Note: This post contains frequent allusions to sexual abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence, verbal, psychological, and emotional abuse. While graphic content is linked, rather than explicit, please be aware and safe before you read.
At the beginning of the year, acclaimed author Paul Auster sat down with Isaac Gewirtz to have a chat about writing. During the course of the interview, Auster said some rather problematic things about a genre he has self-defined: “boy’s literature”. Auster asserted that we need “cackling boys to remind us of how great it is to be alive”, and that without these boy writers “there is no literature.”
A few weeks after Auster’s interview, indie-lit boy wonder Gregory Sherl was accused of seriously abusing several of his ex-girlfriends, both physically, psychologically, and in at least one case, sexually.
Gregory Sherl’s third collection of poetry, Monogamy Songs, outlined in detail the events of his relationship with “K”. “K” had to beg the publisher to remove her full name from the manuscript. Though it is undeniably a dark book, the portrait painted of Sherl is one of a tortured, sensitive young man doing his best to find beauty and truth in a confusing, painful world.
There is no mention of K’s pain. K’s pain is not relevant to the narrative of the boy writer.
A month ago, Janey Smith/Steven Trull was accused of sexual and emotional abuse by writer and editor Alexandra Naughton, and an anonymous collective of others who cited abuse at the hands of Trull, and several other prominent Bay Area lit figures including Zach Houston, Claiborne McDonald, and Nicholas Sung. Poet Dianna Dragonetti wrote several articles, regarding the book Smith co-produced with alt lit enigma peterbd, citing misogyny, abuse, and intellectual appropriation/possible libel. The book, We’re Fucked!, appropriated the identities of 200+ plus writers (amongst them the 19-year-old Dragonetti), both in and out of the alt lit scene–famous and not, known personally to the author/s and not—and twisted them into empty caricatures existent only to participate in crude sex acts with Smith. Some of the named writers were minors when Smith’s original fuck list was published (including Tiffany Wines, mentioned later in this article). None of the named authors gave consent. Neither did the women Janey Smith is alleged to have abused.
In his introduction to We’re Fucked, Smith states that his original “fuck list” (since removed from alt lit blog HTMLGiant) “got him laid right away”. He also name drops Kathy Acker, as if his claim that they conducted an intimate relationship earns him some kind of currency in the lit world. As if Kathy Acker, like the other writers in the book, exists to be fucked, and by being fucked, can imbue him with the relevance and popularity he so desperately craves.
Smith has said he intended the fuck list as a homage. Boy writers tell us that we should be flattered when they decide to profit off our identities. Boy writers tell us that the only way to pay respect to another writer (who is not a cis-man) is to use their body as an intellectual blow-up doll.
A few days ago, medium.com published a piece by writer Sophia Katz, detailing her rape by an influential alternative lit publisher she refers to as “Stan”. Stan was later identified as Stephen Tully Dierks in this Tumblr post by Tiffany Wines, which echoes Sophia’s experience in chilling detail. Sarah Jean Alexander then came forward to corroborate Sophia’s story, and the story of the other young woman, saying:
“I lived with this person for a year. I listened to the way he spoke about his exgirlfriend after she broke up with him. I listened when he told me he “didn’t see the point of hanging out with any of his female friends” because at the end of the day he doesn’t get to fuck them. I pulled my piece from his magazine that he had solicited me for because I no longer wanted to support the career of a casual misogynist”
I shared Sophia’s story, and was almost immediately contacted by another friend. “That guy is my friend’s ex,” she said “please reach out to her. She needs all the support she can get”.
The friend, Isabel Sanhueza, then posted chatlogs of a conversation she had held with Dierks after allegations of his abuse arose. The logs, posted on the Tumblr “Alt Crit”, indicate that Dierks is far more concerned with his own safety and comfort than he is with the affect his actions had on his victims. “I want to be held accountable, but in an educational way,” he says “if I thought I was going to jail id idk kill myself…if anyone is willing to do anything to let this be a non-legal repercussion it would be the greatest mercy of my life”.
He goes on to emotionally manipulate Sanhueza by making repeated references to how hurt, scared, and upset he is. “that outcome [jail] is unfathomable to me” he says “and I think it can be avoided”.
Allegations of Dierks’ abuse surfaced originally in this fanzine piece by Safy-Hallan Farah. Farah was mocked, belittled, threatened and dismissed for daring to besmirch Dierks’ good name. Preliminary legal action was taken against Fanzine, and they made the choice to redact all names from Farah’s piece.
The gloss and sheen of image and brand are at the heart of a boy writer’s success. If he tells himself he is successful, he is successful. If he tells himself he is powerful, he is powerful. If he tells himself he is influential, he is influential. The scene reorients itself to centralize the boy writer, his image, his needs, because as a society we are so accustomed to taking our cues from men. The boy writer smears feces on the page. It is art. He makes a rape joke. It’s ironic. He becomes the gatekeeper of a movement touting itself as alternative, even though he is the furthest thing from counter culture you can possibly imagine. He collects marginalized writers and uses his influence and professional clout as a bargaining chip for their bodies.
“Don’t worry,” says the boy writer “this is the way it’s always been. It’s just tradition, baby”.
