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!