I submitted a story to a well known lit mag, where I knew a few of the editors personally. I’d been to parties associated with the magazine, and supported their workshop in its first year by writing about it at length in the local paper. It was a magazine where I was, to some extent, known, as a writer and a person. One of the editors encouraged me to submit.
It was a magazine with literary weight.
To appear in its pages would be a career boost and, like all writers, I could use the boost. But I wasn’t an unknown. I’d published in other venues, including writing an entire issue of the Stranger, up in Seattle, and gained recognition for that piece in independent media news. I’d been in other literary magazines. My first novel was kicking ass. I was optimistic.
Optimism is crucial. Rejection is part of the process. One is always trying, putting work out there, taking risks and being vulnerable, in all high hopes. That’s necessary. I sent a story that I cared about. I sent one that was, in my estimation, sexy, funny, a little rude at times, and smart throughout, exactly the way I like things. It was human and also grotesque, made me laugh, and hopefully upended a tiny corner of the world, for a moment.
One way of containing women in the larger cultural picture is to imagine that their female sexiness needs to be pretty. My work generally pushes back on that consumer-driven expectation to break out of limited narratives. Literature is a path to rebuilding the world, finding a deeper level of truth, and the truth is not in gendered cliches. Sexy can be anyway we want to do it, show it, enjoy it.
So I don’t do sexy straight-on. There’s power in rethinking, and asking the question, what should a sex scene do? What can a sex scene accomplish, convey or challenge? There’s humanity in the awkward, unexpected and strange.
The story I submitted was about love, in the way everything is ultimately about love. Even more, it was about the struggle of being sentient, self-aware creatures on the edge of the anthropocene. The question was, how to have sex, perhaps even risk the creation of new people, darling babies, when the world is already heavily populated, humans are often horrible and animals are dying en masse because of human existence. I’m interested in how to be intimate, when we’re all faulty and perhaps culpable for the denigration of the same systems that sustain our lives.
How do we love and support each other, even in pain?
A few days after I’d sent it in, my cousin called. I have relatives all over town. My cousin’s voice was agitated, jumpy, on the phone. He spoke fast.
His friend, he said — a guy, an intern at the magazine — had brought my story to a party. They were drinking. The intern read the story out loud. He’d read the sex scene.
“I’m sorry,” my cousin said. “I wanted you to know, I wanted to, you know, let you know, so that, you know, it wouldn’t be — “
This intern, it seems, had appropriated my dark comedy as though it were submitted to be his script, and he read it as though the jokes only became jokes once they were translated through his male mouth — as though his voice had the power to legitimize the humor in my work, not my voice, authority and words on the page. I’d built that particular and thoughtful sex-based comedy with insight, intention, creativity and originality.
I built the work the way I did for a reason. The reason was not about giving
an intern a party gag, or permission to use my body of work for his own entertainment when I wasn’t there to protect, defend, or even enjoy myself.
If I’d been there, he wouldn’t have dared.
I’d crafted a worldview, delivering social commentary on gender roles and power through characters who subvert old narratives while living complicated lives.
The intern — who was, not surprisingly, young, white and male — turned my writing into a party girl forced to jump out of a cake, or a stripper hired for the entitlement and entertainment of drunk men. Men in charge, women as object, these are the only stories he knew, apparently.
It’s important to think about the cultural gatekeeping role he’d been granted, as an intern, and the apparent limits of his willingness to extend respect to submitted material. I’m going to say he liked my work. He liked it enough to carry a copy with him to a party.
When my cousin called, and told me what was going on, I said, “What?”
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was, and even now remain blown away by the childishness, entitlement and cliche of it all.
At a family dinner, I mentioned what happened in front of my aunt, among others, my cousin’s mother. I mentioned that I planned to speak to the editor who worked overseeing the interns. It wasn’t right, to use a woman’s work or words in that way. It was exploitive. It created a space that wasn’t safe for literary submissions or ambition.
I’d trusted the magazine.
Part of the thrill in taking my written work to a party and giving an impromptu drunken, degrading reading seemed to include knowing exactly who I am: in other words, a young “writer,” who had published exactly nothing, as far as I can tell, had made an active choice to parade the work of an older woman author around by name at a party, specifically to lay her bare and take her down.
It was a move that reinstated male domination over female sexual expression, and a power trip. It was a forced engagement, an exercise in attempted humiliation.
The intern was close to half my age. My work was and is informed by life. He displayed the truth of his perceived privilege by thinking he had a right to be a gatekeeper at all.
