Allegations of abuse, sexual assault and misogyny have rocked the often ultra-emo literary online community. Where now for the scene?
Last Sunday, a 19-year-old writer from Toronto, Sophia Katz, published an essay on Medium called “We Don’t Have to Do Anything.” The essay describes how an alt lit “writer/editor” named “Stan” sexually assaulted Katz over the course of the week she was staying at his apartment. Katz was visiting New York “with the hopes of cultivating relationships with people [she] had vaguely interacted with, and emphatically admired, via the Internet”; it was “the first time” she had “forc[ed] herself to exist in another country”. She didn’t have enough money for a hotel, but that was fine after Stan offered her a place to stay. Long story short: he dismissed her desire to sleep on the floor and come on’ed her into his bed – where, he assured her, they didn’t “have to do anything”. After making her uncomfortable in various ways (in both night- and daytime), the next night Stan began ignoring the repeated and explicit ways she demonstrated she was “not consenting, by any means, to having sex with him”. This continued for the rest of the week she stayed there.
Katz’s essay was shared on social media; she was lauded for her bravery and sympathized with for her pain; it was agreed that this was a terrible thing that happened. The next day, these responses petered out, with no one having asked about the pseudonymous predator’s real identity. Another alt lit writer, Sarah Jean Alexander, thought this was bullshit, so she got Katz’s permission and outed him in a Tumblr/Facebook post “Stan” is Stephen Tully Dierks, a prominent figure in the alt lit community who (until now) edited a magazine called Pop Serial. Also a writer himself, Dierks, 29, has been featured in various other alt lit publications, including the recently released anthology 40 Likely to Die Before 40. There’s not really any possibility that he’s innocent, either—he apologized on Facebook pretty much immediately.
WHY DIDN’T ANYONE DO ANYTHING TO STOP THIS BEFORE?
The question many are asking is: why didn’t anyone do anything to stop this before? Members of the community have said they knew Dierks was, as Alexander writes in her post, a “casual misogynist”. Last year Safy-Hallan Farah wrote an essay for the Fanzine calling Dierks out for exemplifying the kind of “quiet” racism and sexism that seeps into the alt lit community/almost all communities. His name and others’ names were censored after someone threatened legal action, but this is the Internet – everyone had already seen.
After Dierks was revealed to be the Stan in Katz’s essay, an Instagram user and another alt lit writer, 18-year-old Tiffany Wines, came forward to say that Dierks had done the same thing to them. It is also, more broadly, not the first time a (usually older) man (usually wielding more power) in the scene has been accused of it. Steven Trull (alias “Janey Smith”, which is a misappropriation of a Kathy Acker character) and Gregory Sherl have both weathered allegations of a similar combination of coercion (i.e., emotional abuse) and sexual assault/rape, but nothing really happened to them, and the women they abused continued to be ignored. Katz’s allegations against Dierks have generated much more conversation – and much more anger – particularly because those previous cases didn’t, and they have also encouraged other women to speak out. Tao Lin’s ex, ER Kennedy, also tweeted about the abusive relationship they had when Kennedy was 16 and Lin 22, saying Lin “raped” him and “stole” from him. (ER used to go by Ellen and now identifies as a trans-man.) The dangerous mixture of writing/art, play, and age- and professional-related power imbalances seems similar to those at work with Dierks and Katz.
“THE DEATH OF ALT LIT”
Many have call this “the death of alt lit”, and now, a week later, writers in the ALT LIT GOSSIP Facebook group – where Alexander posted Dierks’s name – are unsure if it’s appropriate to resume the group’s former activities (sharing writing, celebrating publications, talking about less intense issues) – or if they want to. Why was this the breaking point? Maybe it’s because Katz’s account uses the intense, play-by-play detail Lin has made characteristic of alt lit in a particularly effective way. Eventually, Katz writes, she realized she could not get out of the situation the way she imagined, by “verbally explain[ing] my wishes and slightly damag[ing] his ego”, so she compromised:
“I lay back and closed my eyes. I did the things I thought would make him finish faster. I heard his loud grunts pulse into my eardrum. I heard his roommates making guacamole in the kitchen. I imagined his roommates rolling their eyes at us. I imagined what it must feel like to be a pigeon in the fall. His sweat dripped onto my forehead and into my eyes. I imagined buying a smoothie from the shop down the street that I walked by earlier. I imagined things happening that weren’t this thing happening.”
