The XX Factor

What Literary Theory Tells Us About Fired Oxford American Editor Marc Smirnoff’s Case

Marc Smirnoff

Carol Ann Fitzgerald/National Endowment for the Arts

Nobody disputes that Marc Smirnoff, the founder and editor of the Oxford American, touched his interns. Smirnoff, who was accused of sexual harassment, locked out of the literary journal’s offices and fired in July, has been fighting back against the board of the journal and its publisher, Warwick Sabin. He recently sat for an interview with the New York Times that inadvertently reveals a whole lot about sexual privilege, and the credit some people think they’re owed when they behave badly.

The beginning of the end for Smirnoff was a complaint filed by an intern about his behavior during a staff retreat over the July 4th holiday. As the Times reports, Smirnoff doesn’t deny what the intern reported to the board: 

Mr. Smirnoff said the staff was playing a drinking game, loudly, and ignored his request to stop. (He stopped drinking a decade ago, he said.) The next morning he berated the female intern in front of the other staff members when she refused to help clean up a mess in the kitchen. Then, after insisting that the intern ride back to Conway with him, he asked her if she wanted to hold hands. She declined, he said, saying she’d rather “hold hands with a dead dog.” Still, he told her he wanted to take her to his favorite make-out spot.

This is jaw-dropping behavior, and it would take serious mental contortions to think that the intern  wouldn’t find her boss bizarre, unpredictable, and inappropriate. No matter the content of the actions, any junior employee would find a 24-hour whiplash in their boss’s behavior and attitude towards them disconcerting. And it’s difficult to imagine a request to hold hands or go to a “make-out spot,” the kind of line most people abandon after high school, coming across as anything other than sexual.

An ordinary person who wanted to keep his job might have denied behaving this way, or immediately apologized for it. But apparently, Smirnoff has a different sense of what constitutes normal, and what kind of charity he’s warranted in this situation. Comparing himself to David Brent, Ricky Gervais’ wildly inappropriate supervisor on the original British version of The Office, he told the Times’ Julie Bosman: “I understand that I walk a fine line with my joking, my banter. I have made bad jokes. My intent with regards to that humor is just as important.”

Given how little care Smirnoff appears to have shown for his employee’s feelings—in his version of events, there’s nothing threatening about being stuck in a car with your boss, who is clearly implying that he wants to have further sexual contact with you, even after you’ve indicated your utter disinterest—it’s rather remarkable that he’s the one who thinks he deserves some consideration for intent.

And as a publisher of literary fiction, Smirnoff ought to be familiar with the theory of authorial intent, the idea that it’s possible to search for an author’s biography and intentions in his or her work, and the New Criticism’s belief that it doesn’t matter. When words are written, or in this case spoken, as the latter theory goes, the author’s intentions cease to matter. “If the poet succeeded in doing it, then the poem itself shows what he was trying to do,” wrote W.K. Wimsatt, Jr. and Monroe C. Beardsley in their essay “The Intentional Fallacy.” “And if the poet did not succeed, then the poem is not adequate evidence, and the critic must go outside the poem for evidence of an intention that did not become effective in the poem.”

In other words, if an author doesn’t communicate what he or she wants to say, that’s on the author. And if Smirnoff didn’t intend to sexually harass his intern, well, that, and the consequences that followed, are on him.