I’d become an unwilling victim of the literary, written equivalent of sexual abuse. The intern had used and displayed my body of work, body of words, body in imagery and literature, for his own pleasure, ego and gain. He’d aimed to shame me for being unabashedly myself, in the public circle of his male friends.
When I mentioned the general, overriding concerns, my aunt burst out, “He’s a good kid! You’ll ruin his job!” She’d known him since he was a child. She’d handed him snacks, once upon a time. He was to be protected like a child, though he was now an adult.
It was the same old same old.
There’s a subjective element to creative work, and I’m willing to question the quality of my own submission. But I loved what I wrote and I’m not the only one who came to stand behind it. The story became a book, and the book garnered a six-figure deal.
The literary magazine has since folded.
The intern, last I heard, has left the country.
The larger problem still resonates: This is how women are cut out of the literary landscape, or contained within it. We’re taught to worship the same heralded literary established outlets, prioritizing patriarchal values and gatekeeping, sometimes very actively shamed out of creating original, less subordinating sex scenes and other material, and then pressured by community to excuse the trespasses of those under patriarchy who think they have a right to police and corral, despite a lack of experience other than growing up male.
It concerned me, in ways that were larger than simply my own submission or my own work, that, through the lens and experience, or inexperience, of young white male-identified, unanalyzed conventions, a literary sex scene might be required to meet rather than subvert the man’s needs, or else be dragged to a party, stripped bare, exposed and ridiculed on a sexualized level.
The creative question was and is still with me: what can a sex scene do?
From the wisdom of my own very sexy years, I believe a sex scene can move in one or more of any number of ways, speaking directly to human connection, comedy and physicality. What a sex scene doesn’t have to do is be confined to the chore of helping a guy get his rocks off.
I called the magazine’s office.
The intern himself answered the phone. It seemed as though he’d been waiting for the call. As soon as I said my name, rather than transfer my call to the editor I requested, the intern launched into a rapid-fire apology that was more of an excuse, excusing and justifying himself. In a weak rhetorical bid of no literary merit, he reached desperately for multi-syllabic words.
“…I was inebriated,” he said.
He was drunk, of course.
He was “apologetic” he said.
He was “Deeply disconcerted at his own behavior.” He was a sorry ass booze hound who exposed and took advantage of a woman’s work in a sexualized way and made the magazine submission process unsafe as well as generally diminished, in my opinion.
Men can take risks and those choices are glorified. The men are considered original, creative, adventurous. They’re bad boys, innovators or geniuses. This magazine did its share of glorifying the work of men. Women take risks, and too often it is assumed they don’t know what they’re doing. They might be called out of control. They might be mocked or otherwise shamed. Once their work is understood or suitably witnessed, they might see the work lifted, copied, reproduced with a man’s name on it. They might be told it’s not original, that everybody does it, even if nobody was doing it prior. This is about who is afforded esteem. It’s about who is allowed authority.
In public, the editors of this particular magazine spoke more than once about the need for greater representation of women in their magazine’s pages. At a workshop lecture, one of the publishers said that not enough women submitted work to the magazine. From the audience, I did not wonder why.
On their pages and in workshops, it still frequently appeared, at that point, that male authors were heralded while women served as workhorses, writing articles that doubled as publicity for events, and teaching lesser recognized workshops. My concerns aren’t about how one magazine functions or fails. It’s about the system. It’s about who we recognize, not only officially, but in our capacity as humans.
Incidentally, the magazine did not accept the story I submitted. Actually, nobody ever got back to me about it at all, other than my cousin, who was not affiliated with the publication.
I’m not sure anybody read my submission, other than the self-proclaimed inebriated intern.
Trying to shame and intimidate women into conforming to old narratives pushes everyone into the ongoing ruts of patriarchal bias in the larger swim of culture and politics, and builds our belief systems of what it means to be a human in a body anywhere on the continuum of gender. Archaic limitations and the persistent, inequitable distribution of power, these invisible literary fences, are rooted in weak thinking at best. They’re constraining and too often contribute to levels of interpersonal violence, pay inequity and other ongoing injustices.
Truly engaged writers know the difference. I’m fortunate to know writers of all genders who create the kind of work that drives culture. Writers are challenging thinkers. The most interesting writers question social convention rather than bullying others back into line. The writers I admire, writers I consider myself in conversation with, write new narratives, based in original thought, and leave old tired paradigms and value systems behind.
Now would be a the time to do the same, with the entire literary establishment.
The magazine is shut down. I’ll never have that particular publication on my ever-growing CV. It’s fine. I’ll survive.
Optimism is still crucial. Worldbuilding and being visionary is still the work of literature. I am still here, and I’m writing.