Making Sense of the Alt Lit Sexual Misconduct Scandal

​When art mimics life, what should we be allowed to get away with?

October 09, 2014

In her bi-weekly column, Social Anxiety, Emilie Friedlander peeks underneath the artifacts of contemporary culture to question what it all really means.

I write this column once every two weeks. Had it fallen last Thursday, instead of this Thursday, I probably would have opened this installment with the somewhat ubiquitous observation that it’d been a very bad week for alt lit, a community of young writers marked by a shared embrace of the internet. Stephen Tully Dierks, founder of the Tumblr and magazine Pop Serial, was outed for alleged rape by a woman writer he hosted at his Brooklyn apartment last year, then by a second female writer. Tao Lin, the author perhaps most closely associated with alt lit, was accused of statutory rape and psychological abuse by the writer E.R. Kennedy, whose teenage relationship with Lin is said to have inspired the novel Richard Yates. Allegations of sexual and emotional abuse raised against writer Janey Smith (real name: Steven Trull) erupted into the public eye for the second time this year, and a writer named Steven Michael McDowell published a blog post confessing that he considers himself to be “a rapist, a sex offender, and a predator, simply based on the kinds of liberties I have taken with others desires, bodies, and lives."

From the perspective of gender equality, it was a week full of upsetting revelations, one all the more disturbing for its implication of a subculture comprised primarily of politically progressive 20-somethings. From the perspective of rape and abuse awareness, though, it was also very important week. Since Gawker broke the Tao Lin story last Tuesday, I’ve been glued to my laptop screen night after night, alternately overwhelmed and inspired by the sheer number and variety of reactions that have flowed out of this community of young poets and fiction writers. I’ve seen writers responding by coming out with their own experiences of assault and abuse and others rising to the occasion to call out some of overlooked structural inequalities at play in the millennial literary scene. I’ve seen a well-known female writer making the claim that assault victims need to take more responsibility for protecting themselves and rumors of other female writers making the equally controversial assertion that alt lit should “shut the door on dudes for a second.” I am only an outside observer of the alt lit scene, but there’s something very affecting about watching a group of friends and colleagues collectively shining a light on its own sexual politics and sexual blindspots, considering them from every angle, arguing with one other, struggling to reach some consensus on how to move forward. 

Among the many alt lit horror stories that have circulated on the internet this week, one that’s gotten a bit less attention is the story of Janey Smith’s “Fuck List,” a “poem” that appeared online last year with the subtitle “A List of Writers I Want to Fuck (Or Get Fucked By).” It was published, then removed, by the now-defunct webzine HTMLGIANT, then later used as the conceptual basis for a book called We’re Fucked, also published and rescinded. Written by PeterBD, with a forward by Smith, We’re Fucked borrowed the names and identities of over 200 living female and trans writers, implicating them in a series of imaginary sexual scenarios. Responding to We’re Fucked for HTMLGIANT recently, feminist writer Dianna Dragonetti pointed out none of the individuals included in the project had been asked for their consent, and that many of them are survivors of sexual abuse themselves. Dragonetti argues that the writings were themselves a form of a violence, of a piece with a “rape culture” where “female and trans bodies are coercively objectified and sexualized.” Still, the thing I find most disturbing about the article is the Janey Smith tweet that Dragonetti screencaps at the end, positing a chilling parallel between the book’s very blatant misogyny and Smith’s creative ethos as a writer: “art is anything you can get away with.” 

It sounds scary, but it’s also a truism. If you’ve ever sat through a high school course on modern art, you probably know the story of how Duchamp exhibited a urinal in a museum almost a hundred years ago, and how after that happened, asking whether something was truly “art” (or “music” or “poetry”) became a pretty pointless exercise. I’ve always been of the mindset that something becomes “art” the moment you decide to label it as such, though I can’t help noticing that much of the history of art seems to have been driven by people “getting away with things” that they weren’t able to get away with before. And as a casual fan of some of the writers in the scene, I’ve always found this “anything you can get away with” attitude to be one of things that makes alt lit exciting. It was an illumination for me when I first cracked open Tao Lin’s Taipei (interview here), and realized that the sort of insecurities and ruminating thoughts that I’m constantly playing out in my own head—thoughts about myself, or about other people’s thoughts about me—could live in the context of a work of fiction. I felt a similar lightning strike when I discovered Megan Boyle’s liveblog of her own life, or some of the auto-correct-style orthography errors in Steve Roggenbuck’s poems, or Marie Calloway’s re-purposing of Facebook chat conversations and emails in her very vulnerable and, actually, very feminist first story collection.

Alt lit was literature that felt more in line with my life than anything I’d ever read in school. It was literature that actually captured what it felt like to be me, a person in her twenties who lives in a big city and wants to connect with other people and spends most of her time working (and socializing) on the internet. It didn’t seem to obey any rules, other than a seeming faithfulness its own recurring obsessions: sex, drug use, depression, loneliness, community. It collapsed lived experience into art, with a boldness that made you wonder whether there ever needed to be a difference in the first place. That’s the confusing thing about what happened on the internet last week after E.R. Kennedy logged onto Twitter and started listing off some of the abuses he experienced during his relationship with Lin (note: back at the time of the relationship, the 16-year-old Kennedy identified as a “she”). It seems to be common knowledge that Richard Yates, like much of Lin's work, draws pretty directly from his own life. If everybody already kinda knew that the relationship between the book's protagonists—named after Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning—was modeled on his own “shitty behavior […] as a shitty person in a relationship,” as Lin described it in a public response last week, then why weren’t we having this same discussion about Lin back when the book came out? Why were we unruffled by that “shitty behavior” within the context of a work of art, but ready to lambast the real-life Lin when the real-life person it impacted spoke out? 

