As a writer I’ve often wondered whose fault misinterpretation is. As a (mean) teacher I usually tell my students it’s the writer’s fault. If it’s not clear what you mean, if somebody takes some wild and unintended meaning from your words then likely you haven’t phrased it right. This is why we do workshops instead of just blogging everything that comes into our heads, so we can get a better idea of how our words are settling into other people’s heads. Workshops for me were always enlightening (and sometimes upsetting!) experiences, if people were as honest as they should be. At Spalding, where I got my MFA, authors had to sit back in silence and listen to reactions, which weren’t always the pretty pat-on-the-backs the authors hoped for. We had to stay quiet flies on the wall as the group chatted amongst themselves about our writing. This is a good process because it prevents the exit of the swelling and insistent yeah-buts and not-what-I-meants pressing against your lips. Because of that, I want to say disconnect is the writer’s fault, but that might be a bit self loathing.
I got my bachelor’s in communication. We learned there something else: any number of things can cause misunderstanding. The message sender takes an idea, packs it into a few words and shoots it over to the receiver. It sounds simple, but it’s not simple at all, and a lot can go wrong. The first and most common thing that can go wrong is the sender doesn’t find the right symbols for conveying the intended meaning. In between sender and receiver, there is noise. Dogs bark. Horns honk. Children scream. Those are distracting obstacles. And then there’s the mysterious land in the recipient’s head, an environment that can be hostile to a message. In the City of Thought, the citizens lurch up their wildly ornate emotional and experiential baggage and go conclusion-jumping over negative association quick sand, especially if the message flying at them has any self-referential glimmer of truth residing on its surface. The defenses go up, feelings get hurt, tempers flare. Sometimes it is the receiver’s error because the receiver dresses the message up in the receiver’s own wardrobe of perception.
Sometimes the sender mixes his metaphors, and that’s the sender’s fault. I suppose the perfect writer never has this issue.
Monday, I whined a bit about the submission process. I wasn’t saying lit mags don’t have a right to dictate how they want work submitted. I wasn’t whining that I shouldn’t ever be rejected or that editors can’t like what they like. I was saying, and maybe I should have been a good deductively reasoning essay writer by stating my thesis up front, that some mags are out of date and out of touch when it comes to the submission process. I was saying that in this day and age, not accepting simultaneous submissions should be unacceptable to modern writers. If your career is lagging because of the difficulty of getting published, lit mags should understand writers have to fish the big waters, even if those waters are filled with a magnitude more writer fish than publisher fish. I was saying that snail mail submitting needs to stay in the 20th century. I meant to say I won’t pay reading fees because I stay in perpetual broke-ness despite my four jobs and my volunteer gig at a litzine.
But if I didn't say it right, I didn't say it right, and I can accept that. I was really just venting publicly and dramatically—hey, drama’s what I do best besides not looking cool— and some got all sensitive, thought I was unfair and sexist to boot. I’m okay with unfair; I’m offended at the sexism claim. I wondered if the criticism warranted response. Everybody’s got an opinion. It’s not necessary to field all objections and viewpoints. I wondered if responding would dig some deep hole of accidentally offensive remarks I couldn’t climb out of. And I know for a fact other viewers of this debate are scared to death of treading these waters. Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve dug a hole for myself. Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been a fool charging in. And it’s sure not the first time I’ve drilled out some flinching reaction via my writing. I’m used to controversy. When I was a journalist, there were whole campaigns launched against me, usually over something small. One plaintiff didn’t like my use of “chomping at the bit” instead of the older form “champing at the bit.” I remember one mouth-foamer emailed my editor in complaint—I don’t remember exactly why, but it had something to do with blue jeans—and my editor, who copied me on his backhanded defense, told her I was just being snarky and that it wouldn’t even be considered quality snark in most circles. Thanks for that I guess.
But sexist? It’s not the first time I’ve heard it. One recent commentator said what struck her about my writing was the “sheer maleness” of it. In grad school workshops I heard it more than once, usually regarding my character’s alarmingly detailed depiction of his girlfriend’s breasts. My intentions were innocent, even if my character’s thoughts were not. It makes perfect sense women want to be more than that, and they’re right, men are often pigs, just—if you’re of the Freudian mindset—grownup babies hopelessly nostalgic about the magic of mama. I depict that aspect and sometimes women get mad…even though it seems men ought to be angry instead. They’re the ones I’m giving the bum rap to, so my metaphor obviously missed.
I take issue with the sexist label because, accurately or not, I consider myself one of those rare male feminists. I have feminist friends. I went to Lilith Fair. (<--Those are high context jokes, in case anybody gets snippy.) When I learned about critical theory, I was all yeah!—throughout history men really have been “cock-man-oppressors” (PCU 1994). Mary Magdalene was turned into a whore instead of a priestess, the Lady of Avalon was made into a witch, Delphi was crushed by Apollo, Lilith became a sex demon, and the Fall of Man rested squarely on the shoulders of Eve It’s not fair at all. Women still aren’t paid fairly, still aren’t being put in positions of authority proportionately. Men still crack jokes about menstruating women presidents with their fingers on the nuke button. I can definitely see how that can make someone sensitive. Heck, I’m still mad at the British for crushing my Irish high-king family a thousand years ago and preventing me from being a prince today.
