October 21, 2014

Alt Lit and Rape Culture - Suffering the Inheritance of Cultural Narratives - Andrea Baker

The history of rape, unsurprisingly, is as old as humanity. Andrea Baker explores that history in her forthcoming book Famous Rapes. In this excerpt, she looks at the string of assault charges that tore through the internet community surrounding Don't Forget to Be Awesome records this past year and the 2012 Steubenville, Ohio rape case. She argues that one problem we encounter when discussing high-profile (and low-profile) rape cases is our impulse to flatten the men concerned into an easy binary of "good" and "bad." And that division excuses us from looking at the larger cultural phenomena that keep rape culture humming along. SBB

Suffering the Inheritance of Cultural Narratives

I was born in 1976 and grew up believing that history was contained by a thing called the past. Like many young people, I also held the belief that my choices and behaviors existed in the vacuum of my own being. It wasn’t until my life came crashing down around me that I came to understand that my boundaries were poorly constructed, that my mind was less in charge than I thought it was, and that I was suffering the inheritance of both a personal and a cultural narrative.

Now, I don’t think there is anything unique about me. And I don’t think there’s anything unique about anyone else either, regardless of whether they find themselves in the role of victimizer or victimized. While I am not suggesting that individuals are not culpable for their choices, I am suggesting that beyond the realm of the individual something is going on and that it is in everyone’s best interest to try and understand that something

From an energy that I can only term what-the-hell-just-happened, I wrote a book, Famous Rapes. I learned that, in order to preserve her honor, in 510 BCE Lucretia stabbed herself after being assaulted by Sextus Tarquinius, the son of the ruling tyrant. And I learned that attitudes hadn’t changed much by the time the D.W. Griffith made his 1915 film, Birth of a Nation. In the film, a young woman throws herself off a cliff because she is being chased by a man whose affection she does not desire. As she dies, a title card tells us that, “For her who learned the stern lesson of honor we should not grieve that she found sweeter the opal gates of death.” 

On a conscious level, feminism has rewritten our assumptions. If we look, though, at phenomena we see evidence of beliefs we didn’t know we held bubbling up and manifesting all over our collective behavior. The recent alt.lit transgressions are but a single example. Last year an almost identical set of incidents shook another Internet-based community, the fans and content creators of Don’t Forget to Be Awesome [DFTBA] records. When I was finishing up my book I looked at the DFTBA incidents within the context of the now infamous 2012 Steubenville, Ohio rape case. The parallels were interesting because the Internet figured prominently there, too. The Steubenville case, though, allowed a sort of splitting where the bad behavior was easily pushed into the realm of other—the jocks, the coach, the small town... 

The following excerpt from my book Famous Rapes delves into these parallels.

From Famous Rapes:
In the Steubenville case the Internet first provided a platform for the perpetrators to further traumatize their victim, then it provided a platform for individuals to bring attention to a crime that they believed would be minimized if not scrutinized by the public eye. Then, it provided a platform for outrage over the mainstream media’s handling of the news to be aired. Overall, though, Steubenville’s players were fairly stereotypical—the jocks were exposed as, to say the least, insensitive and unreflective. Ditto for the mainstream news.

Social media, however, also provides platforms for the online persona that is sensitive, nerdy, and socially conscious. Such a community exists on YouTube...
...around Don’t Forget to Be Awesome Records (DFTBA). YouTube, with its user generated content offers an implicit promise of equality. Everyone is invited; everyone participates on equal footing, and unlike in the offline world, creators and users may also easily interact with one another.

However, most of the musicians of DFTBA are young men in their 20’s, and most of their fans are teenage girls. Men and girls are not equal. And a disturbing number of these cool, quirky men in T-shirts have recently been implicated in a cluster of crimes known as the DFTBA Sexual Abuse Scandal. 

In 2012, Mike Lombardo...
...was convicted of soliciting explicit photos from an underage fan, a crime for which he received a five-year prison sentence. 

In 2014, a teenage girl used Tumblr to expose Tim Milsom.
He had entered into a “relationship” with her when he was 22 and she was 15. During this time he was abusive and sexually coercive.

Then, within days of the revelation about Milsom, a third DFTBA musician, Alex Day...
...volunteered that he didn’t know what consent was, implying that he had behaved abusively, or, at least coercively, toward sexual partners.

 All three men were dropped by DFTBA and label co-founder, Hank Green quickly posted a video...
...in which he ultimately compares contemporary American culture’s relationship to sex with that of predator and prey, which he then attempted to make cute by comparing male sexual advances to the work of cruise missiles, and female attempts to dodge the cruise missiles as the work of scared kittens.
Though DFTBA did respond, and respond quickly, depiction here never transcends the realm of quirk. Green’s only reflection on how this cluster of abuse may have been enabled was that, “When we are set up to assume that the kitten is going to run, whether the kitten wants the cruise missile or not, that enables abuse.”

The issue of adults and teenagers mixing freely, as if the two were in any way equals, remains unaddressed.  Green’s response does, however, represent a radical departure from the past.

More Complicated Than Good or Bad
Though no one from alt.lit has gone to prison, the details of behavior within the two cultures are eerily resonant.  The smart people, the clever, the nerds, we have the same cultural inheritance as everyone else. We aren’t unique. And we aren’t always aware of the cultural dynamics influencing our behavior. I assume that before these recent wake-up calls most of the individuals within both cultures believed that sexual assault and sexual coercion didn’t really happened within their set. In fact, I bet that a good number of individuals within both cultures held the conscious belief that sexual assault and sexual coercion didn’t really happen within their set while also participating in behavior counter to that belief.

This is where Steubenville remains an interesting point of reflection, not only because it shows us other incidents of the Internet effecting culture, but also because it so eloquently serves up the jocks as bad guys, affording us the opportunity to believe that the bad and the good inhabit discreet domains. We need to see ourselves holding that belief, we need to see that the belief we hold is not true, then we need to notice that in place of moving toward understanding, we have developed a sort of two-party system of the mind. 

