 2012 « A Just Recompense

  3. Pingback: Sunday with Zin: Un-STRIPPED! | A Just Recompense

  4. Pingback: STRIPPED – I Must Be Off

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