Monday, September 25, 2017

On Best American, Transphobia, and Literary Editing

Thanks for taking the time to chat, Gabrielle Bellot and Berry Grass. First, a little bit of context for readers who are unfamiliar.

The Winter, 2016, issue of The Antioch Review featured an essay titled “The Sacred Androgen” by the writer Daniel Harris, which attacks trans people. The essay is blatantly misogynistic, white supremacist, and transphobic. It is filled with inaccurate information and hateful stereotypes, and it fails all of the academic and editorial standards we would hope to find in place from a leading university literary magazine. We won’t waste time recapping all of the many problems with the essay, which is awful writing, but for readers who are interested, a few good summaries can be found here, here, and here.

A large number of writers, editors, and publishers came together to unequivocally reject this essay, the hate it contains, and the clear breach of ethical and academic standards that its publication entails. Just recently, however, the latest Best American Essays came out, and the Antioch Review issue was listed as a “Notable Issue” (the writer, Daniel Harris, also had a different essay from the year listed as notable). Listing this issue as notable praises the editors, redeems their decision, and sends the clear message not only that publishing such hateful material is acceptable, but admirable. This flies directly in the face of the outcry from so many writers, and is only one particularly egregious example of hate and discrimination against trans people within literary publishing.

Gabrielle, when the issue first came out, I really appreciated your piece on Medium, which not only put the editorial decisions of the publication in a larger context, but also articulated the importance of the backlash, and the power of seeing a wide range of writers use their voices to condemn hate against trans people. Could you respond some to how you see this citation by Robert Atwan and Best American, and how it fits in this broader context?

And related to that, Berry, I first noticed the notable citation because you posted about it on social media. Could you articulate what it was like coming across that, and what message it sends?

Gabrielle: When I was in grad school, the various Best American categories were often hailed as just that: the best of said genre of said year, worthy of being taught in workshop courses alongside established and up-and-coming writers alike. Of course, “best” is inherently subjective, if not somewhat silly, when it comes to the vastness of these categories, and the Sherman Alexie affair in 2015--when Alexie was editing Best American Poetry and decided to choose a poem by ‘Yi-Fen Chou,’ a penname by the now-notorious white poet Michael Derrick Hudson, who was writing in yellowface--made the arbitrariness of the editorial process all the more overt. (There is also, of course, as Alexie pointed out, at least a bit of nepotism.) But what Best American chooses retains political and literary clout, and to see the entire issue in which Harris’ essay appeared garner a “Notable” mention is disappointing, if unsurprisingly so.

Harris’ essay was no minor, forgettable fragment in some otherwise elegant, epochal collection; au contraire, it almost immediately became the issue’s defining essay. Without Harris’ ignominious, inarticulate essay, this would likely just have been an unspectacular issue of a respected literary magazine; with Harris’ piece, it became a cause celebre that ended up, briefly, in the national news media.

Therefore, to highlight the entire issue without thinking of Harris--who, at any rate, should not be on any list in any category of “best” authors, given his weakness as a writer, even on a sentence level-- is impossible, cannot be editorial oversight, except to the utterly oblivious.

But, perhaps, ‘oblivious’ is an apposite word. Mr. Atwan indeed seems quite oblivious. Transphobia is still so often quietly swept under the rug as people wait for the ‘real’ dirt to appear. For Simon & Schuster, crude, callous transphobia wasn’t enough to prevent or cut short a lucrative book deal with a former Breitbart writer. For this issue of Best American, transphobia isn’t real enough to seem like anything other than a ‘notable’ issue, a hot topic, a trendy controversy. In other words, we, as trans people, weren’t real enough; we were topics rather than individuals. If anything, Harris’ hateful, reductive, erroneous views got him into The Antioch Review in the first place.

I will grant that the notorious issue of The Antioch Review was notable in this larger, cultural, human sense--but not in a way we should praise, which a mention by Best American implicitly does. It was ‘notable,’ instead, as a mistake, at best, and as marketing transphobia from a self-loathing gay man--not Mr. Yiannopoulos, but rather Mr. Harris, who shares much in common with the former, and both of whom The Antioch Review might have been happy to endorse.