When it comes to the alt.lit men, much of the behavior that has come to light is criminal, and perhaps they should be held legally accountable for their crimes. Individuals can and do make decisions, and those who violate legal and ethical obligations are responsible for their actions. But, as bystanders, we will not progress when we spend our energy dividing good guys from bad. Understanding of where we are on the ribbon of time’s progress is what is needed.

Those of us born after both the first and second wave feminists impacted the status quo were born into a world that, we were told, had solved the former problem of gender inequality. But the present does not reside in a vacuum any more than then an individual resides in a vacuum. The past is at work now. 

We ought use this opportunity to reflect on how relatively recent it is that society has even granted women ownership of their own bodies; how recent it is to consider surviving an assault an unquestionably good thing.  And how it is still, emergently, healing for us all to hear from those who chose to speak to their own experiences.  The alt.lit transgressions have generated a fresh round of energy and outrage. Focusing on our cultural inheritance instead of focusing on the offenders does not mean that we approve of or excuse what these men have done; it does mean that we recognize that we aren’t going to get anywhere if we attempt to use these individual offenders as easy containers for a bad that is, at time, ambiguous and cannot so easily be contained. 

Have something to say? Email comments, questions, responses, links to relevant articles elsewhere, and submissions to: rapeculture.and.altlit [at] gmail [dot] com. For the original call for submissions, see here. To read all the essays in the series, click here

Andrea Baker is a poet and writer. She has two books forthcoming in 2015: Famous Rapes from Water Street Press and Each Thing Unblurred is Broken from Omnidawn. She is also the author of Like Wind Loves a Window (Slope Editions, 2005) and the chapbook gilda (Poetry Society of America, 2004). Visit her on the web at andreabaker.us.

October 19, 2014

Alt Lit and Rape Culture - The Male Literary Canon is Fired - Sonya Vatomsky

"If men shoplifting from American Apparel and contemplating the cold/boring universe and (statutorily) raping their romantic partners is so obvious and commonplace and everyday that it does not even warrant a shrug, where are the counterpart stories, the obvious and commonplace and everyday narratives of victims and survivors that, too, should not feel one bit out of the ordinary in such a climate?" Sonya Vatomsky asks in this essay about the literary canon, alt-lit, and her own struggles finding a voice in a literary climate hostile to anything but a male protagonist. And it is an excellent question. SBB
The Male Literary Canon Is Fired: Sexual Assault, Alt-Lit and the Casualties of the Male Narrative
I first loved Tao Lin when I was 21 and he came to Seattle to read from Bed and Eeeee Eee Eeee. I had spent that entire year writing short, disaffected prose pieces about sex and Facebook Scrabble and existential despair, so to say that Tao Lin's style resonated is an understatement. He felt, honestly, like the first peer I had in published writinga kindred spirit. It was the very same excitement I felt when I discovered the male authors and protagonists who influenced and inspired me during childhood, and I was equally disheartened to have to come to terms with the same one-sided literary camaraderie again.
Bookish and alternative teenagers, in retrospect, are exposed to manliness levels exceeding those of the standard literary canon by a factor of (at least!) three. You have first the classics: Salinger, Hemingway. Then the alternative classics: Burroughs, Nietzsche. Then the alternative-alternative classics, as you veer into sci-fi or fantasy or magical realism or alt-lit: Murakami, Lin. Whatever you are reading, it is probably by men and about men and you might think that you are allowed to empathize and identify with these men but only until the first time you actually discuss a book with a man. Then, the realization is fast and sharp and disarming: a blank look from him, indicating quite clearly that you seeing yourself in these literary heroes is as preposterous as you being a Ninja Turtle during recess. You, obviously, are April. It's coded into your body, simple as anything. Charming side-plot, certainly. Ravishing muse, if you want. But protagonist? No. Not you, not ever.
Earlier this year, literary magazine n+1 published a fantastic book called No Regrets, a dialogue by women about the formative novels and stories pushed on them during adolescence. Everyone shared the experience of feeling indescribably barred from communion with these male narratorsthese worshipped heroes of their own storiesand of grappling with the certainty that their male peers were easily identifying with them and simultaneously writing the women of their lives into whatever limited side-roles were offered by these male-dominated plots, no exceptions. The famous old script is that the male story is universal and the female story niche, but the reality of it is that the male story is not universal but dominantand this distinction means that it is not a story a woman can ever aspire to living or to writing.
As a teenager and 20-something who wrote both fiction and the despondent, life-chronicling semi-fiction alt-lit is known for, navigating these male voices while trying to explore (and chronicle) my own identity fueled a strange little dance wherein I felt inadequate at performing the roles assigned me and excluded from those I wished for. I eagerly read through Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash and Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, and, at age 17, journaled my fury at wanting to be the in-progress, curious protagonist while feeling conscribed to an eternal pantomime of the infinitely-wise, earthy-yet-virginal woman-guide: "But I'm not Casaubon's Lia or Hiro's Juanitait's too much responsibility; I can't. I can't. I don't even want to, often, though I spend enough minutes sitting and staring at my hips."
If there is something I can ask of a prophetess, it is: how damaging is it for women to grow up reading narratives in which they are relegated to the sidelines? It is: what is the total effect of a literary canon that prohibits women from seeing themselves as protagonists and keeps them aspiring to be, at best, muses. It is: where do we go, when our personalities are shaped by female characters in male-authored novels, and the inability to fully portray that which is ultimately based on a false perception of us causes discord between what we are and what we think we are and what we write we are. We're looking for reflections in mirrors designed to fail us – we are staring into the shitty abyss until the abyss stares back, and then writing down its words as ours.
When the first alt-lit rape news was published, I avoided it. I’d experienced sexual assault a year prior, and the way that it had overwhelmed me and swallowed up my writing and worn my body like an ill-fitting suit still felt so profoundly murky and muddy that I scrolled past the articles every time. After a week or two, I saw Tao Lin’s name attached to them and felt both queasy and unsurprised.
“I did not realize that this alt-lit rape thing was about Tao Lin,” I Facebook messaged my boyfriend.
A minute later: “Oh, no, woops, there are TWO alt-lit rape things this week.”
Truthfully, there’s nothing unusual or shocking or profound about there being rapists in any scene, creative or not. What’s unusual here, as Lauren O’Neal tweeted, is that “it’s all compulsively documented, alt-lit style.” She goes on: “Most rapists/abusers aren’t part of a scene based largely on documenting all your own thoughts and actions.” What’s worrisome is not so much that a writer managed to publish an entire novel depicting his abuse of someone considerably younger – and to critical acclaim and praise from his artistic communitybut that this community is not similarly overflowing with the stories of abused, assaulted and mistreated women. If men shoplifting from American Apparel and contemplating the cold/boring universe and (statutorily) raping their romantic partners is so obvious and commonplace and everyday that it does not even warrant a shrug, where are the counterpart stories, the obvious and commonplace and everyday narratives of victims and survivors that, too, should not feel one bit out of the ordinary in such a climate?
Where are these stories going?
My feeling is that it’s actually worse than the usual guess, the common and frequently-accurate assumption that female narratives are just generally talked-over or otherwise dismissed in favor of male narratives to such a degree that they might as well not exist. My feeling is that the meeting of alt-lit and sexual assaultthe meeting of compulsive documentation and rape cultureis creating a whirlpool into which the words of women are being sucked and drowned.
There is something terrible in feeling that your own narrative is now a response to someone else’s. Women in the literary community have spent lifetimes battling for a right to be heard, and in alt-lit their stories are literal side-plots in someone else’s work. Your sexual abuse is a side-plot. The rapist is the protagonist. And then your own writing is overwhelmed by this thing that happened to you that you, firstly, cannot talk about (because nobody wants to talk about rape – “why would a man want to talk about rape,” a friend’s boyfriend once asked me, confused, at happy hour) and then, secondly, cannot write about. It is, however, the only thing you can think about. And so here we are.
It’s beyond telling that when we think of men’s stories and women’s stories about rape, the men’s stories are the literature – the novels, the poems, the chapbooks – and the women’s stories are Tumblr posts and blog entries and confessional-but-definitely-not-"literature" writing. In later-deleted tweets about Tao Lin, E.R. Kennedy said that “what use[d] to be my greatest escape, writing, instantly became my worst nightmare.” It is a double-silence, this kind of abuse. You are silencing both the victim-as-a-person and the victim-as-a-writer, and shutting down entire trails and rivers and oceans of narrative.
The question we should be asking isn’t how alt-lit has become a flashpoint for sexual and emotional violence, but what we can do to highlight the stories from the other side. To encourage women to keep writing, even when their every poem is an iteration on the stupidest, ugliest moment of their life and every short story is the most transparent, puerile metaphor and every novel is just THIS REALLY FUCKING SUCKED over and over and over again for 500 pages. To give power to side-plot narratives. To re-shape what a story is, what a life is, who a protagonist is. And to fill the eyes and ears of alt-lit readers with this furious noise until something, profoundly, shakes and shifts and moves. It’s not what we’re doing currently, but it’s an alternative.

