Thursday, August 6, 2009

Ladybrain Review: Doing Everything Like a Girl

After weeks of back and forth, writer Bev Vincent came to a final agreement with his publisher for a final draft of his manuscript. Months later, a new editor swooped in and wrote a scathing two pages of edits on Vincent's story, all the while assuming Vincent was a woman.

Among the first comments this editor (and I do not know who he or she is) offered: “It’s quite a challenge for a writer of one sex to explore writing from the perspective of the opposite sex. Bev Vincent has not done a convincing job.”

The protagonist in my story is a man.

Oh, but it gets better

The editor says: “The story seems far too personal, introspective and emotional for a man . . . It is hard to imagine a fellow from a place like [the setting] uttering the following line.” The editor then provides three sentences from my story as examples. He or she continues, “And I can’t think of many guys from [setting] who call home every Sunday afternoon to talk to their family” [Emphasis his or hers]. Another brilliant insight: “Most men don’t think deeply about the dewy greenness of nature.” The ultimate conclusion: “She [sic] needs to write more convincing [sic] from a man’s perspective.”

I pause here to note that this was the most autobiographical story I’ve ever written, and all the things that the editor complained about were my real observations and my real thoughts cast into the mind of a fictional character participating in fictional events. I did, in fact, call home every Sunday afternoon to talk to my parents, while they were still alive.

Vincent refused to reimagine a piece that he wrote, as a man, about a man, on the whims of a sexist editor. This is a perfect example of sexism hurting everyone. An editor who believes an author to be female swoops in on a final draft--already edited by the publisher's staff--to use bad-woman code words like emotional, personal, introspective and elegant. These descriptions keep women squarely in the mood-swinging, teary-eyed and domestic social spheres, the kind that say we're good at the arts but not math and science.

The editor also does men no favors by fitting them into a macho box where they couldn't possibly write elegantly about nature, or even be close enough with their parents to call home once a week. Women who can write about macho men don't exist, I guess, and neither do sensitive men, outside the world of manuscripts.

This judgement call, based on the androgynous name Bev, brings to mind the infuriating study released by Princeton in 2000, showing the clear sexist bias women face when auditioning for orchestras, showing a 50 percent better chance women will get past the first round of cuts if their audition is "blind" or done behind a curtain. You'll notice some other code words for women-aren't-good-at-man-stuff-like-music: They have "smaller technique" and "are more tempermental."

You can read Vincent's full essay on this situation here.

Doing anything "like a girl" doesn't seem to get us very far in this patriarchy.


  1. It's appalling that sexist and stereotypical credo is offered as objective literary criticism by a professional editor for a (major?) publisher. What publishing company is that, by the way?

  2. Not a publisher anyone would have heard of. And I still don't know who the editor is.

  3. I should have mentioned that Vincent specifically doesn't name the publisher. If you read his whole response, KB, he also takes care to not assume that the editor is male, or female. Men and women alike force these strict gender roles on each other.