The scandal at Penguin Canada - CEO David Davidar sacked after an employee filed suit against him for alleged sexual harassment - has provoked a couple of people to ask me about the lowdown on sex in publishing.
It's an unusual industry: one dominated by highly educated and intelligent women, many of them young. Most of the high-up executives on the commercial side of publishing are still men. The literary side is female. Most of the editors-in-chief of the major publishing houses are women; most of the publicists are women; almost all the agents are women; the powerful CBC Radio programs that discuss books are hosted by women; most of the readers are women; the single powerful bookstore chain in the country is run by a woman. And it is a highly social industry, because social events promote books: Anyone who works for a publishing house must attend, as part of work, frequent evening book launches, book fairs and literary festivals, and they are all soaked in booze. So are most of the writers.
Furthermore, if you're involved with fiction, or even with memoir and biography, you're discussing sex and romance the whole time - because most novels still have relationships at their core. So you spend a lot of genuine professional work time, as a straight male talking to straight females, answering questions like, "Why would she let him take her top off right then?" It becomes difficult to define exactly what flirting is in this environment.
Not so difficult as to make it impossible, though. If you're smart, you keep a close eye on it. And a lid. That's why it's not exactly the target-rich environment that one might fantasize.
Every female literary publicist has groan-inducing stories about the lecherous male authors that she must pick up at the airport, dine with and generally take care of. The authors generally have been given to understand that they are important guys, and the constant pampering by professionally nice beautiful bookworms does little to diminish their egos. It isn't surprising that a number of famous international writers have reputations as gropers, back-of-taxi ambushers, hotel-bar huggers. I have never heard a publicist express enthusiasm about this part of her job. I am not eager to feature in one of these eye-rolling anecdotes.
From our point of view, it's hard not to have a constant crush on all these gorgeous 32-year-olds with graduate degrees from McGill. At the moment, since I've just published a novel, the most important professional contacts in my literary life are my editor, my agent and my publicist. By a fluke not unusual in publishing, each one of these happens to be shockingly beautiful. And of course bookish, fashionable, sophisticated, funny, all the rest. Totally unbelievable hotties. Honestly, I don't know which one I am more in love with. And you have to spend time with them, not just talking about how long the sex scene should go on but also about how brilliant you are. And you have to go to all those fancy awards dinners with the free bar and all the backless gowns. How does a guy cope?
But I have never in my whole career made a real pass at one of my colleagues or, I think, been flirtatious to the point of making someone seriously worried about my attention. Even when I was single.
Why? Why be so cautious, when we all know that the workplace is where most romantic relationships start, and that a lot of those go on to be perfectly respectable marriages? Where else are you going to meet people with similar interests? You could claim, if you were an incorrigible flirter, that the environment is so sexualized that flirting is institutionally encouraged. This would be similar to what a few employees at Virgin Blue Australia recently did, after they were caught with porn on their work computers: they're claiming wrongful dismissal because the company was supposed to be so cool and youthful, sex was entrenched in the office culture. I could say the same: If my own book is pornographic, then how can the company demonize pornography? Or even sexy talk?
So why not go for it? I'm not even in a situation of power, as the Penguin president was. My editor has power over me. I could hardly be accused of intimidation by coming on to my boss.
I could, however, be accused of idiocy. I need these people working at their best and most relaxed. They make me look good. If I made any of my colleagues nervous about talking to me or seeing me then I would only be damaging myself. They wouldn't want to help me. So you could say it's a selfish self-control. Hell, even a consensual relationship would be idiotic: I need my colleagues to be objective and unemotional. And I need my career more than I need the ego-boost of impressing a lady. Perhaps I'm getting old, but believe it or not, I actually value my colleagues' professional abilities more than their beauty.
And I'm not the only guy who realizes this. Despite the staggering ratio of brainy beauties to tweedy egotists in this industry, you would be surprised by how little sex there really is. It's not exactly rock 'n' roll. A guy who really can't resist acting on every romantic inclination is in the wrong business.