A Review of Rape Culture in the Alt Lit Community

Dianna Dragonetti

06.10.14

[Editor’s Note: Recently, multiple public accusations have been made regarding consent violations by figures in the lit community. Some of these individuals have been published in FANZINE, and we are disheartened to hear of these accusations. Standing with victims/survivors is one of our non-negotiable values in our community. This is a statement of solidarity with them. The violation that occurred with the publication of PeterBd’s book highlights the lack of accountability that has been present in our communities, literary and otherwise, and it is our hope that Dragonetti’s article fosters more conversation around this issue. – Lauren Traetto]

An official statement of apology issued by independent publisher Plain Wrap Press regarding controversy surrounding the since-rescinded (as of September 4, 2014) PeterBd book, We’re Fucked, reads as follows:

when plain wrap decided to publish peterbd’s book we did it with the hope that celebrating the names of people in our community would be fun. we love the things everyone is doing in our little corner of the alt lit world and we saw in petebd’s book an opportunity to promote your name and celebrate you in a silly way.

we are sorry if we offended any of you. you are terrific. and we love you very much and we want you to live awesome, happy lives…

but know this: we listen and we care about you. give us your input. we’re here and we’re trying to do good. so, please reflect on our efforts to make good and please find it in your hearts to forgive us.

This tone is parroted in the most recent email I received from Plain Wrap’s main editor, Heather Watson, regarding the situation: “The book has been pulled from the store… there is no intention of selling it”; “I am sorry to have offended you”; “lesson learned.” Both of these missives seem deflective, invoking fallacy and distraction, and this begs the question—what does accountability look like?

Neither Plain Wrap’s “apology” statement nor Watson’s email constitute the acceptance of accountability to me. In either case, there is an erroneous conflation of the personal with a breach of ethics (“we are sorry if we offended any of you”): as Elizabeth Foster wrote on a thread in the Alt Lit Gossip group, “instead of apologizing for [their] actions[, this] insinuates [that] the problem is [our] negative reactions. This is an extremely weak apology . . . it seems very forced and extremely cowardly/lacking in sincerity.”

The employment of irrelevant flattery (“you are terrific”) also indicates, as Foster wrote, a lack of sincerity. Tied to this is the notion of “celebration,” language common to not only Heather’s writing but Janey Smith’s own “Fuck List” and preface (“a celebration of writers and the people I love”)—but the names implicated go beyond “our little corner of the alt lit world,” actually involving a number of higher-profile writers (e.g. Roxane Gay, Lynn Melnick); I am skeptical that most of those whose likenesses were used would interpret their implication as an imagined sexual conquest of Janey Smith “in a silly way.” As I wrote in my HTMLGiant piece, “Dianna Dragonetti’s Response to Janey Smith/Steven Trull’s ‘Fuck List’: The ‘Art’ of Rape Culture,” this language suggests that “[Smith/Trull’s] sexual interest in these 200+ (myself included) is valuable, as if they should be honored to be someone he ‘Want[s] to Fuck.’”

Here is the text of the entry for me (I will use myself as exemplar out of respect for others involved):

Dianna Dragonetti

Dianna was late for her [sic] sex session with Janey

Janey was pissed at first but forgave Dianna as soon as she [sic] began making out with her [sic]

Dianna had soft, luscious lips

Not only does this entry actually misgender me (I am trans and go by he/him/his pronouns), but it is a violation in the most basic sense: sexual harassment, disregarded consent. I would also like to draw attention to the fact “We’re Fucked” was published (sometime between 6 to 8 months ago) without first seeking the consent of everyone whose likeness was used. Thus, not only was I re-traumatized learning of my inclusion in this text, compounded by the fact that I am already a survivor of sexual abuse and violence, but the inadvertent manner in which I found out exacerbated this. I am certain that many others have experienced a similarly horrible arc, given the commonality of trauma. I must now add this to the seemingly never-ending legacy of times in which my agency—sexual or otherwise—was compromised and abusively dismissed; I am sure the majority of those victimized have been made to do the same. Megan Lent, on a public thread I began in Alt Lit Gossip (since deleted), relayed her experience accordingly: “[the use of my likeness is] the verbal extension of my identity… the fact that someone has taken it, without alerting me or asking for consent, and turned it into something sexualized and secondary, really, really disturbs me.”

I, for one, did not feel “celebrated” by my implication in the “Fuck List”/“We’re Fucked.” I do not feel that Plain Wrap “love[s]” or “care[s] about me.” Plain Wrap, also, importantly, did not “listen” and did not “learn”—this is reflected in the fact that, to date, it is still unclear as to whether or not they have contacted all whose likenesses were non-consensually used regarding their involvement. This brings up yet another major issue in establishing accountability: transparency. On another Alt Lit (Gossip) thread, Emily-Elizabeth Scott voices her concern about who the “we” in Plain Wrap’s statement refers to—“the lack of transparency about who is involved seems disconcerting.” Andrea Kneeland, who had a book forthcoming with the press but recently decided to pull it, wrote the following about her working experience with them:

[T]hey were supposed to send me galleys back in April—total silence from them since then, but now I’ve checked and it appears my book is for sale on the website. And I have no idea who the person behind it is, either “h”/[H]eather or Janey or what, and I’ve recently had people message me thinking my affiliation means I endorse the [P]eterbd book &/or [J]aney in the recent situations that have come to light, which is not the case in the slightest. The fact that [the press] seems to be operating in a weird anonymous space is disturbing. 

