Report from the Field: Too Big To Fuck Up
I’ve had straight cis men do fucked up things to me. I’ve been witness to straight cis men doing fucked up things to others. It happens often, and it’s not new. It’s so repetitive that it’s boring: an irritation that is predictable and transparent, a searing itch from an old scar that reminds of the initial injury.
In the continuity of straight cis man fuckery in the literary world, the discrete points that have affected me have tended to concern labor, as so much of writing, reading, and poetry’s political healing and disruption concerns the paid and unpaid labor of those at the margins—women and nonbinary individuals. Especially in online spaces, I see the margins house the caretakers and the educators who must again and again answer tired questions and assumptions when long Facebook threads devolve into devil’s advocacy and other boring forms of bigotry. There have also been very public call-outs of male abusers in the literary world, most of which have been attended by online displays of alliances and denouncements, and sometimes just opinionating and postulating. Again and again I saw advocacy from the margins in response to victim-blaming:
No, the survivor did not invite her abuse.
No, she is not lying.
No, it is not hypothetical.
No, it does not matter that he has done nice things for other people.
I won’t be sharing the details of abusive experiences at the hands of straight cis men involved with the literary community—not because I don’t have any such stories, but because I want to write about the incidents that are less overtly appalling, but constitute fucked up behavior nonetheless.
The wrongness of these incidents seems straightforward to me, but inevitably conjure defenders who insist on a gray area. The gray area created by he’s done nice things for other people. Let me say that this kind of defense is rarely used by actual close friends of these men, but acquaintances who feel indebted to these men by some act of community kindness. This kind of defense falls in line with arguments to separate the art from the artist, or that he seems like a nice guy, or that he’s simply too important a figure to criticize. There’s an implied evaluation of the person who’s sharing the fuckery with others when her words are countered by someone else’s perception of the fucker who committed the fuckery. The facts of the fucked up actions cannot themselves be contradicted, so opposition takes the form of character defense and personal importance to the defender.
When I invited a writer I had long admired to participate in a panel at a literary conference, she graciously declined, but not before practicing a very common form of community labor. She recommended someone else—a type of community-building practice of advocating for others, offering the labor of referral and networking—that perhaps isn’t as flashy as running a press, journal, or reading series, and is an act of kindness that doesn’t have immediate rewards for those who do this work. It’s motivated by a belief in caring for and expanding community, rather than the need to control, the need to be a mouthpiece.
The writer’s recommendation for her replacement was for a straight cis man who’s pretty mouthpiecey, if only because he’s beloved by many in the literary community— a well-likedness I had thought recommended him. He’s a publisher and active in his local scene as someone who sets up readings and acts as a site for literary togetherness. He’s everywhere at once, both in real life and online, willing to play the part of aggressor within critiques of problematics in the literary community. “Fuck that” and “That’s so fucked up” are his common contributions to literary conversations. You know the type I’m writing about. He’s often without nuance, but he’s willing to go there.
When he showed up to our panel—where we met in person for the first time—he embarked on an oddly-framed rant against the purpose of our panel and on his distaste for the literary conference altogether. Along the way, he hinted at my and the other co-presenters’ illegitimacy as panelists since we weren’t contributing to our local communities in ways that he described himself as doing. Why didn’t he bring up these objections in the long months leading up to the panel, when I continually invited my fellow presenters to collaborate and attempted to make clear my openness toward co-presenter critique and contribution? Why did he feel okay with undermining a woman’s labor for the sake of showcasing his punk provocateur persona? Why did he sabotage my work and the work of the other panelists?
The answers to those questions don’t matter. The answers are boring. Let’s instead think about the response I got from others after I processed what happened and wrote about my experience on social media. Acquaintances of his contacted me to corroborate that this literary personality is known for being “a loose cannon” and “out there.” But: “he’s done so much” for people in the local literary scene. He’s written blurbs, set up readings, published books, given interviews, is a common fixture at literary events, teaches workshops, and is constantly present on Facebook. He is ubiquitous and obviously feels comfortable with being a source of literary attention and access. When I pushed back at the comments that inadvertently pointed to this, I was met with polite condolences. Folks were sorry that I had a bad time, but as far as I can tell, still maintain at least a casual relationship with this man.