Have something to say? Email comments, questions, responses, links to relevant articles elsewhere, and submissions to: rapeculture.and.altlit [at] gmail [dot] com. For the original call for submissions, see hereTo read all the essays in the series, click here

Sonya Vatomsky is a Moscow-born, Seattle-raised writer and poet. An introvert, she balances her time between being active in several (online and local) feminist communities and cooking elaborate five-course dinners for herself, alone, in the dark. She is interested in how a nearly all-male literary canon has shaped the worldview and affected the self-actualization of women and works to add her own voice to the noise, proving that women can aspire to something other than side-plots and muse-hood. She tweets about feminism and depression at @coolniceghost and once killed a social gathering in under 15 minutes by answering “name one thing that men are bad at discussing” with “rape.”

October 17, 2014

Alt Lit and Rape Culture - Separation of Art and Hate - Stacia M. Fleegal

Stacia M. Fleegal was distraught to see her literary community--which she had previously considered open-minded, loving, and safe--laid low by the torrent of rape allegations that whipped through Alt Lit this past month. Contrary to Elizabeth Ellen at Hobart, who scolded the community for publicly shaming and shunning Tao Lin and Stephen Tully Dierks, Fleegal suggests public shaming and shunning could be a concrete tool we can use responsibly within our communities to reclaim them as safe places for the creation of art. --SBB

Separation of Art and Hate: Abusers, stay out of lit or be shamed

Yes, I did hear someone say “Haters gonna hate” in defense of Tao Lin’s abuse of a 16-year-old girl.

This person then proclaimed his love of Lin’s fiction and proceeded to trot out example after example of artistic geniuses—Miles Davis, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Amiri Baraka, among others—whose work he would remember and whose abusive behaviors he would forget.

Good for him.

But it got me thinking of that old standby of studying creative writing, about divorcing the art from the artist. In workshops, we were told not to assume the speaker and the author are the same, and for the purposes of uncensored creative expression, that advice has merit. A teenager writing grim murder stories is not necessarily the next school shooter in training, for example; nor is the fact that someone only writes happy poems about birds and flowers necessarily indicative of sainthood. That’s one of the great things about art, right? It can show us the full spectrum of human nature, for better or worse, and in so doing, facilitate growth, change how we think and feel, and encourage us to appreciate our lives more. We as artists must be free to make our art communicate whatever we wish.

In a piece for Pacific Standardwriter Jake Flanagin presents Scottish psychiatrist Ronald Fairbairn’s theory about “splitting,” a defense mechanism that results from “an individual’s failure to incorporate both positive and negatives aspects of the self or others into a more realistic composite.” Flanagin relates Fairbairn’s theory to explain how we ignore an artist’s personal shortcomings and instead focus on his art: “Because we don’t typically maintain personal relationships with the artist, the art suffices as representation of him or her. So if we hate the art, we devalue the artist. If we love the art, we idealize the artist.” We do so because, apparently, we are under-developed children who insist on dividing the world into good-bad, into binaries that tend to fall in line with social norms. 

