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Apparently I Write Like a Girl

July 17th, 2009

The author as a young man– by Bev Vincent

I’m including my picture in this month’s essay. It’s somewhat important to the piece, especially if you don’t know me other than as a name on the screen or on a piece of paper. If you don’t know me from Adam (or Eve), in other words.

In 2007, I was invited to submit to an anthology by an editor with whom I’d worked in the past. The general theme was near and dear to my heart and he was offering pro payment so I was willing to participate. I had a story that I thought would be a match. We spent a few weeks going back and forth, with me performing significant rewrites to satisfy his requests, and ultimately we arrived at a version that both of us were happy with. (Note this fact—it’s also important.) The editor sent me a contract, which we both executed. End of the story, right?

Wrong.

The editor turned the manuscript in to his publisher (you’ve never heard of them, so don’t worry about who it is), and it languished on someone’s desk for months. Finally they got around to it and did something unexpected. They sent the manuscript out to another editor for review.

Now, if I was the original editor, I’d be somewhat miffed by this, having turned in a finished manuscript that I was happy with. A few weeks ago he received a set of editorial comments back from the publisher, which he then had to distribute to his stable of contributors. This is six weeks before the book is supposed to go to the printer, mind you, and over eighteen months after the last time any of the writers have looked at their stories.

If you think all this is unusual, I haven’t gotten to the best part yet. The notes on my story consisted of two full single-spaced pages of text. It was savage. 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.

I’ll sit here for a few seconds while that sinks in.

Me, the guy who’s pictured above, failed to do a convincing job of writing from the perspective of a man.

I’ve heard female writers talk about gender bias in the industry before, but it’s always been an abstract concept to me. Not something I’ve ever experienced. Oh, sure, people often think I’m female based on my name—it’s a common enough mistake, which I’ve had to deal with all my life. I like to tell the story about how I was almost assigned to the women’s dorm at university. However, I’ve never before had an editor criticize my writing based on a false assumption concerning my gender. Or make blatantly biased statements about the male perspective. Read on.

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.

To compound his or her arrogance, the editor claims that my prose is “overly elegant,” which is presumably his or her way of saying that a man would never write or think in elegant terms. Guess that means I write like a girl.

He or she goes on about other matters, but by this point I’ve lost all faith in anything this editor has to say. Some of the other criticisms—the ones not based on assumption about my gender—might have been perceptive, insightful and accurate—but it was impossible for me to credit any of it given his or her obvious wrongheadedness concerning a man’s perspective. My perspective.

The editor who invited me to contribute to the anthology tells me that this is a “very well respected editor,” without disclosing his or her identity. He apologized for the “gender confusion” as if it was simply a matter of the editor mistakenly referring to me as “she.” He didn’t seem to get the point that a major part of the critique was based on a faulty and biased impression about the way men think.

I’ve gone back and forth between laughing about this and being outraged. As you might suspect from the tone of this essay, indignation is winning. The original editor asked me to make the changes this unidentified editor requested. All of a sudden, my story had serious flaws that needed to be addressed—even though the acquiring editor had accepted it after revisions in 2007. I could have two weeks to completely rewrite the story.

Usually I’m pretty agreeable when editors request changes, but this time I balked. I reread the story for the first time in over a year and a half and I liked most of what I saw. I told the acquiring editor that I would fix a few clunky sentences if he wanted, but I wasn’t going to re-imagine the story at this other editor’s behest. That wasn’t the story I’d wanted to write . . . and it wasn’t the story he had accepted and contracted. It was the proverbial line in the sand, and neither of us would cross. End result: a 4000-word hole in their manuscript six weeks before publication for them and a pittance of a kill fee for me.

However, this essay isn’t about a contract issue that led me to withdraw a story from publication. For me it was a real eye-opener that a supposedly “well-respected editor” could make such an utter fool of him or herself and still be taken seriously. What I wouldn’t give to know who it is so I could present myself to him or her face-to-face and wait for realization to sink in.

I checked. Undid the zipper and looked, just to be sure. I think I am reasonably qualified to write from a man’s perspective.

