A few weeks ago while on vacation in Florida I checked my Facebook and saw my feed all atwitter. Antioch College published a piece by Daniel Harris in their winter issue – and it made people angry. Why?
Because it was garbage. Offensive. Hateful. Dangerous. Bad Writing. Awful. I could go on, but I imagine you get the point.
The Antioch Review was a pretty reputable publication – very reputable, actually. And yes, notice, I said was. The MFA program I attended carried the Antioch name so I’m quite embarrassed, though grateful it has no affiliation with the journal or Antioch College (which publishes the journal). Now I’m not transgender, and my understanding (forgive me, between the abominable writing and hate speech, I could not stomach finishing the essay – I skimmed) Harris mostly targets the transgender community and those who actually transition, so while I am bi-gendered/gender non-conforming/genderqueer (love how there are labels for those who reject labels) this article is not about me. I did not take personal offense like I imagine many transgender people may have, but oh my goodness I take offense as a fellow compassionate, understanding, and decent human being. And isn’t that enough?
Many writers, some academic, many unheard of and even a few powerhouses (I love you Roxanne Gay, I do) quickly condemned the essay via Twitter, and a petition was created (I signed of course, as did thousands, yes THOUSANDS of others). They saw it for what it was. A malicious piece of writing “cleverly” (I don’t think it was all that clever) disguised using “concerned” language. The only thing I really took away from what I read was, “Who the hell is this guy, and what is he trying to do here?” Because I think writing this essay was nonsensical. I might be a loudmouth activist and people may want to write me off at times as, unbalanced, but anyone who knows me knows the opposite is true. I’m hyper-rational. And my rational, logical brain wants to know why Harris would write this when anyone would know, “No good is going to come from this…” And no good did.
But then it’s a question of the editorial process. How did this get through? Because as far as I can tell Harris is just some blowhard who likes to hear himself talk (because I still can’t make sense of it!), but what did the Antioch Review have to gain from this? Was the editor so short-sighted that he thought there really is no such thing as bad publicity? Or did he just have a really stupid moment? Or was this his way to share his own hateful views in an “acceptable” way? Because really, it has to be one of those three. How did this happen? Because as senseless as it was to write, to publish it – to pick it out of so many other submissions that were passed over, to think it was a good idea – I mean, I don’t even have a word right now that won’t come off as offensive to someone. (Perhaps absurd, I think that will have to do.)
Even worse, instead of owning up to what they did and apologize, the official response from both the Review, and the College was, “Freedom of Speech!” Um first off, free speech is a little different when it becomes hate speech (‘tis true, don’t argue with me here, you will lose). And really for a liberal arts college that has always been “about social justice” this was bad for their brand. Like serious damage, “whoa, back it up a minute” kind of crap here. They should have owned it, apologized, retracted the garbage as it is garbage and moved on.
Instead they repeated the whole Kate Gale fiasco where she wrote a hateful piece (basically telling marginalized voices to shut it) and then went on to be like, “OMG guys, I was totally kidding!” Um yeah, not so much. (On another note, I wrote a response to her to show her how satire it actually done.)
They may not have been able to undo all of the wrongness caused by this piece but they could have tried to make it better. They still haven’t really done anything to own it or apologize. The editor (the same who supposedly selected the piece, so is anyone really listening to him?) went on to talk about discussions and hearing all sides blah, blah, blah and then inviting critiques of the piece, but he obviously did not get it. Why is someone else’s life a discussion? I mean when someone talks about gender non-conforming people I’m like, “How is it your business?” Same thing with gay rights. “If you’re not for same-sex marriage, don’t marry someone of the same sex. The end.”