But what if we no longer value the artist?

What about when a living writer is publicly accused of, and publicly admits to, abusing, bullying, raping, or assaulting someone? What if we try to be good little writers and keep the art and the artist separate in our minds, continue to appreciate the art itself, but we just can’t? Are people outraged at abuse in the lit community within their rights to assist in the dismantling of an abuser’s literary career? Is that activism or vigilantism?

When Amiri Baraka died earlier this year, I wrote a quick post for a poetry blog I was running for a newspaper in south central Pennsylvania, something to the effect of “This writer was controversial but legendary, check out his work if you don’t know it.” I remember a close writer friend reminding me that “Baraka was a wife-beater.” I remember being torn about how to talk about that, or whether to talk about it at all. I ultimately decided that, at least for me, there would be no solace in lambasting the dead for past offenses, no women were anymore in need of protection from him, and Baraka’s words had done good work in raising consciousness about race issues.

And I stand by some of that, but I feel differently now. I wouldn’t blog anything but a block quote from the AP obituary if it happened today instead. Tao Lin, Stephen Tully Dierks, and Kirk Nessett changed the game this month.

“Granted we don't want to perpetuate the careers of monsters, but I don't think blamelessness ought to be a standard we're looking for in an author. If we did, the canon (and the contemporary lit world) is going to be a pretty small company of saints.” Writer and editor Brett Ortler said that to me in a private Facebook message, and I reprint it here with his permission because, while I knew I would write something in response to the alt lit abuse epidemic, it was this statement that brought focus to this gestating essay for me because…how is this ok? 

I believe that bad people can make good art. I also believe that people who object to bad behavior can choose not to consume the art made by the person behaving badly. I believe that’s activism, and that art is a place for activism, as well as a place for compassion. I believe art is and should be a place that always has its doors open for the outcast, the abused, the silenced among us. It should be a safe, well-lit place that, if it were a city, women would feel comfortable walking through alone at night. Call me a dreamer.

“When you learn that these people are orbiting in the circles in which you feel safe, you suddenly feel a lot less safe, period … I think we have the right to expect better. I don't buy the argument that ‘well, it's just a microcosm of the larger world, you see this in every segment of society.’ This is our community and we can all do better and demand better.” Writer and editor Kelly Davio made this comment on a Facebook thread about Lin (also reprinted with permission), and she is making a call to all of us take ownership of the literary world. Why accept the “standard” of every other segment of society? Every other segment of society also doesn’t read poetry or try to write a novel in a month, but we do that differently here, don’t we? We make our own rules and create a subculture in which to abide by or break them. On separation of art and artist, is the “rule” we’re going to choose to uphold one that helps people or continues to hurt them? 

One of the most popularly repurposed of E.R. Kennedy’s tweets about Tao Lin was: “everyday I see you fucking monkeys support tao lin support the man who raped me and stole from me and feel alienated, excluded.” Can art please be a place where, if anyone is to be excluded, it’s a rapist? (And if your urge is to stop reading here because I’ve used the word “rapist,” please only stop reading this essay—don’t stop reading discussions about what constitutes consent or about affirmative consent movements on college campuses across the U.S.)

So how do we exclude rapists and abusers, not from a place of vengeance but as a form of activism? Well, Elizabeth Ellen posted an "open letter" at Hobart that I’ve seen blasted from every corner of the web (except at Hobart, which closed the post to comments), and she says the public shaming has got to stop, that we should not exclude these men from our community.

“To publicly humiliate and shun and incriminate someone to the point his career and public life is over, you better have more evidence than this,” Ellen declared, seeming to forget or to have never known that Lin himself penned a statement acknowledging the abuse charges Kennedy leveled against him were accurate (though he has clearly taken issue with being called a rapist—see Jezebel’s updated article. Words are powerful, aren’t they?)

As if countering herself, Ellen continues: “And since when is emotional abuse grounds for public shunning?” Well, maybe it fucking ought to be. Studies show that verbal and emotional abuse and manipulation, while often dismissed or deemed “not as bad” as physical or sexual abuse, are actually difficult to quantify, document, in essence prove, and so further enshroud the victim in stigma and secrecy. They also carry longer-term risks than physical or sexual abuse. The last couple of years have seen increased awareness of the dangers of bullying, which is certainly a form of abuse, and that movement has been successful in its attempts to use shame to increase awareness. Does turning shame back onto abusers or bullies make them reconsider their behavior, or make them more defensive and aggressive? I don’t know. But we have to try something new.

Women and victims continuing to keep their mouths shut is not working, and in fact, is further damaging and isolating them. And keeping their mouths shut to protect their abusers from being shamed? Fuck that. I say we need MORE public shunning. 

What’s crucial to this call for more public shaming is that those of us doing the shaming don’t backslide into being abusive ourselves. I don’t mean to suggest that every jackass who calls someone a jackass should cease making art and self-flagellate or be ripped apart online; I do mean that every abuser who uses his/her strength, will, and position(s) of power to demean or control another individual should be pointed at and called out and held accountable. Should change. Should strive to become a more compassionate person.

Studies also show that domestic violence is up (one in four American women will be a victim, and one in seven men) and the number of rapes that have gone unreported in the last two decades is estimated to be over a millionMs. Magazine recently published a story on rape kit backlogs that claims, “an estimated 91 to 95 percent of rapes are committed by serial rapists—and serial offenders commit an average of six rapes each—so stopping them after the first offense could prevent untold numbers of crimes.” I’ve written a bit about victim-blaming, how the burden of proof seems, in the media and in the courtroom, to lie with victims and not alleged criminals. I’m not suggesting we go all Boondock Saints on every writer accused of sexual misconduct. But since rape, assault, battery, and abuse seem so difficult and nebulous and hard to “prove” in our justice system and just getting the word out seems to be enough to spawn outrage, more public shaming might let potential victims know who in our community can’t be trusted and could actually bring about acknowledgment and redemptive action from the accused (again, both Lin and Dierks responded to their respective allegations). So I’m on board with the people who want to put public shunning back on the table. Can anyone think of anything else that’s working?

