"If men shoplifting from American Apparel and contemplating the cold/boring universe and (statutorily) raping their romantic partners is so obvious and commonplace and everyday that it does not even warrant a shrug, where are the counterpart stories, the obvious and commonplace and everyday narratives of victims and survivors that, too, should not feel one bit out of the ordinary in such a climate?" Sonya Vatomsky asks in this essay about the literary canon, alt-lit, and her own struggles finding a voice in a literary climate hostile to anything but a male protagonist. And it is an excellent question. –SBB
The Male Literary Canon Is Fired: Sexual Assault, Alt-Lit and the Casualties of the Male Narrative
I first loved Tao Lin when I was 21 and he came to Seattle to read from Bed and Eeeee Eee Eeee. I had spent that entire year writing short, disaffected prose pieces about sex and Facebook Scrabble and existential despair, so to say that Tao Lin's style resonated is an understatement. He felt, honestly, like the first peer I had in published writing – a kindred spirit. It was the very same excitement I felt when I discovered the male authors and protagonists who influenced and inspired me during childhood, and I was equally disheartened to have to come to terms with the same one-sided literary camaraderie again.
Bookish and alternative teenagers, in retrospect, are exposed to manliness levels exceeding those of the standard literary canon by a factor of (at least!) three. You have first the classics: Salinger, Hemingway. Then the alternative classics: Burroughs, Nietzsche. Then the alternative-alternative classics, as you veer into sci-fi or fantasy or magical realism or alt-lit: Murakami, Lin. Whatever you are reading, it is probably by men and about men and you might think that you are allowed to empathize and identify with these men but only until the first time you actually discuss a book with a man. Then, the realization is fast and sharp and disarming: a blank look from him, indicating quite clearly that you seeing yourself in these literary heroes is as preposterous as you being a Ninja Turtle during recess. You, obviously, are April. It's coded into your body, simple as anything. Charming side-plot, certainly. Ravishing muse, if you want. But protagonist? No. Not you, not ever.
Earlier this year, literary magazine n+1 published a fantastic book called No Regrets, a dialogue by women about the formative novels and stories pushed on them during adolescence. Everyone shared the experience of feeling indescribably barred from communion with these male narrators – these worshipped heroes of their own stories – and of grappling with the certainty that their male peers were easily identifying with them and simultaneously writing the women of their lives into whatever limited side-roles were offered by these male-dominated plots, no exceptions. The famous old script is that the male story is universal and the female story niche, but the reality of it is that the male story is not universal but dominant – and this distinction means that it is not a story a woman can ever aspire to living or to writing.
As a teenager and 20-something who wrote both fiction and the despondent, life-chronicling semi-fiction alt-lit is known for, navigating these male voices while trying to explore (and chronicle) my own identity fueled a strange little dance wherein I felt inadequate at performing the roles assigned me and excluded from those I wished for. I eagerly read through Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash and Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, and, at age 17, journaled my fury at wanting to be the in-progress, curious protagonist while feeling conscribed to an eternal pantomime of the infinitely-wise, earthy-yet-virginal woman-guide: "But I'm not Casaubon's Lia or Hiro's Juanita – it's too much responsibility; I can't. I can't. I don't even want to, often, though I spend enough minutes sitting and staring at my hips."
If there is something I can ask of a prophetess, it is: how damaging is it for women to grow up reading narratives in which they are relegated to the sidelines? It is: what is the total effect of a literary canon that prohibits women from seeing themselves as protagonists and keeps them aspiring to be, at best, muses. It is: where do we go, when our personalities are shaped by female characters in male-authored novels, and the inability to fully portray that which is ultimately based on a false perception of us causes discord between what we are and what we think we are and what we write we are. We're looking for reflections in mirrors designed to fail us – we are staring into the shitty abyss until the abyss stares back, and then writing down its words as ours.
When the first alt-lit rape news was published, I avoided it. I’d experienced sexual assault a year prior, and the way that it had overwhelmed me and swallowed up my writing and worn my body like an ill-fitting suit still felt so profoundly murky and muddy that I scrolled past the articles every time. After a week or two, I saw Tao Lin’s name attached to them and felt both queasy and unsurprised.