Reading the logs between Sanhueza and Dierks, I couldn’t help but think about the thousands of messages I exchanged with Gregory Sherl—messages where he emotionally and psychologically manipulated me into demeaning sexual acts, graphic sexual discussions, and emotionally and physically exhausting chat sessions where he would threaten suicide. I couldn’t help but remember him telling me about “K”, about how she was crazy and unstable and a bitch. I remember the strange amount of satisfaction he seemed to take in the fact that two of his ex-girlfriends, after the relationship dissolved, ended up in psychiatric wards. I remember how, after I attempted to slit my wrists in the bathtub because I was just so tired, so used up, so unable to make him happy–despite completely reordering my life so that it revolved around him, around his needs–he commented “…did you try to kill yourself? My other girlfriends tried to kill themselves”. I remember how he got into a prestigious, exclusive MFA program on a full-ride scholarship that guaranteed he would not have to work for three years, could focus solely on his writing. I remember getting into my program, and being told, dismissively “Oh, UNO huh? Well, congrats. What are they paying you in, M&Ms?”
Again and again, he would tell me “you should just leave me, I’m a monster”, and then, five minutes later “are you still there?”
Boy writers are terrified of their own irrelevance. They cushion this dread with a fan base, a string of people (usually women) willing to beg for a pdf of their new book, a personal email, five minutes on g chat and a mutual follow on twitter. And we do it, because we buy into the myth. We believe they are sensitive, troubled, brilliant. We believe we are in the presence of greatness, when really we are simply in the presence of fear.
Today, the closest thing alt lit has to a canonical figurehead, Tao Lin, was accused of raping and abusing his then-sixteen-year-old ex-partner, E.R. Kennedy. The story, outlined in a series of tweets from Kennedy, was subsequently picked up by Gawker, Jezebel, and The Frisky. Lin was 22 when he and E.R. dated, and much of their relationship was mined and re-purposed for his acclaimed novel, Richard Yates.
In Richard Yates, Lin’s characters Dakota Fanning (a 16-year-old girl) and Haley Joel Osment (a 22-year-old man) conduct the following exchange:
“I’m not sure if you should come Friday,” said Dakota Fanning on Gmail chat. “My mom is going to think you’re going to rape me or something.”
“Your mom,” said Haley Joel Osment.
“I told her you were an autistic vegan and she said ‘autistic vegans can still rape people.’ I told her I felt insulted by that comment… I think she thinks you’re like 35 or something.”
“Why does she think I’ll rape you?” said Haley Joel Osment.
“She thinks everyone on the internet is out to rape everybody.”
“What should I do,” said Haley Joel Osment.
“You should rape me out of spite,” said Dakota Fanning. (Lin 9-10)
Lin has begun to threaten legal action against individuals and publications daring to place “Tao Lin” and “alleged rapist” in the same sentence. He posted, edited, and re-edited a lengthy defense of himself on Facebook, and e-mailed numerous on-line publications to give his version of the story. “In the relationship [with E.R.]…I was, I know, a shitty person” he says “…but I only had consensual sex with someone who was not a minor, which I documented in…Richard Yates”. Lin insists that “I, and my publisher, made sure [E.R.] was okay with it”.
E.R. has taken to twitter, begging his followers not to reproduce the tweets detailing the abuse at the hands of Lin.
Boy writers are the only people permitted control of the narrative. It is their privilege, and their privilege exclusively, to deconstruct shared experiences. When an opposing viewpoint arises, a viewpoint that paints them as less than introspective sensitive guy, less than motivated, emotional young artist, less than brilliant and gifted, they panic. They become aggressive. “This,” they scream “is not how it’s supposed to be! This is MY story! This is MY book!”
The “excitement”, “glee”, and “delight” Paul Auster identifies as traits of the boy writer take on a much more sinister tone when viewed through the lens of alt lit. The boy writer becomes a character not of whimsical enthusiasm, but of calculated manipulation—a character who is not at all an alternative to the literary mainstream. Boy writers are the literary mainstream, even as they dress themselves in hipster chic, hang on in Brooklyn dive bars, make shitty zines, and moan about how misunderstood they are. Boy writer and “broet” are synonymous: their attempt to marginalize themselves in order to gain currency with a new generation of artists, scholars, and activists—the very people they repeatedly exploit and abuse—is becoming increasingly transparent. You cannot marginalize a majority. Boy writers shroud themselves in anti-establishment rhetoric because they know that rhetoric is the next big thing, and they feel entitled to govern in. They deserve to control the literary revolution, even as they’re abusing the very people that revolution ought to serve. When alt lit includes women’s voices, it’s a token gesture, an attempt to veil boy writers in empty feminist sentiment to disguise the fact that it was always about using you. All along.
“I’m a monster” says Gregory Sherl.
“It got me laid right away” says Janey Smith.
“I’m scared” says Stephen Tully Dierks.
“I was, I know, a shitty person” says Tao Lin.
Kia Alice Groom is a British-Australian living in New Orleans & on the internet. She teaches freshman composition at the University of New Orleans, is associate poetry editor of Bayou Magazine, and founding editor of Quaint. You can listen to her yell about stuff on twitter: @whodreamedit and Tumblr: alicedescends.