"I think ultimately, the problem I have had this week with the way things have been handled is the lack of humanity that has been shown throughout,” Ellen writes in Hobart. True, I was also deeply affected by the outpouring of anger from both sides of the ensuing debates online—but I think much of the anger from the side supporting the victims was justified and coming from a good place. I did see humanity, from Davio and Ortler (the latter went on to write a piece for The Barking against the Internet jury culture and a piece for The Nervous Breakdown in defense of Ellen’s right to pen her (flawed, unsourced, meandering, arguably rape-apologist) piece, and both are thoughtful additions to this conversation), and from others I haven’t named or quoted who want to see rape within the literary community extinct. Because the thing is, mob rule and democracy are two different things. People speaking up and being outraged about abuse within their communities is democratic, not anarchic. Name me one worthwhile revolution, one that changed the world for the better, that didn’t start with outrage. Hell, outrage even brought back "Family Guy" and the McRib. “Mob mentality” is a trigger word that seems to run rampant whenever one group of people is trying to keep another in check because the first group has something to lose. In the cases of Lin et al., they might be afraid of losing royalties and notoriety, but no one’s calling for an executioner here. We just want writers to stop raping and abusing other writers. 

“What it seems like Kennedy wants (admittedly based on what she's [sic] tweeted) is acknowledgment that Lin’s art and status had a human cost, namely a teenager's well-being.” In a piece for New York Magazine, Kat Stoeffel, though mis-identifiying Kennedy with a feminine pronoun, addresses the touchy issue of calling rape rape and concludes—in her title—that “It Doesn’t Have to Be Rape to Suck.” Further, Stoeffel makes a key statement about what might be desirable and supportive recourse for victims of abuse: “It seems like every time someone explains that women and men do not always meet for sex on equal footing, the conversation collapses into a black-and-white debate of Was It Rape—one that, paradoxically, serves to protect men … Women shouldn't need greater justification for testifying about sexual encounters—good, bad, coercive, or rape—than the fact that they happen. But what it seems most women want is to warn other women about a category of jerk courts have no name for: a guy who can’t be trusted not to exploit his power over her.”

Now I know that men can be victims of abuse and assault, too. But there’s a gender-specificity to so many of these recent offenses that aligns with other issues of gender disparity in lit, plus a general heinousness that I can’t ignore, won’t shut up about, and am determined to try to change, and I’m not above resorting to some public shaming to do it. Black Lawrence Press, after Ellen’s Hobart piece was published, removed her story from an upcoming anthology: “This is not the kind of provocative Black Lawrence Press wants associated with this anthology and the press.” That’s activism. Alexandra Naughton and Dianna Dragonetti have started a Tumblr to name names and publish or re-publish survivor lit. That’s activism, and empathy. More, please. 

As I said before, we make the rules here. At the risk of over-romanticizing art, I think I am drawn to creating things because the world of creators seemed always to be open-minded and accepting of individuality, and so, a loving and even safe place. I’ve never believed all artists are wonderful people. I recognize that as a straight white female from a working class background, I had some struggles but also certainly enjoyed some privileges that made it easier for me than for others to study and publish writing. But I was floored this fall by back to back to back reports of abuse, rape, and exploitation of women and children, and things don’t feel so safe anymore. And I was ripped apart inside when I read anything in defense of the abusers, whether I ever read and enjoyed their work or not. But I wouldn’t rather not know. This is my community. If someone’s raping or abusing people to whom they have access via our community, I want to know. Tell me, E.R. Kennedy and Sophia Katz and Kat Dixon and all the others. And if the perpetrators are shamed into admitting their wrongs, as Lin and Dierks both were, then all the better for society. This call for more public shaming has redemption firmly set as its end goal. 

Still, if the perpetrators are shamed into silence, retiring from art, and withdrawing from our community, then I say, at least it isn’t the victims. I say, good riddance. I say, unapologetic and willfully ignorant abusers, stay out of lit.

I acknowledge that there are dangers—risk of slander, libel, and vigilantism—inherent in this kind of messy and complicated conversation, but I think those dangers might be outweighed by the risk of further silencing and shaming victims. Being afraid to say the wrong thing for fear of being yelled at isn’t a way to live in a relationship and it isn’t a way to live as a writer, either. We can and must know the facts before shaming anyone because we can and must understand that people’s reputations and livelihoods could be at stake. I believe that writers might be The Ones who should be having this messy talk, out in the open of the web, because most of us are thoughtful about what we say. I don’t fear being criticized for writing this without having all the answers; I fear not being able to add productively to the conversation—and abuse continuing to plague my community.

Can we, in good conscience, and must we always, truly separate the art from the artist? Is holding fast to that ideal doing a disservice to the higher purposes of making art? Is it bordering on censorship or merely a matter of personal taste to decide to dislike a piece of art because the artist is a criminal or sociopath or a person full of hate and ignorance? I can’t tell you what to do or feel; you need to draw your own lines. But I know that reading excerpts from Richard Yates made me feel ill after I read Kennedy’s tweets and Lin’s response. I felt ill again when my various feeds became choked with the back-and-forth of the outraged vs. the apologists. More than ill, I felt myself slide backward into a life where I was yelling for help in my front yard while an ex broke my phone, then tackled me to the ground, in plain view of neighbors, and no one came. All the properly placed trigger warnings on the web couldn’t have prevented that wave of nauseous despair. 

The point is, it feels wrong to me to celebrate and promote even the beautiful, even the crafted and transcendent, creation of an abuser. It’s a heart thing. It’s like finally deciding you don’t love the person who hit you anymore, can’t recognize what they’re offering to you as love, as a profound or beautiful thing that can help you evolve or appreciate life. Can’t recognize it as art.

