A couple years ago, a young female journalist started a Google spreadsheet called “Shitty Media Men,” aimed at warning women about male co-workers with reputations for sexual misconduct. “The anonymous, crowdsourced document was a first attempt at solving what has seemed like an intractable problem: how women can protect ourselves from sexual harassment and assault,” wrote the spreadsheet’s creator in an article for New York Magazine’s The Cut. “One long-standing partial remedy that women have developed is the whisper network, informal alliances that pass on open secrets and warn women away from serial assaulters.”
The problem with Shitty Media Men, of course, is that unlike old-fashioned whisper networks, it was right there in black & white, ready to be screenshotted and shared. There was a swift backlash once the list went viral, with detractors claiming that it would allow vindictive anonymous accusers to derail the lives and careers of innocent men without granting them due process. However, several prominent males did wind up losing their jobs in the wake of the list, most notably New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier.
It seemed inevitable that a fictionalized version of this juicy story would provide material for a novel. In Chandler Baker’s Whisper Network, it’s the “BAD Men” (Beware of Asshole Dallas Men) list which starts the ball rolling. The action takes place at an athletic apparel company called Truviv (think: Nike), where the general counsel, Ames Garrett, seems like a shoo-in to become CEO after the unexpected death of the current chief executive. Sloane Glover, an in-house lawyer at Truviv, adds Ames to the BAD Men list (“Issues with physical and interpersonal boundaries at the office; pursued sexual relationships with subordinate co-workers; sexist”), hoping to derail his rise to the top, but once the names on the spreadsheet are made public, Ames dies, seemingly of suicide. Suddenly, Ames starts being treated as a victim of what one local newspaper columnist refers to as a “feminist witch hunt.”
Baker smartly adds several complicating factors to the story: for instance, Sloane and Ames had had a sexual relationship at one point. Ames had just hired a new, pretty young female attorney, and Sloane is pretty sure he’s intent on making her his next conquest. In one particularly inspired touch, Sloane and her two best friends at work, Ardie and Grace, conduct clandestine meetings in the legally-mandated private room in which new mom Grace pumps breast milk.
The novel is told in the voice of an omniscient narrator, who makes statements about the general plight of women in modern America which female readers will no doubt find highly relatable: “We had guilt of every flavor: We had working-mom guilt, childless guilt, guilt because we’d turned down a social obligation, guilt because we’d accepted an invitation we knew we didn’t have time for, guilt for turning away work and for not turning it down when we felt we were already being taken advantage of.”
Whisper Network is an honest-to-goodness page turner (I stayed up past my bedtime in order to finish it, because I simply had to find out what would happen next), as well as a book I’d place in a time capsule to show what life was like for women in as the first fifth of the 21st century comes to a close. Would a female reader in 2039 feel satisfied that the lives of working women have improved significantly during the past 20 years? Let’s hope that’s the case.