I have another story like this. Another ubiquitous presence, a straight cis man who puts nice words on the back of people’s books, runs a reading series, publishes a well-read journal, shows up to all the events in his town, is a teacher, shares activist links on Facebook. And—when one day I recognized that he had stolen a woman’s artwork (the artist happens to be a good friend of mine), and I offered to put him in touch with the original artist so that he could pay her for her work—he unfriended me and deleted the evidence of his wrongdoing. When I posted about this experience on Facebook, I was immediately contacted by a mutual acquaintance, who didn’t deny my experience (who could deny the facts of my experience, after all?), but thought I was being unfair because this straight cis man-about-poetry has always been kind to them. They felt like they were sticking up for him.
I’m sure this guy has been kind to many. What I’m not sure about is why these straight cis men of the literary world can’t be capable of fucking up, in big or small ways. Why a prior kindness breeds apologia. Do we need these straight cis men to be so loveable? Is their style of allyship—in which they center themselves as source and gatekeeper—necessary for the bonds of community? And if they are allies, why are they willing to use women’s labor so cavalierly? Is this related to the fact that women and nonbinary individuals who provide similar kinds of literary citizenship cannot depend on the same kind of protection?
I have more questions than answers for the tendency that I describe. This tendency to use evidence of service, utility, and kindness in order to silence. It makes me question the stakes, why they’re so strangely high and insincere. It makes me wonder how friendliness can be weaponized. The frustrating, irritating familiarity of these mechanisms do what they’re supposed to do: they make me feel trivial, as though I’m making too much of myself in the face of more important men. Of course, these men aren’t predators and don’t deserve to be condemned or ostracized. But must they be infallible, beyond critique? Or is it that our mutual acquaintances feel that the community can’t do without these men, but it can do without me? Is there something about these straight cis men of the literary world that prompts others to both detect and cover up for the limitations of their straight cis men politics?
I am, of course, used to being discounted, held in suspicion, resented for bringing up the unpleasant, and disliked for not being chill. These are familiar wounds. But when my bearing witness to fucked up behavior is countered with a tally of the presumed value that the fucker provides to others, then I can only assume that my own value and contributions don’t measure up. I’m being shushed and discounted because someone feels that the version of community that these literary men facilitate via their gendered status is too precious and that my own concerns are petty in comparison. There’s an insidiousness to countering my experience with value statements because it’s not a denial, but a refusal. These men are worthy of such insulation from harm that even describing their fuck-ups is viewed as retaliation. If they did something in bad form, the bad form is transferred to those who speak about it. If they did something that angered or offended someone, then that someone must have misunderstood the man’s demeanor of universal likeability and helpfulness.
Reframing a negative experience as an outlier doesn’t allow for growth or change. In the spirit of allyship and intersectional feminism—these things should be deeply embedded in literature and the world that it fosters—someone speaking openly about their negative experiences is the first step towards greater accountability. We don’t need to banish or humiliate, but we do need to be aware of hidden currents and worrying tendencies. And for those of you who disagree with this, know that there’s already a backchannel—many of us have been giving each other heads-ups for a long time. This is yet another kind of thankless labor that believes in caring for and expanding community.
What are our politics? What are our friendships? How much solidarity is required for publishing, publicizing, reading, selling, and attending? What would the literary world look like without these men? We can’t even bear to imagine it, since our vision of them doesn’t allow for the realistic shortcomings of sexism. A repetitive injustice, the fatigue from it, can be more easily dismissed when all of its instances are lined up and the axis of occurrence snakes longer than any axis of harm. Build a parade of occasions, and overwhelming numbers forces a zooming out that diminishes the actual height of the occasions themselves. They’re made smaller and smaller until they’re made trivial. Made boring, irritating.
GINGER KO is the author of Motherlover (Bloof Books), Inherit (Sidebrow), and Comorbid (Lark Books). Ginger is a PhD student at the University of Georgia’s creative writing program, where she teaches writing and Women’s Studies. She is a contributing editor for The Wanderer and an editor at smoking glue gun. You can find her online at www.gingerko.com