I’m seeing more and more personal narratives from survivors of domestic violence and partner assault/rape all the time. An anonymous piece published at XOJane in September really spoke to me: “As a community we must be loud, we must be vocal, and we must be active. We must be willing to keep each other afloat, at all costs. We must empathize with the psychological warfare being perpetrated against these victims everyday. We must present ourselves publicly and with pride, and we must create a long term safety net for these men and women to land in when they get too tired to fight. We must be here for one another, side by side with neon signs flashing ‘You are not and have never been alone. Did you hear me? You are not and have never been alone.’”

I look at all the books by living writers on my shelves and wonder how many were written by perpetrators of those one million unreported rapes. I really wish I knew. Let’s keep this conversation going. Let’s take ownership of our community and try new things, even controversial things, to keep it a safer place, as free of hate as possible, no matter which side of the rape/abuse culture debate you make your own.

Have something to say? Email comments, questions, responses, links to relevant articles elsewhere, and submissions to: rapeculture.and.altlit [at] gmail [dot] com. For the original call for submissions, see hereTo read all the essays in the series, click here

Stacia M. Fleegal is the author of two full-length and three chapbook collections of poetry, most recently antidote (Winged City Press, 2013). Her poems have appeared most recently in Knockout, North American Review, Fourth River, Best of the Net 2011, and more, and have been three times nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her first published essay, a personal narrative on domestic violence, recently appeared at Luna Luna Magazine. She is co-founder and editor of Blood Lotus and an online writing instructor and social media coordinator for the Elizabeth Ayres Center for Creative Writing. 

October 14, 2014

Alt Lit and Rape Culture - The Intellectual Class of Poetry - Lisa Cattrone

We begin our interrogation into rape culture and poetics with this essay from Lisa Cattrone. Read on for how radical poets can be surprisingly and disappointingly conservative in their actions; how Janey Smith's appropriation of a woman's personal story of assault in his "On Rape" is not new or unique and, in fact, exposes truths about literature and the internet in general; how such appropriations shine a light on our literary and academic cultures; and what feminists and poets and academics must do in order to face down rape in our culture and transform that culture according to our ideals. --SBB

The Intellectual Class Of Poetry: On Rape Culture in the Literary World
And An Examination of Janey Smith’s "On Rape"

Isn’t intellectual life about having an argument?
-Mary Beard

Introduction: Ideals and Reality in the Radical World of Poetry
The internet, with its click bait and comment streams, has exacerbated the already problematic functioning of an intellectual class of poetry. (I realize I’ve made some assumptions here with this classification, which will be addressed). With poets openly admitting that they don’t even read literary journals anymore unless they’re online and then brought to their attention through social media, and sometimes not even then, but only when their curiosity or intrigue has been peaked enough, a snowball we can call the snowball of narcissism, has rolled itself into an endless heap of provocation. In terms of Alt Lit, but not exclusively, one element that is becoming a staple of provocation is the listing of living poets by name for various reasons. Poets scan to see who is on the list and if their name was also listed or not and then, upon seeing who got a black or white marble (whether or not it is really desired depending upon how the names are being used), develop reactive opinions, usually in comment streams or on blogs, thus bringing lots of undue attention to some pretty idiotic writing. The dilemma, however, doesn’t stop with this narcissistic snowball but is paired with a current fashionable opinion, one that has developed over time and from the various sub-sub-cultures of poetry, that our writing has absolutely no effect on our lives or the lives of others. So while work becomes more and more idiotically provocative, the writers of these pieces are free to throw their hands in the air as if they never even touched the thing, because after all, our writing is nothing beyond what you might find in a cookbook. (I actually saw this in a comment stream on Facebook where a question was raised of whether or not poetry has any effect. Each commenter tried to one up the previous to show just how little importance they feel their work has. I personally felt the cookbook comment won).

Recently, our literary community has had a revelation. We now can see that, after several women have told about their experiences on the internet and elsewhere, writers and editors are not immune to participating in sexually predatory behavior. Some have observed that many of the accused (along with some of them publicly admitting their guilt) are almost exclusively from the Alt Lit community. This has led some to believe that Alt Lit must somehow be suspect, having an effect on the writers of Alt Lit who present as left-thinking allies of women but then grab every opportunity to take advantage of them. I am not one of these people. I do not think the writing of Alt Lit nor engaging with this community somehow produces or even attracts a more sinister character. Instead, I think it has served as a microcosm of a much more widely diffused problem. 

Let’s return back to the concept of poets as a class of intellectuals.  Currently, there is an ill-formed class. It is hard to deny that poets present and operate through a series of gestures, methods and platforms on a variety of active levels, as well as milieux, with an intellectual intent. The intellectual turn of poetry is one with a long history, and much of that history is saturated with the same patriarchal and colonial history that saturates the real world of events and experience. 

In saying “intellectual” some may think I mean to say the same thing as “philosopher.” However, there is clearly a distinction, especially since poets have taken up the act. Philosophy and poetry have been at odds for millennia because the modes of thought are so incompatible. Philosophy and/or theory, while there are leftist “thinkers,” is rarely considered leftist or progressive in any way as an institution writ large or wholly inclusive. Poetry, however, is almost always occupied with radical processes of thought and very often invested in counter-cultural ideals as well as a radical politics. It is safe to say calling a poet and/or their poetry conservative is a major insult. When things get really heated in a public discussion, the phrase “that’s very conservative” fits nicely on the foot like a steel-toed boot when aiming below the belt. While sometimes I think the attack is unjustly used to silence and derail someone, I often enjoy it because I find it hilarious that this is our biggest and nastiest weaponry, to call someone conservative! If only some of the people I know who are actually conservative knew… I can’t help but delight in it almost every time! But that is beside the point. And the point is this: the institution of poetry prides itself on being radical because the best poems are the ones that move in the wild spaces of the mind, which is important not only for good poetry but also for how the work we do with language fits in with the greater intellectual community. This unordinary kind of intellectual mixing with the greater intellectual community through our discoveries with language is how the edges of poetry overlap with other political, intellectual and radical thought processes in the real world. This all sounds pretty utopian, but there is room for further investigation later. With this modern and unorthodox intellectualization through poetic thought and its radicalized manifestations of communal ideals, a misguided and unrealistic trust has formed.  There is an assumption that the best interests of all marginalized people (of course including women), are, with all seriousness, taken into account and so held up to counteract the cultural norm of the sickened, current human relations (because isn’t that what radicalizing our community of poets would mean?). At some level we all know this is a utopian ideal but the assumption that remains is that it is, in fact, the utopian ideal of nearly all poets who, it is assumed, hold the collective ideal of radicalizing our minds, politics and also hopefully the world. This has left us wide open for shock and torment when it is revealed that real people—real poets and editors who have, in one way or another, aimed for these ideals—are working against them in drastic ways. No one feels shocked when you say “rape culture exists” or “1 in 6 women are raped at least once in their lifetime” but we do feel shocked when similar things occur in our “radical” community. 