I didn’t think it could get any worse than that, but last Friday the universe must have decided that because it could get worse, it might as well get worse, so no one actually thinks the Harris/Antioch Review fallout was bottom. Oh no…
Last Friday xoJane published something that was so much worse on so many levels. The piece titled: “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing” by Amanda Lauren. Basically Lauren wrote a piece of swill about how her former best friend’s death was a blessing because her friend was mentally ill. So people with mental illness are better off dead. Hey, sorry, but even the tagline “Some people are so sick, they are beyond help” suggests that. It wasn’t a leap for me (or anyone else) to arrive at what Lauren was saying. It wasn’t even a few baby steps, okay maybe one?
Now, let me be clear – I’m not some highly sensitive, “What you talking about, oh hell no!” person. I think, process, sometimes so much and for so long whatever I am processing is over. But this piece… it’s just so bad. Stepping away from the content for a second and just looking at the writing itself is painful. Without looking I see a handful of really obvious mistakes. And even grammar aside, college freshmen in Comp I would do better. I’m serious! So as a writer, this piece getting published, even if it was about baking pies is offensive.
Now as someone who has spoken candidly about my own experience with mental illness (I have C-PTSD which at one point controlled my life when I thought I had control of it), I am offended on a very personal level, as well as a human one. But I feel like anything I take personally can been seen as a rant, so I’ll stick with the human angle again. WTF?
Seriously, how could xoJane think publishing this piece was a good idea? It wouldn’t have been worthy of other eyes if it was about baking f**king pies! It’s THAT bad. But then unlike the piece in the Antioch Review this piece doesn’t even pretend to be something it isn’t. It is a loud and proud HATE piece by a complete and total narcissist.
See I in no way agree that this piece was ever something I would have wanted to read, or something I would have agreed with. But the writer could have written a controversial yet thoughtful piece about how her “friend” (I say this because it turned out to be her actual friend’s sister, Lauren simply used an acquaintance’s story because, why not?) was in a better place and how the woman she first knew had struggled so much with her mental illness and was suffering… Such a piece would have to have beautiful language and subtly nuanced. Such a piece would have to be about the person with mental illness and not about how the writer was so embarrassed…
Oh yes, Lauren doesn’t pretend to be a decent human being in this piece. She didn’t reach out to her “friend” or try to help her. She sat back and judged her. Cringed when she thought of her. What an embarrassment, what a waste of space…
Like I said, this piece did not pretend to be caring, concerned or thoughtful. It knew it was trash and proudly displayed its garbage as if it came in the finest summer fashions.
Also, I should mention xoJane took the original article down and posted a genuine apology. It doesn’t mean they’re off the hook with me, or that I’ll ever read them or submit to them (I won’t!) ever again, but unlike The Antioch Review they owned it. So there’s that.
But again I don’t understand how this piece happened. Like, HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?
I feel like the literary community is coming apart much like the presidential elections are. Harris and Lauren are both Donald Trump. (Complete narcissists who like hearing themselves talk so much they don’t think about what they’re actually saying, or being articulate when they say it.) But xoJane and The Antioch Review and their editorial staffs – how did this happen? It is alarming that the community as a whole have these respected entities and editors that publish such crap. Out of all the things to publish and all of the submissions and/or pitches they get, THIS is what they put out there? Which of course makes me question the editor’s judgment or views (or both).
The literary community is not perfect. Racism exists. Sexism exists. Able-ism definitely exists. Heterosexism exists… well you get the point. But most of the people I know within the community are good humans. They listen and try to learn, they’re open and truly want to be better. Maybe I’m still naïve or green, but my heart hurts when I see this stuff put out into the world instead of something truly beautiful and deserving.
Because the literary community I have felt, until now, is still better than most. More diverse, even if it’s not diverse enough. Full of better humans in general.
And this month, all I’ve felt like when I look at the community, or at least the publishing faction of it is: When did I get front row seats to a Trump rally?
And how do I exchange them for something I really want to be a part of?
Links pertaining to the Daniel Harris essay:
- The Actual Piece
- Antioch’s official response
- Additional words from the editor
Links pertaining to Amanda Lauren’s “Death Blessing” essay
More links forthcoming . . .