Rape, condemnation, and literature: Alt Lit’s most shameful episode (by Luna Miguel)
—Your friend’s name is Stephen Tully Dierks, right?
—Because on Gawker he’s being accused of raping a young female writer.
This morning my husband woke me up with a piece of news that’s been terrible for our community. News that made my heart beat so fast, first out of confusion, then embarrassment, and later sadness.
Sophia Katz, a young Canadian poet, published an essay last Sunday on Medium in which she describes—in a calm, honest, and brilliant manner—her unpleasant sexual encounter with the American writer and editor Stephen Tully Dierks. The essay was widely shared through social media, and from the semi-private forums of Alt Lit Gossip to certain circles on Twitter, people began to express their statements of anger.
In her essay, Sophia Katz not only describes how Dierks raped her, but also publicly questions how this situation is so unfortunately common in our society, this situation that the rest of us can so rarely bring ourselves to denounce with such strength. In We Don’t Have to Do Anything, Katz recounts the days she spent visiting New York some months ago, and how from the very first day, she felt pressured to have sex with Dierks. The account of every incident is precise and detailed: first the rejection, then the psychological struggle, the pressure, and much later the resignation.
Katz had gone to “the capital of Alt Lit” with the hope of meeting the writers she admired, and to find herself among them talking about books, making friends, and feeling like she belonged to one of the most inspiring literary movements of our time. She had accepted an offer from Dierks to stay at his apartment, but once she got there, she began to feel that his intentions were about more than just giving her a place to stay.
‘No’ Always Means ‘No’
A situation like this is not rare. Our lives are filled with complicated moments and misunderstood signals. The problem in this incident is not merely that Dierks had the wrong expectations about this young woman in his apartment, but that throughout her stay, the pressure he continued to exert on her was brutal, until finally she gave in.
Months later, out of a desire to keep other woman from being subjected to similar abuse by men who take advantage of their positions of power, Katz wrote this essay.
And now Katz’s honesty has inspired other female writers to speak about their own unpleasant sexual encounters with Dierks, about sexist remarks he has made, and the sexist way he has treated women in the past. In the Alt Lit Gossip Facebook group, a young woman, who was in a relationship with Dierks until recently, expressed her solidarity with the women who were hurt by Dierks and denounced his reprehensible actions.
Alt Lit’s most shameful episode
I can’t believe what I am reading, I said to my husband. I first met Stephen Tully Dierks in 2010 when I started to read the authors that he promoted on his Pop Serial Tumblr. And when I first started to publish my poems in English, he was always there to help. He was one of the critics who most widely recommended my first book published in the United States. Last February, I walked with him on the snowy streets of New York while we laughed and joked, and I went to a party at his apartment where we danced to Lorde with so many other intoxicated people.
This past summer I invited him to participate in Strange Fiction for PlayGround, and we were working together on various projects related to young literary writers, anthologies, and a thousand other things. I can’t say I regret any of this because I always had the impression that he was a good writer, and that his method of promoting other writers had been crucial in the last four years. Nevertheless I am saddened, it angers me to the point of tears to confront some of the things that Sophia Katz points out in her essay. For example, the idea that he feels that we, female writers, should feel indebted to him for his support. Or the attitude that he doesn’t know how to keep his pants up or his hands to himself, even if given a decisive and unequivocal ‘no’.
Young female writers spend their whole lives confronting accusations and misogynistic remarks: who did she sleep with to get here? who did she blow to get her first book published, to win her first prize, or to get a good review? All these despicable accusations are thrown at women while the men are always free to exploit their fame and privilege to chase a good fuck as if it were some trophy.
What bothers me the most is not just losing my trust in a friend, but the realization that behind the banner of Alt Lit—where there are brilliant publishing houses like Boost House and Civil Coping Mechanisms, and swaggering feminist works by Gabby Bess and Bunny Rogers, and great critiques of gender by Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, and insightful political novels by Noah Cicero and Juliet Escoria—there are still many towering barriers of gender and class to break down.
Alt Lit is synonymous with youth, respect, and hope, and we should not allow these things to be contradicted. The response to Katz’s initiative has been great, and it’s put on the table an interesting debate about gender, power, and creativity. The path that this Canadian poet has shown us is important for everyone, and I am confident that it will help us to get things to where we want them to go and not repeat past dynamics. Literature is meant to help us fight for liberty, not destroy it.