Of course, there are very different sets of criteria at play when you evaluate a work of art and you evaluate the behavior of a person. Discussing some of the misogynistic subject matter on Cam’ron’s 2005 album, Purple Haze, Jon Caramanica once wrote that “the avant-garde need not be moral.” I tend to agree with that statement—at least inasmuch as it suggests that art can be moving, or even politically meaningful, without seeming to abide by the rules of socially scrupulous behavior. But when the line between life and art becomes very blurred, as it seems to in the writing of Tao Lin, I wonder if you can continue to separate the ethical shortcomings of one from the ethical shortcomings of the other. Autobiographical transparency may be one of the most radical and exciting characteristics of alt lit, but what happens to alt lit when the people who are doing the talking—about their own lives, about their own thoughts—reveal themselves to be a whole lot less conscientious and progressive than we’d hope them to be? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I can’t help wondering if it has something to do with this week’s revelation that marquee indie lit hub HTMLGIANT (which also featured a lot of alt lit writing) is shuttering in the wake of the scandals of last week. As Gawker has speculated, it feels almost like alt lit is willfully self-destructing, having discovered itself too internally corrupted to go on. (In case you're curious, though, you can read HTMLGIANT founder Blake Butler's own explanation of the shuttering here.) 

As for the people directly accused, Stephen Tully Dierks has stated that he’s retiring from a public writing career, and I’m not sure what’s going on with Janey Smith. Tao Lin has made a few statements arguing that his behavior during and after his relationship with E.R. Kennedy, including the use of Kennedy's emails in Richard Yates, was completely within the bounds of legality. (I reached out to Lin last week to ask if he wanted to share his perspective on what happened, and he declined, instead linking me to a BuzzFeed article that quoted a response he had posted on Facebook). Outside the admission that Lin “[tries] to be open about [his] negatives as a person, and examined these negatives for examples in 'Richard Yates' and in [his] other writing,” his response seems way more concerned with the reasons why he shouldn’t be to blame than with grappling with the impact of his behavior on E.R. Kennedy. Coming from the alt lit world’s most famous (and arguably, most-scene-defining) writer, it’s kind of a disappointing thing to read. Still, even if some alt lit’s most influential players have proved themselves to be pretty lacking in interpersonal conscientiousness, that doesn’t mean the same thing can be said of the whole scene. In fact, if there’s anything we can glean from proliferation of online responses in last two weeks, I think it’s that the millennial literary community is very much alive and well, full of passionate personalities with strong opinions about gender equality and human equality, perhaps more politically aware (and aware of itself) than ever before. 

Of the dozens and dozens of responses I’ve read, one I keep coming back to is a piece called “Stop Denying and Unseeing Rape Subculture” by Carolyn Zaikowski, published last week on the Northampton, Massachusetts-based writer’s own blog. A male writer friend of mine hipped me to it, and it’s a smart reminder of the fact that while rape culture is something that cuts across all economic and social lines, it’s in some ways “doubly insidious” in countercultural communities like alt lit, communities where “our individual and group identities are molded precisely around an idea that we are not that.” Attempting to examine some of the areas in the literary world where “rape subculture” rears its ugly head, the piece points to things like the “idol worship of living” writers (who, because of their golden-boy status, are allowed to get away with things that they otherwise wouldn’t), the “knee-jerk silencing of detractors” and the subtle “abuse of power” that occurs when men of power and influence in the literary scene wield that power to benefit their sex lives. Most importantly, I think, it calls us to take a look at the ways that objectification and abuse can occur on as granular a level as the words we string together. “It should go without saying that writers are good at language,” she writes. “Poets, novelists, and other types of writers, when they are abusive, often use language in extremely complicated ways that cover up, erase, and promote literary rape subculture, whether it is in private conversations with the abused, or in public conversations on message boards, Facebook posts, in classrooms, or at conferences. At worst, this manifests as abusers actually making poetry or novels out of the ‘material’ of their abusive exploits.” 

I’m honestly not sure whether it’s possible to draw a moral equivalency between a person’s literary exploits and their behavior as people, but I think one important message to be gleaned from the events of the past few weeks is that writing is a complicated business, and it mirrors pretty exactly how life is complicated, and sex is complicated. As the college anti-rape movement picks up speed on campuses nationwide, we’re seeing America grow increasingly aware of the idea unless we strive for the absolute certainty of “yes means yes,” consent will always be something of a gray area. Not unlike the educational institutions responsible for ensuring the safety of their students, it seems pretty impossible for the millennial avant-garde to proceed without taking a top-down inventory of itself, to examine all the many ways (large and small, artistically and interpersonally) in which it might not always be as cripplingly self-aware as it’s cracked up to be. And maybe that’s an opportunity. Maybe, after an initial flurry of new forms, it’s time for alt lit to move on the next phrase of its evolution, one less concerned with the exhilarating revelation that “art is anything you can get away with,” and more concerned with asking itself a question: what are we getting away with?

From The Collection:

Social Anxiety
Making Sense of the Alt Lit Sexual Misconduct Scandal