After she realized she had no power to stop the sex, Katz requested – and then, actually, kind of begged – that Dierks wear a condom. He refused. This adds a new dimension to Dierks’s grossness, but I imagine it also helped him finish faster. Silver linings.
THE NEXT STEP
An uncomfortable silence follows when people ask questions about definitive next steps, both in terms of alt lit and in terms of the men who may or may not have killed it. What should Stephen Tully Dierks do now? What can he do now? Hypothetically? Morally? Unfortunately, it seems like the answer is really: not much. Many are saying he should go to jail, but he’s not going to turn himself in – I mean, let’s get real – and it’s unclear as to whether Katz or Wines will press charges. (See below: “based on what i know of her personality”.) Dierks has responded to the Facebook comment threads, apologising and saying he is giving up his writing career and Pop Serial. His now-ex-girlfriend, Isabel Sanhueza, not only dumped him but also posted screencaps of the messages he sent her, in which he expresses guilt, shame, confusion, and fear of going to jail, saying “i could see tiffany pressing charges based on what i know of her personality. that is v terrifying to me.” He was immediately excoriated for this last one, and his apology – in which he, at one point, attributes his actions to “our society’s patriarchal structure” – was also not well received. The impulse is to fix it somehow, but the nonconsensual sex is never going to not have happened. Even if he does go to jail – that will feel like a strangely pat ending, won’t it?
The issue of jail brings with it the issue of the definition of rape. Katz avoids the word in her essay, but Alexander calls Dierks a “rapist” in the post that outs him as the “abuser” in Katz’s piece. Many have applied the term to what Dierks did, and summarily rejected those who question whether that’s an appropriate word for this particular kind of manipulation/coercion. Over the weekend, Sheila Heti, an author that many alt lit writers admire, subtweeted (condescendingly?) “I’m glad the internet wasn’t around when I was having sex”, and then this, which she has since deleted: “Will not be calling #stephentullydierks or #taolin rapists and the women harassing & intimidating women who think as I do shd think twice.”
I’m glad screenshots were around when I began writing this article.
BLAME THE PATRIARCHY
In a way, Dierks is right – the patriarchy is to blame! The patriarchy made it easy for him to take advantage of young women (see below, “sobbing”) and he did it! This sucks. Life sucks, particularly because it sucks more for some people (women) than for others (men). And then those others (men) compound the original sucking for the first group (women), just because they can!
But what Dierks is implying – that the patriarchy can take some of his blame – is wrong. Blame is often assumed to exist in a finite quantity, but that’s completely stupid. There are fuck tons of blame to go around. In this situation, the patriarchy can have almost 100 per cent of the blame. (“Almost” allows for the possibility of Dierks’ uncontrollable primal nature, which is, frankly, doubtful.) While the patriarchy basks in that luxurious surplus, Stephen Tully Dierks can have 100 per cent of the blame, too.
The response to sexual assault cases, and especially to non-violent cases like this one, is often that the victim also deserves some of this blame, so plentiful is it in quantity. “She asked for it!” “Why didn’t she scream? The roommates were there!” “Why didn’t she just push –” This is also completely stupid. I understand the impulse: violent rapes, in which the rapist uses physical force to assault the victim, seem unpreventable because they involve aspects we can see and feel; they seem more “real”. Coercive, nonconsensual sex like this seems more preventable because the violence is psychological; it seems less “real”. But this difference is completely beside the point. There are many things Katz could have done before, during, or after, but she did not know about them and/or did not feel she could do them, and that is a fact for which the patriarchy can have, like, bathtubs full of blame. Mountains. I don’t know. Infinite large measures’ worth.
