Apparently I Write Like a Girl

[July 2009] 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?


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 was 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.

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