Introduction: The Phlogiston Theory of Sexual Relations, or Why This Book Will Change Your Life
Gene: At this very moment you may well be standing in a bookstore, trying to decide whether to purchase this book -- which, you deduce from the cover, involves differences between men and women. And because you are an intelligently skeptical person, you are thinking: Why should I spend my good money on a book that is rehashing the most tired subject on earth, a subject long ago chewed into an amorphous goo, like the food in your mouth the instant before you swallow it, a slimy succotash barely distinguishable from vomit?
Come to think of it, wouldn't that be a great diet? You could eat as much food as you wanted, and absolutely any food you wanted, except that just before every swallow you would have to look in the mirror and stare at the slop on your tongue for five seconds. I'll bet that would --
Gina: That's disgusting. We can't start this book in that disgusting, immature way.
Gene: It's a diet tip! Women love diet tips!
Gina: Kindly do not tell me what women love.
Gene: Diet books fly off the shelves.
Gina: One, that's not a diet, it's an eating disorder. Two, this is not a diet book.
Gene: It could be. We haven't written it yet.
Gina: It's supposed to be about men and women, and humor.
Gene: Well, I'm simply trying to explain how clichéd and lifeless this subject matter is. How it has been explored and debated ad nauseam from Aristotle to Woolf, diluted into an insipid, gelatinous soup by communication experts and gender experts, and then salted with poison by every adenoidal comic who ever stood in front of a brick wall with a microphone and an inflated sense of self. I was merely trying to communicate how difficult it is to infuse this subject with anything even resembling originality or insight, and how only a fool or an egotist would attempt it.
Gina: We are writing an introduction. To the book. To get people to buy it.
Gene: Yes, we are
Gina: Do you think, perhaps, we might consider another approach?
Gina: Not that there's anything wrong with your approach.
Gene: Are you patronizing me?
Gina: I would not attempt to patronize someone as smart and funny and strong and manly as you are. I was just thinking we might begin in a less overtly self-destructive fashion. For example, we might explain how you and I met.
Gene: With women, it's always about relationships.
Gina: Tell them how we met, or I will. In my version, you look very bad.
Gene: I write a humor column for The Washington Post Magazine. This means that every single week I have to come up with a funny idea, which means that occasionally I am reduced to reading my office mail, which pretty much consists of (1) semiliterate persons calling me names or (2) public relations agents trying to sell me a can't-miss humorous story idea, such as the wonderfulness of a client's new line of decorative pillows. One day, I came across a press release about a new book by Gina Barreca, a University of Connecticut English professor who was identified as an expert in "humor and feminism."
Two things immediately occurred to me. The first was that a person being an expert in humor and feminism was like a person being an expert in oysters and accordions; I concluded that here was a terrific opportunity to plumb important sociological verities by humiliating some hapless, unfunny girl academic. The second thing that occurred to me was that my name was Gene, and hers was Gina, and that this was providential.
Gina: This is the part I hate. The gimmicky part.
Gene: You don't hate the "hapless, unfunny girl academic" part?
Gina: No. I am not a hapless, unfunny girl academic. You discovered that, didn't you?
Gene: Yes, I did.
Gina: Tell them how you discovered that.
Gene: In a minute.
Gina: Tell them now, or I will. In my version, you look very bad.
Gene: We had a humor contest in my column. And the readers voted.
Gina: And who won?
Gina: Thank you. That was magnanimous.
Gene: Anyway, we kept doing columns, and we had this nifty name shtick going, and after a while I wandered over to Simon and Schuster and landed us a book contract.
Gina: The names are irrelevant. This isn't a book because of some stupid gimmick. This is a book because we will reveal intriguing truths about human relationships in a funny and engaging manner. We'd be writing this even if I were Rhonda and you were Norman.
Gene: Norman and Rhonda?
Gina: Rhonda and Norman. Absolutely. Just as good.
David Rosenthal: No, it's not.
Gina: Who are you?
Gene: He's our publisher at Simon and Schuster. I invited him. David, this is Gina.
David: Charmed, I'm sure.
Gene: Rhonda and Norman. Contract or no?
David: You walk in as Rhonda and Norman, I laugh you out the door. The gimmick is everything. You guys could be transcribing the Beijing phone book, for all it matters.
Gene: Thanks, David. Appreciate your stopping by.
David: Glad to oblige.
Gene: Just so we understand things.
Gina: We understand nothing. Our editor, Amanda Murray, told me she thinks this is going to rest on the strength of our ideas, the universality of our themes, and the chemistry that'll develop between us.
Gene: May I point out that Amanda's opinion, while certainly elegant, is also irrelevant? David is her boss.
Gina: Imagine my surprise. The American book industry employs thirty thousand women and six men. Guess who are the publishers?
Gene: Can we postpone the grating neofeminist tirades for one chapter at least?
Gina: People need to know there will be interesting, provocative material in this book.
Gene: Well, there'll be smutty parts.
Gina: Yes, but they'll be thematically justified. They will not be prurient.
Gina: We also should probably apologize for generalizing.
Gene: We haven't written anything yet. You want to apologize already?
Gina: A book like this is bound to contain some unfortunate, broad-brush assertions about human behavior. We'll declare that "men do this" and "women do that" without acknowledging the obvious fact that there are exceptions. We need to ask the reader to understand that the need to be funny requires conciseness, and conciseness requires shortcuts. We have to assure them that we will make every effort to avoid unnecessary or hurtful generalizations, and we have to hope they take no offense when we can't.