  1. July 22nd, 2009 at 17:43 | #1

    I’m sure it’s a great compliment when your story doesn’t get published. ;)

    Anyhow, Editor Person didn’t say Bev writes women well–only that he writes men poorly.

  2. July 22nd, 2009 at 17:51 | #2

    Quite Funny. Okay, not for you and not at this time. You’ll laugh someday…

    I was told nearly the same thing one time. But on another story I had a reader say “I thought the main character was a guy for some reason. About halfway through, I realized it was a woman.”

    Perhaps I can’t write either men or women???? Or maybe I write both at the same time in the same character???

    :>)

    Here’s hoping your story finds another home!!!

  3. July 23rd, 2009 at 03:45 | #3

    Concerning the story in question:

    Words: 4650

    Female Score: 5792
    Male Score: 6036

    The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: male!

  4. Lee
    July 23rd, 2009 at 09:41 | #4

    I find it interesting that so many people immediately leap to the conclusion that the offending editor was a woman. Isn’t this another example of exactly the same behavior?

    Personally, I consider it more likely that a male editor would make this error by way of generalizing from his own personal attitudes to a universal “this is the way MEN behave” stereotype. But hey, I’m just a woman, so what would I know?

  5. July 23rd, 2009 at 10:38 | #5

    I’ve been purposefully gender neutral when discussing this editor because I don’t want to fall into the same “sounds like a…” trap that he or she did. I honestly have no idea.

  6. Salis
    July 23rd, 2009 at 13:40 | #6

    Lee wrote,

    “I find it interesting that so many people immediately leap to the conclusion that the offending editor was a woman. Isn’t this another example of exactly the same behavior?

    Personally, I consider it more likely that a male editor would make this error by way of generalizing from his own personal attitudes to a universal “this is the way MEN behave” stereotype. But hey, I’m just a woman, so what would I know?”

    This is unlikely. At least from the quotes Bev gave, it strikes me as unusual. If it was a guy, he would have said something like ‘As a man, I find this to be unbelievable’, not ‘A man wouldn’t think like this!’. Anytime we have an ability to lend weight to our argument like that (I AM A MAN, I KNOW WHAT A MAN DOES), it’s very unusual for us not to use it.

  7. David Harmon
    July 23rd, 2009 at 14:02 | #7

    ISTR that James Tiptree Jr. was often praised for “manly” writing. “As you know, Bob”, “he” was a pen-name for Alice Sheldon….

  8. July 23rd, 2009 at 16:23 | #8

    My first reaction was the editor is male. However, as Lee wrote, that is just another prejudice. My thinking was that a woman would have said, “Men don’t think like this”, instead of what was actually written, “A man wouldn’t think like this.” But that’s just a guy’s opinion. [smiles]

  9. July 23rd, 2009 at 16:27 | #9

    Oh, and I’ve submitted three pieces to Gender Genie. Two had female main characters and the third had a female main character with masculine tendencies. The two with female main characters were listed as decidedly written by a female, and the other was nearly 50-50 split, with a slight leaning toward male.

    If female impersonators can fool everyone outside a shower or bedroom, why can’t cross-writers do the same? People who think otherwise are silly.

  10. July 24th, 2009 at 08:57 | #10

    Picking up on the business side of this one:

    Like Michael Bracken, I’ve published fiction in several anthologies, but have only infrequently run into language in the short-story contract wherein the publisher’s final-approval or revision-request powers are mentioned.

    In my experience, that clause more often shows up in the contract between the editor and/or packager and the publisher — and in fact, I do have a personal experience in this line. In that instance, the editor (with the packager’s blessing) had acquired more stories (including mine) for the anthology than the originally contemplated word count, and the writers had been paid, on acceptance by the editor, for the stories in question. When the publisher got the book, it decided that the word count had to be trimmed back, and mine was one of several stories cut at the last minute.

    Now the publisher in that case had the right to do what it did, under its contract with the editor & packager. However, since there was no corresponding language in the contracts between the individual writers and the editor/packager, the writers quite properly kept what they’d been paid (and got the un-exercised publication rights to their stories back).

  11. July 24th, 2009 at 19:24 | #11

    Hell, funny and stupid at the same time) Damn, I think this editor is some kind of feminist activist for sure.