“I did not realize that this alt-lit rape thing was about Tao Lin,” I Facebook messaged my boyfriend.
A minute later: “Oh, no, woops, there are TWO alt-lit rape things this week.”
Truthfully, there’s nothing unusual or shocking or profound about there being rapists in any scene, creative or not. What’s unusual here, as Lauren O’Neal tweeted, is that “it’s all compulsively documented, alt-lit style.” She goes on: “Most rapists/abusers aren’t part of a scene based largely on documenting all your own thoughts and actions.” What’s worrisome is not so much that a writer managed to publish an entire novel depicting his abuse of someone considerably younger – and to critical acclaim and praise from his artistic community – but that this community is not similarly overflowing with the stories of abused, assaulted and mistreated women. If men shoplifting from American Apparel and contemplating the cold/boring universe and (statutorily) raping their romantic partners is so obvious and commonplace and everyday that it does not even warrant a shrug, where are the counterpart stories, the obvious and commonplace and everyday narratives of victims and survivors that, too, should not feel one bit out of the ordinary in such a climate?
Where are these stories going?
My feeling is that it’s actually worse than the usual guess, the common and frequently-accurate assumption that female narratives are just generally talked-over or otherwise dismissed in favor of male narratives to such a degree that they might as well not exist. My feeling is that the meeting of alt-lit and sexual assault – the meeting of compulsive documentation and rape culture – is creating a whirlpool into which the words of women are being sucked and drowned.
There is something terrible in feeling that your own narrative is now a response to someone else’s. Women in the literary community have spent lifetimes battling for a right to be heard, and in alt-lit their stories are literal side-plots in someone else’s work. Your sexual abuse is a side-plot. The rapist is the protagonist. And then your own writing is overwhelmed by this thing that happened to you that you, firstly, cannot talk about (because nobody wants to talk about rape – “why would a man want to talk about rape,” a friend’s boyfriend once asked me, confused, at happy hour) and then, secondly, cannot write about. It is, however, the only thing you can think about. And so here we are.
It’s beyond telling that when we think of men’s stories and women’s stories about rape, the men’s stories are the literature – the novels, the poems, the chapbooks – and the women’s stories are Tumblr posts and blog entries and confessional-but-definitely-
not-"literature" writing. In later-deleted tweets about Tao Lin, E.R. Kennedy said that “what use[d] to be my greatest escape, writing, instantly became my worst nightmare.” It is a double-silence, this kind of abuse. You are silencing both the victim-as-a-person and the victim-as-a-writer, and shutting down entire trails and rivers and oceans of narrative.
The question we should be asking isn’t how alt-lit has become a flashpoint for sexual and emotional violence, but what we can do to highlight the stories from the other side. To encourage women to keep writing, even when their every poem is an iteration on the stupidest, ugliest moment of their life and every short story is the most transparent, puerile metaphor and every novel is just THIS REALLY FUCKING SUCKED over and over and over again for 500 pages. To give power to side-plot narratives. To re-shape what a story is, what a life is, who a protagonist is. And to fill the eyes and ears of alt-lit readers with this furious noise until something, profoundly, shakes and shifts and moves. It’s not what we’re doing currently, but it’s an alternative.
Have something to say? Email comments, questions, responses, links to relevant articles elsewhere, and submissions to: rapeculture.and.altlit [at] gmail [dot] com. For the original call for submissions, see here. To read all the essays in the series, click here.
Sonya Vatomsky is a Moscow-born, Seattle-raised writer and poet. An introvert, she balances her time between being active in several (online and local) feminist communities and cooking elaborate five-course dinners for herself, alone, in the dark. She is interested in how a nearly all-male literary canon has shaped the worldview and affected the self-actualization of women and works to add her own voice to the noise, proving that women can aspire to something other than side-plots and muse-hood. She tweets about feminism and depression at @coolniceghost and once killed a social gathering in under 15 minutes by answering “name one thing that men are bad at discussing” with “rape.”