October 21, 2014

Alt Lit and Rape Culture - Suffering the Inheritance of Cultural Narratives - Andrea Baker

The history of rape, unsurprisingly, is as old as humanity. Andrea Baker explores that history in her forthcoming book Famous Rapes. In this excerpt, she looks at the string of assault charges that tore through the internet community surrounding Don't Forget to Be Awesome records this past year and the 2012 Steubenville, Ohio rape case. She argues that one problem we encounter when discussing high-profile (and low-profile) rape cases is our impulse to flatten the men concerned into an easy binary of "good" and "bad." And that division excuses us from looking at the larger cultural phenomena that keep rape culture humming along. SBB

Suffering the Inheritance of Cultural Narratives

I was born in 1976 and grew up believing that history was contained by a thing called the past. Like many young people, I also held the belief that my choices and behaviors existed in the vacuum of my own being. It wasn’t until my life came crashing down around me that I came to understand that my boundaries were poorly constructed, that my mind was less in charge than I thought it was, and that I was suffering the inheritance of both a personal and a cultural narrative.

Now, I don’t think there is anything unique about me. And I don’t think there’s anything unique about anyone else either, regardless of whether they find themselves in the role of victimizer or victimized. While I am not suggesting that individuals are not culpable for their choices, I am suggesting that beyond the realm of the individual something is going on and that it is in everyone’s best interest to try and understand that something

From an energy that I can only term what-the-hell-just-happened, I wrote a book, Famous Rapes. I learned that, in order to preserve her honor, in 510 BCE Lucretia stabbed herself after being assaulted by Sextus Tarquinius, the son of the ruling tyrant. And I learned that attitudes hadn’t changed much by the time the D.W. Griffith made his 1915 film, Birth of a Nation. In the film, a young woman throws herself off a cliff because she is being chased by a man whose affection she does not desire. As she dies, a title card tells us that, “For her who learned the stern lesson of honor we should not grieve that she found sweeter the opal gates of death.” 

On a conscious level, feminism has rewritten our assumptions. If we look, though, at phenomena we see evidence of beliefs we didn’t know we held bubbling up and manifesting all over our collective behavior. The recent alt.lit transgressions are but a single example. Last year an almost identical set of incidents shook another Internet-based community, the fans and content creators of Don’t Forget to Be Awesome [DFTBA] records. When I was finishing up my book I looked at the DFTBA incidents within the context of the now infamous 2012 Steubenville, Ohio rape case. The parallels were interesting because the Internet figured prominently there, too. The Steubenville case, though, allowed a sort of splitting where the bad behavior was easily pushed into the realm of other—the jocks, the coach, the small town... 

The following excerpt from my book Famous Rapes delves into these parallels.

From Famous Rapes:
In the Steubenville case the Internet first provided a platform for the perpetrators to further traumatize their victim, then it provided a platform for individuals to bring attention to a crime that they believed would be minimized if not scrutinized by the public eye. Then, it provided a platform for outrage over the mainstream media’s handling of the news to be aired. Overall, though, Steubenville’s players were fairly stereotypical—the jocks were exposed as, to say the least, insensitive and unreflective. Ditto for the mainstream news.

Social media, however, also provides platforms for the online persona that is sensitive, nerdy, and socially conscious. Such a community exists on YouTube...
...around Don’t Forget to Be Awesome Records (DFTBA). YouTube, with its user generated content offers an implicit promise of equality. Everyone is invited; everyone participates on equal footing, and unlike in the offline world, creators and users may also easily interact with one another.

However, most of the musicians of DFTBA are young men in their 20’s, and most of their fans are teenage girls. Men and girls are not equal. And a disturbing number of these cool, quirky men in T-shirts have recently been implicated in a cluster of crimes known as the DFTBA Sexual Abuse Scandal. 

In 2012, Mike Lombardo...
...was convicted of soliciting explicit photos from an underage fan, a crime for which he received a five-year prison sentence. 