  12. Nomen Nescio
    July 25th, 2009 at 19:13 | #12

    quoth Michael Bracken:

    I occasionally sell stories to an editor who only buys male-protagonist stories from male writers and female-protagonist stories from female writers. The editor has stated that men can’t write as women and women can’t write as men.

    i can only assume this editor’s head would explode if faced with a manuscript from a transsexual person. hm, perhaps someone ought to try that experiment…

  13. Jane Storme
    July 27th, 2009 at 08:49 | #13

    Hi Bev. I’m certain you did the right thing. I’m reminded of Flannery O’Connor who refused to change her novel “Wise Blood” when a publisher asked her to. She waited 3 years, I think before it was published by someone else.

    Well done!

    This sort of think happens all the time in other walks of life. I suppose you could call it the “must say something” syndrome. Where a second or third opinion is requested from an “expert” in some field and he/she has to find something to contribute. Their reputation depends on it!

    I went to university with a man called Beverly St John. We all called him Bev with no confusion.

  14. Pat Cadigan
    July 28th, 2009 at 11:47 | #14

    How long, oh, Lord, how long?

  15. Sad
    July 30th, 2009 at 21:24 | #15

    …Wow. A lot of people online think that I’m male because I write and draw things with lots of blood, dubious content, etc, and tend ‘neutralize’ any sentimental or personal feelings with many swear words and dry sarcasm to make myself seem indifferent. If the definition of a man is “a violent, uncaring animal”, then I guess there should be some pride in having people mistake your writing for that of a woman’s.

    Of course, there’s no excuse for the incredible stupidity of the editor, but don’t you be biased towards girls either. Manly pride tells you that being feminine is equivalent to the apocalypse, but this generation seem to like their men a bit more caring and sentimental.

  16. July 31st, 2009 at 06:33 | #16

    “but don’t you be biased towards girls either. Manly pride tells you that being feminine is equivalent to the apocalypse, but this generation seem to like their men a bit more caring and sentimental.”

    Dear Sad: I think you have misread Bev’s post and every comment here.

  17. patticake
    August 6th, 2009 at 00:07 | #17

    that’s a funny and sad view of the publishing industry and gender discrimination in general. good for you for standing up to them!

    btw, is there a way that story can be read? i’m really interested since it sounds like an excellent story, judging by the editor’s criticism.

  18. VK
    August 6th, 2009 at 06:38 | #18

    Tiptree used to get similar comments about her inability to write female characters, until she was revealed as a woman.

  19. August 6th, 2009 at 09:33 | #19

    erm, wha?

    Can you document that claim? ’cause that runs contrary to everything I’ve ever heard about Triptree.

  20. August 6th, 2009 at 12:31 | #20

    Been there, done that. I invite the readers to try to submit their work to scholarly Philosophy journals with a feminine or female name attached to their work. Try doing it while being unabashedly female and writing a critique of another contemporary philosopher’s gender bias in his writings instead of trying really hard to be “neutral”. Watch when it gets rejected from every relevant journal except the stigmatized feminist philosophy journal. Wash, rinse, and repeat.

    The point I’m going after here, Bev, is that writing with a stereotypical male bias—tangible enough that you are assumed male—means that your work is “mainstream”, “acceptable”, or “neutral”. Being female, writing like a female, or writing about anything without taking male privilege for granted gets you branded a mere curiosity or worse, a shrill.

    Funny thing is, if you knew the editor you could call and make them feel foolish. I can’t. When you get blacklisted as a female-writer you can say, “gee, well I’m a man and this is mildly unusual and annoying. I can complain about it and people listen”. Happens to me and it’s the same old same old; complain and I’m a stupid overemotional girl, bitter untalented hack, stupid feminazi, etcetra etcetra.

  21. August 6th, 2009 at 12:39 | #21

    Jenn: I have to say that the discussion that has grown out of this little essay has opened my eyes. I’ve watched with amazement as people have picked up on it and passed it along on their own forums, attaching their own particular spins to it. I’ve seen women writers say they are glad to hear someone expose an undeniable, incontrovertible gender bias, but at the same time express anger that it took a man saying it for it to be legitimized.

