An essay lamenting identity politics and conformist morality in contemporary writing
Today nobody can take a punch and get over it. In October, US literary journal Hobart found its editors mutineering. An interview with writer Alex Perez, going without notice at first, found later outrage via Twitter revisionism over Perez’s comments about “tote bag women” and “cancel culture”.
Perez, a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, has an ‘anti-woke’ gimmick, as silly as that term is. He said in the Hobart interview, “Every white girl from some liberal arts school wants the same kind of books. . .’I’m interested in BIPOC voices and marginalized communities and white men are evil and all brown people are lovely and beautiful and America is awful and I voted for Hillary and shoved my head into a tote bag and cried cried cried when she lost.‘”
Perez is doing the same identity bashing that he accuses his foes of doing. While I doubt Perez’s “white women” hyperbole (“80% of agents/editors/publishers are white women from a certain background and sensibility”), it’s true that publishing is made up of a certain class with the means to subsist on little to no income. Diversity of economic background is what should be important.
However, the interview’s tone was one of exaggeration. Perez makes sweeping statements, blithely declaring the Iowa Workshop has “been infiltrated by the culture war forces that destroy all elite liberal institutions.” Other Hobart editors took offence at Perez’s bait, publishing a mass letter of resignation on the site (later removed by its head editor, Elizabeth Ellen). More than Perez they place blame on Ellen and her “pattern of behaviour” resulting in the publication of “regressive, harmful, and also just boring writing” like Perez’s interview. Perez is bad and so Ellen is bad, perhaps even worse for daring to platform him!
“Everything reads and sounds the same…You’ll never read a story about a pro-lifer or someone unvaccinated”
Regardless, it doesn’t matter what identity grouping is boss because Perez’s gripe is really with literary output. He wrote, “Everything reads and sounds the same [. . .] You’ll never read a story about a pro-lifer or someone unvaccinated.” These topics aren’t the most marketable; a white man can see that too. It’s a shame this cultural trend prevents writers exploring broader topics but Perez is misplacing the blame. Neither Ellen or Perez are the first to complain of this homogeneity. Sit down, actually write and more importantly stop letting your anger overshadow the work; as Meghan Daum has argued, it’s not even “the marketplace that’s ruining literature. It’s the literary citizens themselves.”
New Zealand literature suffers from a similar publishing uniformity. Daum writes about the literary world’s emphasis on the prestigious MFA as a prerequisite for participation when in actuality “getting an MFA in writing has little to do with actual writing and nearly everything to do with finding a place in a social clique.”
Writing cliques naturally develop around similar interests. Some graduates of MFA programmes like Vic’s IIML end up only publishing what amount to variations on a theme. Poetry larping Hera Lindsay Bird is abundant – the essayification of the poem, the pop-cultural references, the autobiographical prose poems, the use of ellipses without meaning, the sparse layouts, etc.
In his 2016 Pantograph Punch essay “Video Killed the Poetry Star“, Ken Arkind charts the change from the early 2010s when “poets were quieter, more conversational.” The growth of Tumblr and viral YouTube poetry (or adding an even more tired complaint, Rupi Kaur and ‘Insta-poetry’) changed that. Arkind argues 2015 was the turning point: “There was more yelling. Performances were polished and followed established formulas. The work in general was less tongue-in-cheek and more earnest, addressing societal ills in direct and deeply confrontational ways.”
In a time when a single poem posted online can garner millions of views and catapult a poet to viral fame, we choke on its unimaginative ash
“Tumblr girlies will remember the discourse” that accompanied this trend, writes Ash Davida Jane. Her Pantograph Punch piece last year, “Golden Age of Online Poetry“, serves as a reminder of pointless “debates about the distinction between mythology and religion, and the ethics of writing about deities that don’t belong to you.” Needless to say, a demand of all poetry to virtuously toe the line, whether about Vishnu or asexuality, doesn’t help foster creativity.
No doubt making poetry ‘hip’ via ‘social justice’ was a mistake. In a time when a single poem posted online can garner millions of views and catapult a poet to viral fame, we choke on its unimaginative ash. “Artistic colonisation” is Arkind’s polemical label for it but I’m hesitant to be that belligerent. Poetry gets caught in the vortex of creative non-fiction, disciplinary boundaries are blurred, and poetry as a form loses its uniqueness. Often it feels like these poems could be better served as personal essays.
Speaking of, “An Open Letter to the Internet“ is a personal essay that contributed most to Hobart editor Elizabeth Ellen’s infamy. She describes a tension many writers fall into, the mode of ‘essayist’ overshadowing their fiction and/or poetry aspirations. Often the best essay writers fall into the form; despite Ellen’s efforts to evade non-fiction she is spurred on by the necessity to comment, providing a view she can’t see anyone else doing. In her Open Letter, she scrutinised allegations against novelist Tao Lin by an ex-girlfriend he dated in her teens, when he was in his early twenties; Ellen refused to accept the all-too-common mode of online degradation, and wrote, “[i]f this is anyone’s idea of gaining female empowerment, count me out. If celebrating the ruining of another person’s life is cause for celebration, I don’t want any part of it.”
Alongside Lin, Ellen reckons with these moral tensions in her own life, as a child coercing other children into sexual favours—you might remember a similar iconic confession by Lena Dunham. Ellen recalls a friend confiding in her that their son was facing prison because they considered Ellen as non-judgmental; as she defends Lin, feeling “insane reading some of what is out there on the Internet,” for its lack of critical thinking, “since when is emotional abuse grounds for public shunning?”