Perhaps most remarkable is that PeterBd himself admits (as written in an email to me) that he was “really an outsider when it comes to how this book got published,” having no contract with Plain Wrap and never owning a print copy of his own manuscript. Rachel Hyman sums this situation up well in another ALG comment: “No transparency [means] no accountability from the people responsible and no changes to the underlying power structures that allowed this to happen.” This guise of anonymity effectively causes the accountability process to be overwrought with complications, if not impossible. Thus, Plain Wrap is hardly “trying to do good”—I would hazard to say they have already failed.

Janey Smith’s and PeterBd’s respective silences also speak to this; it is difficult to parse and assess their involvement when they offer virtually no interest in redress. Though I have corresponded with PeterBd, who retains principal authorship of the book and claims distance from the publication (the preface Janey wrote seems to substantiate this i.e. “the email from the mysterious Peter BD”), about the creation of the book, his intention and relationship with the piece are ultimately irrelevant. PeterBd emailed me insisting that he is interested in protecting the “respect and dignity” of people. Why then should he not take responsibility for his actions—for it is the impact, the pain of those victimized that matters, not his intent—or write and agree to publish something so completely unconscionable in the first place?

But Janey Smith’s position, despite his apparent detachment from discourse, is far easier to ascertain: as writes in his preface, “If you are familiar with the names on the Fuck List, or even if you’re not, get ready because I am about to have my way with all of them, and I can thank PeterBd for that.” Is this admission—that, as Claudia Sherman wrote in the ALG thread, “the violation is part of the turn-on”—not indication enough that this text is toxic, a failed attempt at art that serves only to uphold the often cissexist, misogynistic, and, in a basic sense, projected sexual fantasies of these men? Does this not exemplify how swiftly and easily a culture of oppression is enabled? To quote Andrea Coates, in her comment on the ALG thread:

The work by Janey Smith and PeterBd appears to have no overarching sociological aim or to make a statement on gender or sexual exploitation, gives the authors pseudonyms while exposing the characters as real people, is merely a compilation of patriarchal heteronormative wank fantasies.

Regardless of Watson’s assurance that there is “no intention of selling it,” this book was published, and has been sold—that is to say, the damage has been done. To reiterate: the people whose likenesses are featured were not necessarily contacted, and thus did not consent to their placement in these abrupt, jarring, and sometimes quite graphic sexual contexts. The “Fuck List” certainly did not set a precedent for establishing consent and respecting agency—why should PeterBd or Plain Wrap? But this tandem threat—the breach of autonomy and indulgence of male entitlement—is by no means isolated, neither within “alt lit” nor society at large, hence the normality of casual acceptance.

Hoping to invite a diversity of opinion, I posted about this both on my public Facebook profile and in Alt Lit Gossip (the latter has since been deleted). The response has overwhelmingly aligned with my analysis of the text (and its context); the dissent has largely rested on fallacy and derailment, ranging from the insistence that the text should be taken as a “joke” and nothing more, to the belittlement of sexual harassment entirely. There are also those to emerge who did not directly dissent, but have overtly supported the book in other ways: for example, Chris Dankland wrote in a review that he considers his mention “a good thing,” and Jackson Nieuwland blurbed that “We’re Fucked” represents “what I love about alt lit.” I do not think these commentators necessarily intended to dismiss the more sinister implications of this text; however, the sheer casualness with which they assign positivity is somewhat stifling, indicative of a toxic culture that is deeply ingrained. This survey has been valuable—not just to inform those affected of an ethical lapse, but in the elucidation of common mentalities, pervasive within and beyond the community of “alt lit,” which often downplay, make light of, and/or enable abuse. The artistic legacy of men in general is pervaded by the systematic forces of toxic masculinity and rape culture—masturbatory, empowered by patriarchy to project and objectify. To again quote Claudia Sherman from the ALG thread: “there’s no poetry here, there’s no rhetoric, there’s no clear comprehension… [just] a heap of bullshit and an Ol’ Boys’ Club defending the formal publication of what is no better than a Duke Lacrosse frat email fuck list as High Art.”

Though the book was rescinded from publication (as of September 4th, 2014), and the original “Fuck List” has also been taken off of HTMLGiant (as of September 4th, 2014), the fact that both list and book had been published, and were largely well-received, indicates the pervasiveness of misogyny and male entitlement, the ease with which othering and objectification—in this case, affecting many who are female, trans/NB (myself included), or otherwise marginalized—can be exacted without fear of retribution. The dynamic implicit in this pattern of behavior and reaction reaches farther than the “Fuck List” / “We’re Fucked,” than the “alt lit community,” taking hold in society at large; we must stand in solidarity to dismantle this cult of power at both micro-and macro-levels. This is not and was never a joke, never an ‘alt’ nod, and, moreover, never an admission of wrong, but the knowing casualness of rape culture, propagated by two entitled men, enabled and supported by a culture of complicity.

The reality of this is what makes pieces like Emily Swanson’s Gawker Response so off-base: the only community that “alt lit” has ever been is the community that permitted this, among innumerable other abuses, to happen, and their perpetrators to be championed. The existence of “Fuck List”/”We’re Fucked” is an absurdly obvious example of how much of a “boys’ club” it truly is. The hope for progress does not lie in the erasure of alt lit’s flagrant past, or the denial of its alignment with normative oppression, but with continual deconstruction and unflagging solidarity with and prioritization of survivors.