Alt Lit and how it functions is not the cause of this disconnect between ideals and the unfortunate behavior of individuals. Alt Lit is, however, a very shiny example of some of the cultural factors behind the problem so I will use it here as an example. Alt Lit is internet based, which is a major factor. And it is a younger crowd, and young women are the world’s target pretty much anywhere you look, with other modes of marginalization just increasing that staggering reality. (For instance a Black young woman can expect to find herself against even greater odds than a White young woman and a Black lesbian has even more to combat than a Black straight woman). The poetry world is not immune to this system of marginalization and it is important to look at the unique ways in which this subculture functions. What Alt Lit has done in this current wave of scrutiny is not create an unfortunate problem but expose a long-standing, festering wound of the reality of our institution. I have already discussed how the internet has affected not only our poetry (to become more and more provocative by sometimes preying on the narcissism of others, and sometimes purposely pushing the buttons of others, in order to get more clicks) but also the ways in which we interact with the poetry of others, in the midst of social media, comment streams and in quick and isolated instances. The reasons Alt Lit exemplifies this is obvious, but let’s look closer at a less known example that fits nicely with the topic of “rape culture” to further clarify, and then to also touch on, intellectual trends and their impact, their hidden agendas, and the very real capitalistic/patriarchal tendencies of the structures and workings of our community and institution. 

On Janey Smith’s “On Rape”
In February 2014, Janey Smith, one of the Alt Lit writers on the Blacklist here, constructed a piece entitled “On Rape” and posted it to HTMLGIANT. The editors of HTMLGIANT removed it due to many complaints from readers. The piece was a sampling of text from Mary Beard’s work entitled “The Story of My Rape” overlaid with a series of kitsch-laden images of rape scenes (or what could be construed as) from various pop culture sources and movies. In the sample Smith chose from “The Story of My Rape,” Beard wrote about having been raped on a train more than once and how she wasn’t really drastically affected by it. I was personally traumatized just by reading the sample, so to have experienced that as a young student backpacking across Italy and emerge untraumatized is a testament to her resiliency. Smith’s “On Rape” included Beard’s entire account of the events surrounding and including her rape as well as her reflections—reflections that have caused an outpouring of response in various online locations with many people expressing that they think she’s just in denial. The images Smith chose to combine with the text were over the top and exaggerated to the point of some being almost humorous and, if sampled without the backdrop of the quote, could be seen as a commentary on the fetishization of rape in pop-culture. 

In the comment stream beneath the piece, several people vacillated about whether the text or the image selection was more disturbing.  Some questioned Smith’s selection of the excerpt and what his intent was. Others, who felt the images were more disturbing, wondered what Smith meant to say with such a collection. But, if you look at both elements in isolation, as one or the other, neither says much about what Smith meant because taken alone each is mere reflection. However, the real reason the piece was problematic was not in its constituent elements but the working whole of it and what the two extremes presented do to each other and say of/to each other. It is this imposed, dialectical construct by Smith that should be considered. In the comment stream Smith argued for the importance of art in and of itself regardless of topic or reaction, that it is the art we should study and not the ramifications. I felt that was suspicious. Somehow art that denies its real world affect is something that should be revered and considered with the utmost importance?  But regardless, there is a real possibility of a darker message in the intent of this piece. It’s hard to say. Perhaps Smith found his creation just as disturbing and unfortunate as I did. But since Smith has said things like “art is what you can get away with,” I’m sure he’s thrown his hands up and walked away from this one a long time ago, probably the moment he put it out into the world. 

What is not hard to say though is that, like camera obscura, we can look through this example and the greater example of Alt Lit like a pinhole and diffract the larger image of a troubled “class.” There are so many things to consider with this piece in relation to intellectual life and literary culture. Not only is it curious for a man to use this excerpt, considering all of its implications and history of response, a man who after the fact was accused of predatory behavior in the poetry scene, but also that the loaded excerpt was written by Mary Beard, someone who has been widely acknowledged for taking a great deal of abuse over the internet including death and rape threats due to her feminist ideas. The appropriation of this particular woman’s personal story of rape highlights a general cultural issue with the internet. It is open season on women throughout the world and behind the drape of the internet, the socially less-constrained ego—the male ego—has put the particular challenge of speaking publicly as a woman under a shameless microscope. Mary Beard can be held up as a more publicized and, in most cases, more intense example of a greater, less obvious problem that women encounter daily on the internet but also anywhere else she might speak, or rather, choose not to. Interactions on the internet have a more vitriolic nature due to a sense of anonymity but have served as a looking-glass into the unbelievable misconceptions of how a woman’s ideas should be responded to. The exaggerated consequences of the internet in relation to this general problem are not a creation of how women’s ideas are received but an exposure. Women are harassed, belittled, threatened, called names, mansplained to (a controversial portmanteau, perhaps controversial because of its clever truthfulness and accuracy) or simply ignored or laughed at. Men, on the other hand, are engaged with in a more serious manner, by men and women alike. Rarely could a woman ever assume the privilege of security and public confidence in what she says as not warranting immediate correction, threats, name-calling and the like. To use this excerpt from Beard was, probably without realizing it, very telling.