The Best American’s mention may seem trivial, small--and, in some ways, it is--but what it represents is big: the way ‘debating’ our ‘right’ to be ourselves is still so frequently regarded not merely as acceptable, but as something to be outright encouraged as a means to stir up ‘controversy.’ That someone happily endorses essays crudely dehumanising us reveals how little they humanised us to begin with. Would an issue of The Antioch Review that asked a ‘controversial’ question about whether non-whites like me have lower IQs also receive a ‘Notable’ mention? Perhaps, but it would also be less likely--and this says much about how much less we, too, are thought of by people like Mr. Atwan, likely without Mr. Atwan even caring enough about us to realise it.

Berry:  If you follow a lot of essayists on social media then you are bound to notice the enthusiasm with which they look forward to the Notable Essays section of the BAE each year. & I do too, totally! Seeing your friends or peers receive a small but meaningful bit of national recognition is rewarding. Seeing a journal that you love get recognition, or friends in editing get recognition is rewarding.

So my literal experience of coming across The Antioch Review’s special recognition -- for an issue so flawed that more than 1,000 writers signed their names in condemnation of the editorial practices leading to its publication -- was one of abrupt displacement. I came into the Amazon preview from a positive space, excited to celebrate members of my broader writing community, & I was abruptly thrown into a negative space.

Maybe it’s the closeness (which is to say smallness) of the essayist community, but Best American Essays seems to me to have more clout than other similar large annual anthologies do with writers of their genres & subgenres. & that’s the crux of why The Antioch Review’s recognition here hurts me: I mean it when I say community. The NonfictionNOW conference-attending, the “Essaying the 21st Century” Facebook group-posting, writers-and-editors-frequently-dialoguing-with-each-other community looked attentively over those Notable selections & folks didn’t notice that Daniel Harris was recognized in two different ways, despite a lot of those community members signing that open letter unambiguously condemning The Antioch Review. Even after I shared this discovery across social media platforms (again: community. Folks saw my post b/c we all follow each other)

Robert Atwan’s editorial decision to recognize Harris & TAR in this way feels awful of course, but as a trans writer I’ve long come to expect awful from big national platforms. I think I was more disappointed by the lack of response -- of memory! -- from cis essayists, whose concern months ago strikes me (now, but also for awhile, increasingly) as shallow.

Clutch: I think a lot about that initial response, too, and the way the Best American kind of sucks the power out of the response, or at least feels like it does. I continue to be annoyed that I am forced to have feelings about The Antioch Review, but letting the issue receive praise without a clear and loud criticism of it is also unacceptable. Maybe I just want people to understand that this actually hurts people, that it damages the people I love and our cultures and our communities, and that it’s not just an abstract exercise in representation or something.

Berry, you brought up that open letter in response to the issue, and we should give credit here to Oliver Baez Bendorf, who did so much of that legwork.

So another part of the problem, as I see it, is that anthologies and editors and academic gatekeepers and all of that continue to demonstrate that they are ill-equipped to understand the work produced by so many trans writers. So even while the nonfiction literary world on large has the same boring arguments about truth or writing about family, for example, we can find this dynamic range of trans writers radically re-writing our understanding of selfhood, of truth, of representation, all that kind of stuff. And this isn’t an exclusively trans concern-- literary establishments continue to miss out on the work of marginalized and oppressed people in part because that writing so often offers critiques and revisions to some of our fundamental ideas about genre, writing processes, craft, all that.

If we’re going to say that places like Best American are failing so many writers, what’s the alternative? We could let go of the idea of a “best,” that seems important, but where else are we finding good work by trans writers and other writers left out of the mainstream conversation? If Robert Atwan and the Antioch Review aren’t going to get their shit together, where else do we turn?