Gene: Fat chance. All readers are oversensitive, hypercritical meatheads.
Gene: That was a joke. It's a humor book. We're allowed to make jokes.
Gina: We also need to point out that we're dealing only with heterosexual relationships. We cannot presume to speak for gay people, or speculate on how gay men and women relate.
Gene: You mean how gay men relate to gay women?
Gina: Right. Or gay men to straight women.
Gene: How about straight men to gay women?
Gina: What difference does it make? We're not going there, period. Okay?
Gene: How about straight women to preoperative transgendered men?
Gina: I think I also want to make it emphatically clear that we are not an item. You and I.
Gene: I don't mind if people think that.
Gina: I do.
Gene: Okay, we're not an item. In fact, Gina and I have never met in person -- and we don't intend to. We correspond entirely by telephone and e-mail. Actually, Rosenthal wants it that way.
Gina: He does?
Gene: Yes. He wants us to meet for the first time on the book tour, to generate "buzz."
Gina: Gimme a break.
Gene: It's true. The publishing industry thrives on buzz.
Gina: Does Simon and Schuster make Bob Woodward manufacture his own buzz?
Gene: I don't think he has to. Bob's buzz is natural. He travels with it, like a horsefly.
Gina: The whole arrangement seems manipulative. I'm not sure I'm comfortable with it.
Gene: You were comfortable with not meeting me before you knew you weren't allowed to meet me. Now you want to meet me?
Gina: I want to make it clear that it is in my power to meet you should I desire to do so. This is entirely at my discretion. We are centuries removed from chastity belts and chaperones and other measures engineered by men to restrict the freedom of women to go where they want and do as they wish.
Gene: Fine. Do you want to meet?
Gene: Okay, then.
Gina: And since we're on the subject of the depths to which publishers will sink, I think we need to explain that this book is not going to be like John Gray's Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. That was condescending. And chauvinistic. And dry.
Gene: It also sold sixteen squintillion copies. It's been translated into 740 languages, including several that are entirely clicks and diphthongs. There's probably a version printed in Wingdings, like this:
Gina: Well, that's my point. The subject is inherently interesting.
Gene: Yes, but I suspect that our Mars and Venus will breach their orbits and collide in a screaming fireball from hell.
Gina: No problem. I like fireworks. What I'm saying is that this subject doesn't have to be delivered in some humorless, pedantic fashion by a man.
Gene: It's the man's fault?
Gina: It usually is.
Gene: How about The Rules, by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider -- that runaway best-seller about how women need to bat their eyes and coyly withhold sex to catch a husband. Have you read it?
Gina: I have.
Gene: Did you or did you not want to puke?
Gina: I did.
Gene: So what's your point?
Gina: My point is, we're not a man or a woman. We're both.
Gene: We're a hermaphrodite? We have frighteningly ambiguous genitalia?
Gina: I prefer to think of us as Tiresias.
Gina: The blind prophet from Greek mythology. He lived first as a man and then as a woman. This book will be the Tiresias of humor -- a single sentience, privy to the dark secrets of both sexes.
Gina: I have a Ph.D.
Gene: I dropped out of college to join a street gang in the South Bronx.
Gina: I know. I'm slumming.
Gene: So we'll go chapter by chapter, visiting subjects about which men and women disagree.
Gina: Are there any subjects about which men and women do not disagree?
Gene: The reprehensibility of Hitler. We won't visit that.
Gene: On all other matters, we'll basically be beating each other up.
Gina: We will not. That is a barbarous expression only a man would use. We will engage in a spirited and sometimes contentious exchange of views. The important point is that we're not going to be writing familiar pablum handed down ex cathedra by one gender or the other. What we produce will be an entirely new substance, formed by the combustion of both.
Gene: Okay. I'm with you.
Gina: So, what should we call it?
Gene: The book?
Gina: The substance.
Gene: Does it have to have a name?
Gina: It would give us greater standing as contemporary social scientists.
Gene: You're good.
Gina: I'm an academic. This is what we do.
Gene: Well, if what we're writing is the product of combustion, and if we're scientists, let's call it phlogiston.
Gina: What's that?
Gene: A product of combustion, according to a highly regarded nineteenth-century scientific theory.
Gina: I never heard of it.
Gene: Of course not. It was wrong. Ludicrously wrong. But people believed it for more than a hundred years. You see where I'm going here?
Gene: If we're scientists, we don't have to be right. We just have to sound sure of ourselves. Being wrong is a hallowed part of the scientific process. For example, Pluto isn't even a real planet. We know that now, but the guy who discovered it died as the Magellan of the cosmos.
As scientists, we can tell people whatever we want. We can tell them that if they don't buy this book, they'll never get laid again.
Gina: That won't work for women. Women can always get laid, and we know it. Besides, women want something more meaningful. We want spiritual and emotional fulfillment.
Gene: Swell. We'll promise them that. Phlogiston is a miracle substance.
Gina: What color is it?
Gene: Ha ha.
Gina: No, really. We need to agree on this.
Gene: You want to know the color of a substance that does not exist that stands as a metaphor for the texture of a relationship that has not yet developed in a book that is not yet written?
Gina: We have to resolve this before I agree.
Gene: It's pink.
Gene: Happy now?
Gene: I don't think I like the way this is starting out.
Gina: I do.
Copyright © 2004 by Gene Weingarten and Gina Barreca