    On the other hand, I’ve seen people say that perhaps I didn’t write convincingly enough about this male character for his unconventional traits to seem credible. I hadn’t thought of that angle, but who’s to say there isn’t some truth there, too?

    No answers, only questions…

  22. LS
    August 6th, 2009 at 13:25 | #22

    This is all the more interesting because of the pervasive (and erroneous) belief that women will read/watch fiction with male protagonists but men will not read/watch fiction with female protagonists. Which would naturally lead to the conclusion that if a woman wanted her work to be read by a mixed (ie mainstream) audience, she would have to write a male protagonist.

  23. August 6th, 2009 at 13:59 | #23

    I really want to make a joke about you meeting the editor and then having said editor hope you hit like a girl, too, but I just can’t make it work. Sigh.

  24. somebody42
    August 6th, 2009 at 18:50 | #24

    Those of you who are surprised at or haven’t experienced gender bias should check out this NYT article about Dr. Ben Barres in which he talks about how differently he has been treated since transitioning from female to male. (H/T to a commenter at Alas a Blog.)

    Like Lee, I was surprised at the commenter who assumed the editor was female. However, a couple of them revealed their sexism however unintentionally. Hal: To avoid coming across as a flaming sexist, don’t refer to women as “chicks.” Sam Trend: How you got “feminist activist” out of that editor’s belief that a woman can’t write male characters after swimming in a male-centered culture all “her” life is beyond me. Also, we feminists are the ones arguing against all those damaging stereotypes about men being “naturally” unemotional, unfeeling, and lacking in empathy. If we believed all that crap, we wouldn’t bother working for change. We aren’t the ones who equate “anti-male” with “feminist.” Those folks would be anti-feminist folks like you and the mainstream media.

  25. Nick Wood
    August 6th, 2009 at 21:51 | #25

    Perhaps the editor would prefer your male character to emote in dropkicks and bareback wrestling?

  26. Mara Ismine
    August 8th, 2009 at 11:50 | #26

    I am here from Angela Benedetti’s link – just when you thought it was all dying down!

    I can’t decide if I should laugh or bang my head on a desk. I suspect you have moved from the head-banging to the laughter by now. It is rather sad that such rigid thinking still exists. Maybe if you had made your main character a hair dresser or ballet dancer (or other ‘suspect’ profession) he would have been allowed to think such ‘girly’ thoughts?

    Does the sex of the ‘exalted editor’ really matter? A moronic idiot is a moronic idiot whatever biological plumbing they have. I feel sorry for other authors who have received such scathing comments from this fool, without having as much proof of how ridiculous it was as you do!

    If you haven’t already found another publisher for this story, have you considered self-publishing it as an ebook with this essay? I think you would have a lot of buyers from the amount of emotion this has stirred up.

    If you had written this situation as a scene in a book I am sure it would have been rejected as being too ridiculous to be believed.

    I hope that you will be more careful from now on to make your male characters proper beer-swilling, crotch-scratching, non-thinking men; and you will remember that any female characters should be incapable of stringing two rational thoughts together between bouts of tears unless they are shoe-shopping.

    Good luck with future suitably gender-biased stories!

  27. lori cortiglia
    August 9th, 2009 at 10:27 | #27

    This is why when I submit anything for publication I just use my first initial, rather than my name. I just have a feeling that if you’re writing humor, there is a prejudice (even if only on a subconscious level)that it won’t be as funny as what a man would write.

  28. Jamie
    August 10th, 2009 at 21:14 | #28

    God, this infuriates me on your behalf. As a young woman (17) looking to break into the scriptwriting and movie directing field, I knew I would be facing a hard haul going in due to the overwhelming misogyny that runs rampant in Hollywood when it comes to women being behind the camera rather than in front of it-especially when it comes to my chosen field, sci-fi and fantasy. However, I thought I would have an easier time when I submitted my short stories and (eventually, I hope) one of my novels for publication, because I was under the sad delusion that this kind of crap doesn’t happen any more. That editor’s viewpoints were just as insulting to men (all men are grunting cavemen!) as they are to women, and I don’t care if they are male or female, their attitudes are equally ridiculous anyway. I have a friend in a writing group whose husband writes romance under a female pseudonym because he is afraid no one would read a romance written by a man. I checked out one of his books and it was just as good as any romance written by a woman. Just goes to show, people let society’s gender roles shape their perception of the quality (or even genre) of a work, rather than saying “Hey, it’s a good book, whoever wrote it!” Aside frome the aformentioned “James Tiptree, Jr.”, there is also C.J. Cherryth (who went by her initials to get published)in sf/f. My personal favorite? Until it came out that Ellis Bell was a woman, Wuthering Heights was considered a horror novel of the finest sort; after Emily Bronte’s true identity became known, it was suddenly an epic romance! Yeesh.