In 2014, a teenage girl used Tumblr to expose Tim Milsom.
He had entered into a “relationship” with her when he was 22 and she was 15. During this time he was abusive and sexually coercive.

Then, within days of the revelation about Milsom, a third DFTBA musician, Alex Day...
...volunteered that he didn’t know what consent was, implying that he had behaved abusively, or, at least coercively, toward sexual partners.

 All three men were dropped by DFTBA and label co-founder, Hank Green quickly posted a video...
...in which he ultimately compares contemporary American culture’s relationship to sex with that of predator and prey, which he then attempted to make cute by comparing male sexual advances to the work of cruise missiles, and female attempts to dodge the cruise missiles as the work of scared kittens.
Though DFTBA did respond, and respond quickly, depiction here never transcends the realm of quirk. Green’s only reflection on how this cluster of abuse may have been enabled was that, “When we are set up to assume that the kitten is going to run, whether the kitten wants the cruise missile or not, that enables abuse.”

The issue of adults and teenagers mixing freely, as if the two were in any way equals, remains unaddressed.  Green’s response does, however, represent a radical departure from the past.

More Complicated Than Good or Bad
Though no one from alt.lit has gone to prison, the details of behavior within the two cultures are eerily resonant.  The smart people, the clever, the nerds, we have the same cultural inheritance as everyone else. We aren’t unique. And we aren’t always aware of the cultural dynamics influencing our behavior. I assume that before these recent wake-up calls most of the individuals within both cultures believed that sexual assault and sexual coercion didn’t really happened within their set. In fact, I bet that a good number of individuals within both cultures held the conscious belief that sexual assault and sexual coercion didn’t really happen within their set while also participating in behavior counter to that belief.

This is where Steubenville remains an interesting point of reflection, not only because it shows us other incidents of the Internet effecting culture, but also because it so eloquently serves up the jocks as bad guys, affording us the opportunity to believe that the bad and the good inhabit discreet domains. We need to see ourselves holding that belief, we need to see that the belief we hold is not true, then we need to notice that in place of moving toward understanding, we have developed a sort of two-party system of the mind. 

When it comes to the alt.lit men, much of the behavior that has come to light is criminal, and perhaps they should be held legally accountable for their crimes. Individuals can and do make decisions, and those who violate legal and ethical obligations are responsible for their actions. But, as bystanders, we will not progress when we spend our energy dividing good guys from bad. Understanding of where we are on the ribbon of time’s progress is what is needed.

Those of us born after both the first and second wave feminists impacted the status quo were born into a world that, we were told, had solved the former problem of gender inequality. But the present does not reside in a vacuum any more than then an individual resides in a vacuum. The past is at work now. 

We ought use this opportunity to reflect on how relatively recent it is that society has even granted women ownership of their own bodies; how recent it is to consider surviving an assault an unquestionably good thing.  And how it is still, emergently, healing for us all to hear from those who chose to speak to their own experiences.  The alt.lit transgressions have generated a fresh round of energy and outrage. Focusing on our cultural inheritance instead of focusing on the offenders does not mean that we approve of or excuse what these men have done; it does mean that we recognize that we aren’t going to get anywhere if we attempt to use these individual offenders as easy containers for a bad that is, at time, ambiguous and cannot so easily be contained. 

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

Andrea Baker is a poet and writer. She has two books forthcoming in 2015: Famous Rapes from Water Street Press and Each Thing Unblurred is Broken from Omnidawn. She is also the author of Like Wind Loves a Window (Slope Editions, 2005) and the chapbook gilda (Poetry Society of America, 2004). Visit her on the web at andreabaker.us.

October 19, 2014

Alt Lit and Rape Culture - The Male Literary Canon is Fired - Sonya Vatomsky

"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 writinga 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 narratorsthese worshipped heroes of their own storiesand 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 dominantand 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 Juanitait'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 communitybut 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 assaultthe meeting of compulsive documentation and rape cultureis 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 hereTo 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.”