And though I spent a fair amount of my youth helplessly and hopelessly thinking about very specific body parts, I’ve never oppressed anyone. I don’t think. I have said stupid male things. I picked a fight in high school once. He deserved it. I’m often rather mean to Republicans, throwing undesirable facts at their cognitive dissonance. But sexist? I think of an unsung physicist who discovered dark matter. I think of the sheer strength and determination of my mother and her constant fights with good-ole-boy systems. I think of the blinding success of my sister. I think of the wonderful, high-quality snark and razor’s-edge spirit of my wife. I think of my daughter, of how she’s draped in pink I didn’t buy for her, of how I fear one day she’ll have a Barbie complex or think it’s not okay to be a tomboy or some futrure neanderthol will put his hands on her and I'll be bound by chivalric daddy honor code to murder him. Sexist means I think women should conform to certain roles. And I don’t. Not at all.
Besides referring to some literary magazines as “trophy wives”—a first-draft blog metaphor I suppose missed the mark but am not convinced is sexist—these were the lines that sparked the (misappropriated) controversy:
"That’s 600 different pretty girls at the bar with 600 different ways of getting down and a barrage of fumbling suitors trying to come up with the right lines to say to them and none of them knowing that each of those girls ‘has a boyfriend’ already, even if it’s clear that if she did have one he’d be dang upset his girl went to a Friday-night dogfight in a meat dress.”
Because I guess that never really happens. Suppose it could have gone a step too far, right up the meat dress. I called those fictional guys dogs and compared the metaphorical girls at the bar to lying sluts. And what a possessive jerk that twice nonexistent boyfriend is! An equal opportunity offender, I was just having some fun with my metaphor, hoping to evoke the exasperated plight of the perpetually romantically ignored single guy by digging way back (not that far) into my premarital past. I can understand how that can be misconstrued as objectification, how a woman can think I’m suggesting women are not greater than the sums of their parts. I’m okay with being the big dumb male who stares blankly at a woman and goes, “What I say?” I’m okay with a metaphor not hitting right. It happens.
So call it a metaphor gone wrong, but pointing out those unfortunate aspects of reality doesn’t make me sexist. It makes me the jerk who points stuff out. I don’t think a term like “girl” does either, though that’s up for debate, especially between Northerners and Southerners and feminist scholars. In the right context, I equate “girl” with mademoiselle, a (usually unmarried) young woman, and not with belittlement, though there’s enough history there to support that idea if not my intentions. My wife likes it when I call her my girl, even if it seems to some possessive and dominating. I’m her man. What I don’t say to my wife or any other woman is shut up and get in the kitchen. I like women who go out and conquer the world, not like a man would, but like a woman would.
Was that okay to say? What is okay to say? I don’t want to come off as the guy who doesn’t know he’s sexist, like the guy at the office trying so hard to be un-racist he ends up saying stupid racist crap anyway. How about if I make it even? Here: Some guys mistake the whole bathroom for a toilet.
And I don’t want cry reverse sexism. Guys do have it easier in some ways. But I do put up with lots of “men are pigs” comments in real life and on TV on almost a daily basis as if that’s not sexist, just let it roll of my broad manly shoulders as if it’s okay to assume men are insensitive animals who need women to shave them down and make those monkeys walk the straight and narrow (un-urinated) road. And yes, it is the modern right of the historically oppressed to be freer in the verbiage they choose. Such is one miniscule price of power, of which I currently have none, really, despite obvious and superficial advantages.
I don’t want to throw any support, either, the way of Camille Paglia, who back in the 90s lambasted drunken young women who wore meat dresses to fraternity parties and, in her estimation, somehow had the ensuing date rape coming to them for being stupid. That’s horrible on a whole different level, not only because it suggests women should be aware it’s not okay to dress as they please and that they are powerless in their world, but also because of what it suggests about men: Men are testosterone-seething apes who can’t control themselves. Whatever you do, sexy ladies, don’t rattle the chimp’s cage.
It’s historically accurate. Virginia Woolf wrote about the acceptability of men flinging their defiant daughters about the room, about how if there ever were a female Shakespeare no one would have ever heard of her. But all that's a horrible history I don't want to be a part of, and I'm offended someone would lump me in with it. Sometimes men act like chimps, but that’s clearly not acceptable in the modern age, and to assume the chimpishness of men nowadays should be off sides, too, right? But those assumptions and comments are made all the time and seem way more acceptable than a man ever making any kind of reference whatsoever about trends among some women.
Obviously, one paragraph not hitting just right can lead to several more paragraphs of awkward explanation and defense, even if you end up defending something you’re surprised was an issue at all. So there’s tension between men and women. Who knew? Somebody tell Hollywood to make a movie about it quick! I suppose some things are better left unsaid, that it might be better to leave them hanging in the air above everyone’s heads, but that doesn’t seem very writerly or manly now does it? One runs that risk as a writer, that his viewpoint will be deemed offensive in some way, that some won’t understand the difference between critical discourse and outright invective, that some stay so trapped in the dogmas of their personal philosophies the slightest hint of blasphemous barrier overstepping is cause for indignant word wars and dismissal, that some take themselves so seriously and have become so sensitive to good-natured ribbing that they’ve just plain forgotten how to have a good time.
And some just can’t take criticism, think criticizing some is criticizing all. I stand by my comments regarding some lit mags being unfriendly to modern writers. As for violating a social taboo about objectifying women…um, what I say?
 He doesn’t exist twice because the scenario was a metaphor and within that metaphor he also doesn’t exist. Bite on that, Borges lovers.