Tao Lin, Ed Champion & Stephen Tully Dierks: The Literary World’s F**ked Up Treatment Of Women
Everything going on with women in the literary world right now is fucked. You might have heard about Ed Champion, the now apparently abandoned book reviewer/sexist Twitter troll, sure. But have you heard about Janey Smith and Tao Lin and peterbd? Have you heard about Stephen Tully Dierks? Short version of the story: The alt lit world is riddled with dangerous misogynists who have harassed and abused women for years, and used their pull to get away with and excuse it. Dierks, at least, published a sincere apology and furthermore bowed out from his publication, Pop Serial. The rest? Eh.
Then there’s the fact that, as Anne Boyd Rioux points out at The Millions this week, the National Book Awards Longlist for Nonfiction contains one woman nominee out of 10. The NBA passed over outstanding works of nonfiction, even in the categories which they tend to award. Roux notes:
“Are fewer women writing nonfiction, you might ask. I suppose it depends on what you call ‘nonfiction.’ According to the last few years’ NBA juries, it is mostly history (preferably about war or early America); biography (preferably about men, especially presidents); or reportage (preferably about war, the economy, or non-Western countries).”
It calls to mind William H. Gass’s takedown of the Pulitzer, “The People’s Prize”: “Nothing essential ever disappears. Schlock certainly seems essential. Hence the public and their fiction prize move on, but safely from same to same.” Rioux finishes on a more hopeful note, that perhaps as time goes on our standards will change. I tend to be on the side of Gass’s pessimism. I’m pretty sure that by the time we eliminate the structural sexism within literature (Gass also points out that the original qualifications for the Pulitzer included a work representing “the highest standard of American manners and manhood”), the human race will be gone and over.
Memoir and essay, the genres in which women tend to publish, are routinely passed over: Only four of the last 50 nonfiction books nominated have been memoirs. Here we come back to Ed Champion, who scathed Emily Gould’s “confessional form” in an obsessive 11,000-word blog post. Confessional literature has always been reviled, and women’s memoirs have always been labeled “confessional.” It’s narcissistic, see — although not when Karl Ove Knausgaard writes 3,600 pages of memoir memorably titled My Struggle (in case you happen to miss why I hate that title, the German translation would be “Mein Kampf”). Then, it’s “long, intense, and vital.” So when women were writing fiction novels in the 19th century, they were too sentimental to have any real quality; when we were writing feminist theory in the mid-20th century it was too political; now we’re writing memoir and it’s too self-centered. Rioux points out, rightly, I think, that the probable reason that women’s essay and memoir aren’t popular because they “focus on the issues unique to women’s lives.” In other words, men aren’t interested in knowing what life is like for women. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it until it changes.
Are you starting to get why I feel like women’s place in literature is fucked? If not, let’s look a little bit harder at the rash of misogyny in the alt lit scene. Dianna Dragonetti’s essay “Alt Lit Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry” looks at the fetishization of emotionally disordered women — I would say damaged, because that’s the way that authors Steve Roegenbuck, Tao Lin, and Janey Smith, among others, view those women, but I don’t see emotional distress as damage. Lin’s Richard Yates makes rape culture out to be, as Dragonetti puts it, “absurd and paranoid.” It includes an appeal on the part of a 16-year-old girl for a 22-year-old man to rape her. Smith’s K includes a similar fetishization of rape. A post that he wrote for HTMLGiant that included a list of alt lit authors he wanted to “fuck or be fucked by” (it has been taken down and was a flaming pile of bile in the first place) was turned into a collection of poems titled We’re Fucked by alt lit poet peterbd, who wrote a poem for each author on the list, describing a sexual encounter between the authors and Janey Smith. Consent was not gained to use those authors’ names in the poems, and no, peterbd didn’t need to, but considering the nature of the work, it would have been the non-predatory thing to do.
But, like the rest of these alt lit bros, he didn’t care about being non-predatory. That attitude took a turn for the worse when a female poet in the Bay Area revealed that she had been abused and sexually assaulted by Smith (she announced it publicly, but for her sake, I’m not going to name her or link to her blog from a mainstream venue like this). This started a conversation about Smith’s behavior toward women in the alt lit scene: He was inappropriate at readings. He made jokes — like the fuck list — that were called out as sexist and predatory, but his friends brushed it off as just Janey being Janey. Similarly, Dierks’s accusers have said that he cajoled them, pressured them, and isolated them; that he put them in positions in which it was practically impossible for them to leave — like giving them an ultimatum between sleeping with him or not having a place to stay. In his apology, he said that he had not perceived these situations as rape, and was horrified to come to the understanding that no, he had not really gained consent from these women.
And now there’s Tao Lin, another of Dragonetti’s subjects, whose ex-girlfriend has accused him of rape and abuse over Twitter (if you wonder why these accusations keep coming out on social media, it’s because social media is sort of the reality in which the alt-lit universe operates; it’s where the whole community comes together). Lin dated E.R. (formerly Ellen) Kennedy when Lin was 22 and Kennedy was 16; Kennedy called their intercourse “rape,” which Lin took to mean “legally statutory rape” and refuted that (in Pennsylvania, 16 is the age of consent, but the adult can still be charged with corruption of a minor if the victim is under 18). Lin refuted none of Kennedy’s other claims of abuse while also refusing to apologize for them. A profile on Lin published in n+1, quoted in this Jezebel article on Lin, seems to corroborate Kennedy’s claims, as have many other men and women who have worked with Lin and characterize his behavior as “strange,” “creepy,” and “bizarre.”
So where are the safe spaces for women in writing? It’s not on the Internet, where men deluge us with sexist tweets and threats or write obsessive and/or sexual blogs about us. It’s not at readings, where men get us drunk and pressure us into having sex with them. It’s not in awards, where our personal perspectives — specifically, the non-fictional details of the realities of being a woman — are simply bypassed. Now, tell me again that structural sexism isn’t really a problem in literature.
Correction: When this article was originally posted, E.R. Kennedy was misgendered with female pronouns and his birth name. He identifies as male and by the name “E.R.” I apologize for the misunderstanding and misprint.