If you’re positioning yourself and your writing as containing moral authority, you’re missing the point. From Ellen’s essay: “Write something decent. And don’t send me a shittily written story about abuse. The fact that it’s about abuse is not enough to warrant publication in a literary journal or on a literary website (imo). Ditto: cancer story. Ditto: anything story.”
These are much more serious moral transgressions than disagreeing with a critic engaging in un-PC ad hominem – ie, last year’s case of Nicholas Reid’s poorly thought-out gripe with essa may ranapiri
It’s very easy for young people to fall into this idealistic trap, being influenced by social justice rules in shallow ways fuelling misplaced rage. I’ve done it, you’ve probably done it—perception is reality—and it’s hard and confusing to figure out exactly what you think or believe, or how to behave, how to react to such situations or run away.
And these are much more serious moral transgressions than disagreeing with a critic engaging in un-PC ad hominem – ie, last year’s case of Nicholas Reid’s poorly thought-out gripe with essa may ranapiri’s identity and use of they/them pronouns.
As much as Reid knew what he was doing by wading into such subject matter, ranapiri also knew complaining about Reid’s review was an opportunity to further commodify their marginalised identity. And that is what’s killing creative writing. Arkind frames it as ‘clicktivism,’ allowing “people of privilege to pass comment on social issues in the most passive of ways; to be activists without any real activity.” Literary infighting is much ado about nothing, has no bearing on a truly marginalised person’s material day-to-day reality.
But this, too, is a banal debate. I’m critiquing context and writers deserve more close reading and aesthetic analysis. But if they weren’t so concerned with policing the moral integrity of their peers—and reviewers—then this discussion would be completely moot, not just cliché.
Of the few from the IIML programme who gain any success, some are those that lean into the moralistic politics of the moment. The success of Rebecca K. Reilly’s novel Greta and Valdin exemplifies this trend. It’s a book about two siblings’ late coming-of-age set on a stage of ‘queerness without trauma’ and a radically mixed unit of Russian, Māori and Spanish relatives in central Auckland. Behind its breezy slice-of-life narrative is a self-glorifying statement on social justice. Fuelling its popularity is a media spin of “Important Queer Novel“. But this is at odds with the book’s social context of petit-bourgeois artists and academics. While Reilly’s agenda is self-assured, it misses the beat by totally eschewing class in favour of identity politics. Ethnicity and immigrant narratives impose over her characters’ economic privilege.
At one point Valdin is asked to do a karakia before he and his co-workers board a plane for a work trip. But it’s not a coherent examination of ‘racism’ when the characters are never at risk of losing any of the comforts of their wealth because of the racism depicted in the book. Valdin’s career actually skyrockets when he gives a righteous speech about Māori land ownership, despite having no involvement with his iwi or hapū; a self-admitted complete lack of knowledge when it comes to Māoritanga.
Valdin also describes Waikato as “objectively the worst region,” displaying an Auckland cliché of being repulsed by the provinces—a disgust which barely covers both a racialised and class-based contempt for ‘uncultured’ populations outside metropolitan centres. Perhaps even more problematic is that this character also has all the possible resources at his disposal to engage with his cultural background, but makes no attempt to. In this way, Greta and Valdin is a realistic document of urban/rural and labourer/academic divides across the Māori demographic.
Greta, the other protagonist, continuously acknowledges racism in twee ways, expressing disgust for a date who “pronounced Taupō the bad way,” and an ongoing joke that both she and her family can never remember the names of white people, though contradicted by a never-ending notation of whiteness. On another date Greta asks, “How long have you been in New Zealand? Have you heard about racism?”
Just like Greta, I “know someone who has an art exhibition coming up,” dislike the employees at Unity Books, and frequent Xi’an Food Bar
Greta pretends to not love malls when she is with “liberal elite types” which she often is as a post-grad student, though never acknowledges herself as one. A Talking Heads song is described by Greta as being about someone “disgusted by the trivial lives of people in rural areas,” and a comment on Valdin’s landback treatise says “Aucklanders should go back to. . . drinking lattes and sucking themselves off”—but these examples are both presented without any criticality on the characters’ actual views and material position; they are both dismissive of provincial New Zealand and dismissive of the idea that they are dismissive; evidenced through an implicit and continual lack of acknowledgement of class.
Some would argue the novel requires a more adept suspension of disbelief—it’s somewhat utopian, so my critiques based in a material reality are moot—but Greta and Valdin’s world is unfortunately very real, I live in it, surrounded by bohemian layabouts, queer relatives working in media; the friends of mine who do have jobs don’t have ones I would describe as sensible or normal.
So, you could chalk my distaste of Greta and Valdin on my own self-loathing as a petit-bourgeois Aucklander. Just like Greta, I embarrassingly cried over my attempts to get the UoA masters scholarship, “know someone who has an art exhibition coming up,” dislike the employees at Unity Books, and frequent Xi’an Food Bar.
I’m sure the book’s popularity is to do with the characters’ rich social lives and their extended family unit which is tightly bonded and feels responsible for and to each other. But their truer tensions are never scratched. Greta and Valdin is a macaroon of a book appealing to an audience in a globalised woke psychosis.
Greta and Valdin by Rebecca K Reilly (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $35), which may or may not only appeal “to an audience in a globalised woke psychosis”, is available in bookstores nationwide.