“LIFE, WITH THE SUCKING!”
This is all smart, if I do say so myself. But how much does blame even matter, really? It does, totally, but it also doesn’t enough. Stephen Tully Dierks has 100 per cent of the blame for what he did to Sophia Katz. Okay? It’s never going to not have happened, just as the reinforcement of power structures that created/facilitated it are never going to not have happened. Again, life, with the sucking!
DEEP IN THE WWW
This is probably what marginalized people – the alt lit community, feminists, and everyone, really – like about the internet; life is less life-like. It’s easy to determine who you interact with on it, to reduce the pull of life sucking, or to at least imagine that life’s sucking is embodied in a mythical creature who lives under a bridge and instead of in actual human beings who can actually seriously affect your well-being. It’s also probably why Katz didn’t think much about it when Dierks said, in an email before she arrived, that she “might wanna find a different place” if she was uncomfortable with sleeping in his bed. It’s probably why Sheila Heti said something dramatic and then just deleted it.
THE INTERNET V IRL
Words seem to bestow a lot of the power here, which makes sense in a literary community. I mean, they don’t work so well IRL – Katz said she was not consenting to sex in several ways, and Dierks didn’t listen to her. But online: we praise “conversation” and are “inspired” by “responses”. Sure, no one really takes the Internet seriously, since we can just delete or ignore whatever we want on it. Like what we do to “make him finish faster”, it’s our “at least”, a compromise: men continue to do what they want with us, and after it’s already “happened”, we get to feel like we’re making a difference by publishing many furious editorials about the injustices we face, because what else can we do, reallembed-22y, with what we’ve got to work with? Sarah Jean Alexander’s outing on Facebook suggests that words (or “GOSSIP”, even) – rather than real-life actions: in-the-moment screaming, in-the-moment repeated and firm refusals, going to the hospital for a rape kit, or taking immediate legal action – are the best weapons women feel we have against the power structures we’re up against. This is, again, unfathomable to some people, but those people usually don’t know what it’s like to be a teenage girl, or they are willfully forgetting what that’s like.
What’s really difficult about this situation is that it illustrates how we have to do two, sometimes contradictory, things at once: we must work towards a future society in which our lives suck less while simultaneously also dealing with the realities of our lives sucking in the present. Despite the ways mainstream publishing dismisses this small literary community as a bunch of “hipsters”, what has happened in this small literary community is not very different from what happens in mainstream publishing: a woman loses the sense that she can use real-life means to object when a man tries to take advantage of her because her real life sucks so much more than his: she can't afford to get a room in a hostel because she can't get writing jobs because the only writing jobs really on offer for women are to write about “women's issues” like the one she’s facing right now and at least he's giving her a free place to stay and at least maybe after he finishes faster he'll publish her work and she can get noticed and won’t have to do shit like this anymore. At least she got an essay out of it! At least feminism is such a hot topic right now!
I’m sure Sophia Katz would have rather written an essay about something else. I would have rather written an essay about something else. I have several freelance editing jobs; I’m two weeks late on a deadline; I’m trying to finish a manuscript; I run a literature blog; I work in a bookstore; I also like to, you know, eat, sleep, sit quietly at dinner parties while everyone talks about television. There are many things I could be doing with my time and mental energy besides Googling the spelling of the name of a male (pr)editor who used his relative power to sexually assault and/or otherwise take advantage of young women like me, young women who want to impress men in power so they can one day do what they want without having to do things they don’t want. I doubt very seriously that any of the women who have spent countless hours explaining, again, the multi-faceted ways in which life sucks particularly for women enjoy doing it. But we don’t have a choice; male sexual desire often dictates the work that women can do. This is the most important thing we can write about, not only because it’s the most pressing issue affecting us right now, but also because writing about it gives us the opportunity to write about, maybe, one day, other things.