Berry: The alternative is probably a lot of things, right?, rather than looking for another one-stop-shopping experience for recognition. Because while it would be kind of awesome if there was a single repository website of trans writing that updates weekly, say, with links to newly published work from trans writers, the problem becomes how do you make that comprehensive enough so that people aren’t excluded, or so that what is shared doesn’t skew towards a more narrow aesthetic, or etc. It’d be amazing for getting trans writing to the eyes of trans audiences (any audience, really), & is by virtue of its one-stop simplicity the likeliest idea to get “mainstream” attention,  but difficult to pull off. Just last night I saw the Poetry Foundation put out a list of contemporary Latinx poets that was pretty long but also left out a great many, many blazingly talented Latinx writers & the conversation around the list was then deservedly about who was left off, and about the limitations of the perspectives of the list-makers. Then of course the other flaw with that idea is that cisgender editors would by & large feel very comfortable with that repository site being the only place where promotion & reviews/criticism & etc. of trans writing would take place, & they’d abdicate their responsibilities in favor of that one site picking it all up. I guess with any single anthology or resource you run the very real risk of leaving voices out of the conversation.

Maybe part of the answer is to talk, frequently, about the literary journals that are regularly publishing trans writers? Like, The Wanderer needs to be shouted from the veritable literary rooftops for the magazine that it is -- no one else is putting out work from such diverse voices. I see writing there that I truly wouldn’t see elsewhere. Frankly it’s rare that there’s more than one trans writer in a single issue of a literary journal. Trans-centered journals like Vetch are a wonderful antidote for this, but so are journals whose editors actually seek out trans voices beyond just typing out a Facebook post encouraging submissions from certain demographics. The Tiny just put out an issue with 4 trans writers, and that shouldn’t have been astonishing to me but it was.

I’m a genre editor for an online journal & even I have tons of work to do by way of seeking out trans writers. Maybe if there were more trans people on the mastheads of journals things would improve. I guess I’m getting away from your question, Clutch, but these things are sort of connected for me. I wonder what it is about small press publishing & about university-affiliated publishing that seems so resistant to trans inclusivity.

Gabrielle: I second what Berry said. Projects like The Wanderer and Vetch are beautiful and important, creating spaces for us, by us, showcasing us. This is true, too, of newer trans-centred mags, like Ignota; Ignota’s wide range of work, experimental and standard, is a testament to the lovely range of trans writing out there, even as so many mainstream publishers expect us to, or at least wish us to, only write a standard narrative of trauma. This narrative holds true for some of us, to be sure, but we are larger than these stories. I’m thinking, too, of projects like an anthology featuring trans women of colour, put together by Jamie Berrout, Venus Selenite, and Ellyn Pena. And, of course, projects that centre queer writers more broadly, like Nepantla, which focuses on queer writers of colour. There are unquestionably large publishers out there who will publish work by us; I pitch and work day in and out at what I do, like any other freelancer. And I hesitate to write off all of Best American because of this, even as this specific issue, at least, deserves criticism; many places have failed us, but it doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t improve. Even The Antioch Review, far down the line, can possibly become somewhere better. It may be a long shot, but I don’t believe in giving up on (most) places. At the same time, what’s important is that we get a wide variety of work by trans writers out there. Show the range of what we can do: our essays, our criticism, our poetry, our fiction, our art, film, music, dance. Narratives like Harris’ can only exist when you know little of us, when you view us as tropes and ideas rather than as individuals; our art is one way to resist and defeat such simple-minded stories, and any project or place that puts us at the centre is doing just that kind of critical work.

Gabrielle Bellot is a staff writer for Literary Hub. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, the Atlantic, New York Magazine’s The Cut, Tin House, HuffPost, The Normal School, Electric Literature, Guernica, and many other places. She holds an MFA and PhD from Florida State University and lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Berry Grass is originally from Kansas City, got their MFA in Tuscaloosa, and now lives & teaches writing in Philadelphia. Their essays appear in The Normal School, The Wanderer, Barrelhouse, and Sonora Review, among other publications. When they aren't reading submissions as the Nonfiction Editor of Sundog Lit, they are embodying what happens when a Virgo watches too much professional wrestling.

T Clutch Fleischmann is the author of Syzygy, Beauty and the curator of Body Forms. A Nonfiction Editor at DIAGRAM, they also pull together this series on trans writers and essays.

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