  29. Arrow
    August 23rd, 2009 at 21:55 | #29

    Thank you for posting this. Appalling. I don’t know whether to laugh or head-desk on your behalf.

    I would love to read the story, of course, and hope it finds a worthy home. And that your next editor doesn’t require a zipper-check before accepting it. Sheesh.

  30. September 15th, 2009 at 12:37 | #30

    Don’t feel bad. I write like a man, and I’m a woman. I think it’s a sad popular misconception that men can’t be personal, introspective, and emotional. They are human and have feelings as well. Maybe some are better at hiding it than others. That’s all. Society in general forces them to close off those emotions. Thank God not all of them do.

    *hugs*
    Ana

  31. September 16th, 2009 at 06:37 | #31

    This is both nauseating and scary. All my main characters are male. In the beginning I hid the fact that I was female, but I stopped once I was published and wanted to do appearances (drag just wouldn’t work for me for 2 obvious reasons) I’m currently working on a novel which is told from the POV of a 21 year old Latino male from a barrio. How many lines am I crossing with that one? It’s insane in this day and age that this editor can say those kinds of things and no one in at the publisher’s seems to be thinking this person is a stone cold bigot.

  32. Amanda
    September 16th, 2009 at 06:42 | #32

    Hey Bev,

    Ok I have to raise my hand here and say I couldn’t believe I was reading a story written by a man. The whole time the main character’s heart broke I sat there and said, only a woman would know that pain. I was totally floored when I found out that she was a he.

    I think in society we dish out gender condusive roles to each other. Oh your a man so go run and fortune five hundred company, or your a woman, stay home and take care of the kids. I am one of the women who have stood up and said, hey everything you can do I can do better! I can honestly say, I love when men write mushy love stories or mush fiction of some type. A man who is in touch with his soul is worth his weight in gold.

    But I have to sit here and wonder with all the comments and publicity this blog has generated, if the this so called “editor” is now trying to unwedge their foot from their mouth?

    Keep up the good work, even if you are a guy LOL!!!!

    Amanda!

  33. September 16th, 2009 at 06:52 | #33

    I’ve never identified the editor or the project, and I strongly suspect the editor doesn’t even know about this essay, as the project was a little outside of the usual places I frequent. I’m hoping some day to find out who it is, though. I’d love to introduce myself to him/her.

  34. June 9th, 2010 at 21:42 | #34

    Thank you for leaidng with a photo. Your references to it livened up the obvious problem with the second editor’s critique. I think the editor could be male or female. I can say men or more likely to make that sort of ignorant generalization about how all of them are supposed to think, but that’ll only cause anecdotes showing women can be just as ignorant.

    I was left wondering what “Bev” was short for, or if you’d considered taking a pen name to avoid possible gender confusion. That’s pragmatic, though, and avoids the serious issue of gender stereotyping. It’s shameful on a lot of levels, not the least of which is that men are browbeaten into repressing feelings.

  35. DensityDuck
    June 14th, 2010 at 13:16 | #35

    So, yeah, I read through the whole post and comments and I can’t figure out where this “transfail” is supposed to be. Someone wanna help me out here?

  36. June 22nd, 2010 at 19:36 | #36

    @DensityDuck
    Density Duck: It’s just the “I looked in my pants” genitalia prescribing gender thing at the very end. I don’t think it was meant to be a big deal.

    I second the question of whether Bev is an uncommon name, a shortened name, or taken on for some other reason, mostly because I can’t think of any long dudenames with Bev.

    Excellent article btw, even if it’s months old

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