You can’t write, asshole.
We’ll get there: I’ll tell you the story first, and then you’ll understand why this sentence needed to be the catchy intro to my post.
As a writer, I often check the craigslist classifieds when I need extra work. There’s always some poor soul who needs help writing a resume or editing web-content. Now don’t get me wrong: e-marketplaces such as Criagslist and Kijiji are great tools for several reasons: they’re free, they democratize the exchange of social services, and they connect people who would’ve otherwise never meet. But digital classifieds have one major downfall: they don’t screen for assholes.
Recently, I responded to a craigslist want post. A writer who lives just outside the city was seeking someone capable of copy-editing 150 pages of a manuscript for a novel he’s working on. He didn’t name a price, but left his contact e-mail and advised candidates to send him writing samples and a resume.
I responded with a PDF of my curriculum vitae (look it up) and links to all the right spots, and after a string of e-mails pinging back and forth, we’d finally agreed on a price and set out some deadlines. He’d talked me down from five dollars per page to three, which is nearly slave labor, and he even made me copy-edit one page for free to test my grammar, as if having a master’s degree in English fucking literature isn’t enough (yes, I said it).
Since this guy was so intense about his screening process, I expected his work to be stellar, but the minute I opened his e-mail attachment with his story, I knew this guy couldn’t write. At this point, I’m not making some artistic judgement on his image-use or narrative style, I’m saying he can’t write, as in, he doesn’t know how to put a noun and a verb together. His prose needed help on a common-sensual level, like when something is singular as opposed to plural.
Now, none of this would have bothered me, or provoked me to narrate this story, if it hadn’t been for what happened next. After all, wasn’t this why he hired me—to correct his grammar?
Then I came across the sex scene. Okay, so this guy’s story narrates the trials and tribulations of a war hero as he struggles to protect his precious jewels (no, I didn’t even make that up). The manuscript is packed with all the action-adventure cliché you can think of. No scene is original, but only a bad copy of every thriller paperback I’ve ever swallowed or suspense film I’ve ever sat through. Now, I can handle poor grammar, and I can tolerate most clichés, but this particular scene in this particular novel cringed me. No, I don’t mean it made me cringe, but it actually cringed me, folded me over onto myself. Reading this scene was like nail-on-chalkboard to my ears.
I won’t reveal all the details of the scene, because by now this jerk could likely sue me, but I’ll just say this: it involved a female character. After the war hero crosses enemy territory and survives an ambush on a ship, he has a layover at a woman’s house in Rome.
The presence of the woman didn’t surprise me. After all, the leading lady is an essential component of any action thriller (see any James Bond film ever). What surprised me was the author’s depiction of her.
From his first descriptions of the female character, the author tells us about the way the damsel looks: her stature and hair color, her nipples and the silken undergarment hiding her sexy figure. Okay, I get it: she’s hot. Good for her. But describing someone solely for their physical attributes is not only shallow, it’s also poor characterization. Where the author was careful to explain the inner thoughts and feelings of all the other characters I’d met thus far, he showed no concern of revealing this woman’s thoughts, feelings, or motives. Perhaps it didn’t occur to him that she had any.
This woman—like many woman represented by men in literature and cinema— was a prop. She was as consequential to the story as the getaway boat; she was a means to an end. As I read further into the scene of the war hero and his damsel, the end to which she tended, or the purpose which she served became very apparent. Not that I was surprised—every good war story includes a sex scene, right?
And don’t get me wrong, I’m all about a good sex scene, but how deeply can we, as readers, feel connected to that scene if there’s no humanity in the characters? This wasn’t a porno, it was supposed to be literature, and the author could do nothing but describe the woman’s nipples! They were erect, they were cranberries, they were pink and pulsing, tits, tits, tits!
What really scared me is how many times the author described this woman as “inviting”: Her stance was “inviting.” Her silky robe, “inviting,” and, of course, her nipples were “inviting.” The story explained over and over again how “inviting” this women’s body appeared, yet never demonstrated her acting invitationally (not a real word). How was she inviting? I wanted to know. What was she inviting? And, what action did she perform that suggested she was “inviting”? This is how women get raped. When men fail to hear a woman’s humanity and misread her skin as “inviting.”
I suppose what irked me most, what gnawed at my liver, was the disheartening underlining truth: some men still can’t see women as people. There was no evidence in this man’s story of female emotion, of female thought or agency; she was backdrop. She was scenery. She was, and I quote, “frilled lace panties.”
Cultural theorist John Berger writes that “men act and women appear.” In Ways of Seeing, Berger discusses how a woman’s relationship with a man—and more importantly, her relationship with herself— is slightly skewed because she’s always being looked at as a desirable object rather than a speaking subject:
“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly and object of vision: a sight.”
The woman in the manuscript was just this: a vision. As I tried to picture this woman, this frilly underwear queen, it occurred to me that I knew more about her “inviting” and “exuberant” body, about the color of her nipples and feel of her panties than I knew about her face.
To describe a face, you have to be willing to read emotion, as the face is the canvas of emotion. The writer’s damsel was faceless because she was also emotionless; she was the void onto which the author’s desires—and the hero’s desires— were projected. Hence, we have several descriptions of how the damsel felt, i.e., the texture of her skin and the taste of her kiss, but nothing of how she actually felt, as a feeling and desiring being.
And it’s not like this asshole is writing from the first-person perspective of his hero character. The novel is entirely narrated in the third-person, and, as I said earlier, the author details all of the other characters’ interior longings and even showcases their flickering thoughts.
Is this a feminist rant? Should I be striking my keyboard this hard right now? After all, this is just one assholes, story, right? Wrong.
Men have been writing women like this for years—for centuries (again, see any James Bond film. Want an older example? Classical mythology. Start with the Medusa myth— a very appropriate place to start).
And so what? So what if men see woman this way, right? Who cares? It’s just a story, right? Why should I be so mad?
When women are not recognized as speaking, feeling, and breathing beings, it’s that much easier to treat them as such.
Your story sucks, and YOU CAN’T WRITE, ASSHOLE.
Thus spoke Medusa.