Rape Culture, Academia and the Intellectual Class of Poetry
The dismissal of women and their ideas cannot be denied on a large scale, but I mean more to highlight that this problem is very real in academia on the internet but also, for as long as academia has existed, off the internet. It is just as pronounced, if not more so in the testosterone-laced, aggressively argumentative, oracle-driven atmosphere of academia where status is often won by intellectually knocking someone in a lesser position than you. And women have always held that lesser position in academia. Where the internet has shone a light on the problem, more pointedly, Alt Lit has brought out the flood lights and “On Rape” by Smith is made out of highly reflective glass. It’s blinding really, but let’s not be blind to the fact that men in Alt Lit are just doing what they’ve been taught for years, just in a more visible way. 

Real men have taken it upon themselves to participate in a culture that denies women the comfort of being taken seriously and for their word. They have utilized their privilege in being believed and revered within an intellectual class to take advantage of people who do not hold the same privilege. If men thought women would be readily believed, they would not do things and then deny them to the world, to their victims, making them think they’re just crazy, and to themselves, telling themselves they’re good because they have radical ideas or maybe they think they’re religious, or whatever, and so what they participate in must be good regardless of their actions. If women thought they would be readily believed, not attacked or suffer further repercussions, they would be less likely to doubt themselves, everyone around them and their own capacity to effect change. 

I speak in a general way here but I also want to add that I mean this intellectually as well. Women have been brave in coming forward and putting their stories into a hostile environment. They have found a (hopefully) secure way to do this and I applaud them. However, in Sunday, A Theory, Nicole Brossard maps out the three elements of feminist consciousness, the first being motivation. These stories that we’ve encountered are but a motivation for our community. To do our part to support the people who have done this initial work, we must move into decisions through intellectual discourse as women, despite being taken less seriously at a world-(even poetry-world)-view level, and finally a concentration. Women must write essays of intellectual discourse on feminism and all topics of intellectual interest. This is key. We need to not only talk about feminist issues to level the playing field. Everything that is discussed in our communities needs to also be discussed by women. We must. Even if our intellectual engines have been stunted by years of disbelief in ourselves, we must, even if we know we’ll be met with either ridicule, dismissiveness or complete silence and disregard, we must. And editors must publish our contributions to these discussions once they’ve been written. Poetry is operating in an intellectual sphere and so we must turn a critical eye upon that sphere, how it functions and how historically intellectual discourse has functioned. Because in this sphere, and, more pointedly, in its functioning through the poetry world, there is an assumption that women know less of what they’re talking about. A direct line can be drawn from this to rape culture. 

And, while we must engage intellectually with discourse, we must also push on the functioning of our poetry in the intellectual, unconscious, and real worlds. It is a patriarchal assumption and repeated announcement that our work is meaningless and has no effect on anything at all. I disagree. I do not mean to say poetry is protest. There is no physical space poetry takes up. What poetry does do, though, is create possibilities for new forms, shapes and linguistic possibilities of and for thought. It is so much less like a cookbook in this way! The linguistic functioning and shape of thought is intimately tied to the functioning of the greater world and our human conditions, autonomously as well as relationally. Another way of saying this is, so far, most of our intellectual passageways to thought lead back upon the patriarchal/capitalistic structures we hope to think against and perhaps, finally, find a way out of. Current dynamics are testament to that. 

One possibility for further consideration in relation to our poetics, is to consider how critics group us and then use coined titles against us from various positions. It is dangerous to say that Alt Lit is at fault when in fact it is the perpetrators who willingly participate in the design of their privilege, who just happen to be classified as Alt Lit, who are at fault. It is a function of the institution to group people in this way in order to understand them from an institutional point of view and that is a perpetuation of an ill-formed class as well. Further, it might be noted that there is little, if any, discussion of a Black movement in poetry right now even if one is flourishing. This is, institutionally speaking, ill-formed and serves the privileged working within our system. Certain groups of people are linked and then studied as linked and the only purpose it serves is to further the institutionalized functioning of a privileged and ill-formed class. 

Likewise, we must be diligent in critiquing how we are grouped as women. It is an intellectual assault on our community to group a mainly white, middle-class group of women into a women’s movement in poetry and then transform women’s writing conceptually into what will fit that description. Critics utilize such groupings in off-handed sorts of ways so that they can check “women” off their list of the well-roundedness of their criticism without even having to discuss anything a woman has actually said.

The women’s movement in poetry is an inclusive bag of all types of feminisms, equally, not mainly white and middle-class. It is a concentration and a oneness that must fight through a poetics against externally and institutionally defined spaces of thought. We must be free to follow each other as we wish and trust in the wild edges of our own minds where new shapes can be forged. And we must find an intertextuality of poetics and poetry to grow in externally unguided and flourishing ways. This wild and unguided growth is important because poetry is neither a cookbook nor a recipe of nonexistent (regardless of how damaging) ingredients. The thought processes of poetry in relation to the intellectual world are not isolated and ineffectual frivolities.  It is a purely dialectical synthesis (in terms of how we are affected as poets by history and the world, and in turn, affect intellectualisms that are imbricated with the politics of the world) and it must not be restricted to the confines of an externally articulated categorization and its stagnant ramifications. 

Have something to say? Email comments, questions, responses, links to relevant articles elsewhere, and submissions to: rapeculture.and.altlit [at] gmail [dot] com. For the original call for submissions, see hereTo read all the essays in the series, click here

Lisa Cattrone received her MFA from Saint Mary's College. Her work has appeared in various literary magazines including Chicago Review, The Awl, Lemon Hound, The Volta, The Claudius App, Gulf Coast, Denver Quarterly, Volt, West Wind Review, Interim, Fourteen Hills and several others. Her review of Jean Day's Early Bird is forthcoming from The Volta in January. Her chapbook Mutations for Jenny is currently out from Horse Less Press, and her full length book entitled Last Year's Schizo is forthcoming from Trembling Pillow Press. She has two children.