Essay — From the March 2018 issue

The Other Whisper Network

How Twitter feminism is bad for women

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Can you see why some of us are whispering? It is the sense of viciousness lying in wait, of violent hate just waiting to be unfurled, that leads people to keep their opinions to themselves, or to share them only with close friends. I recently saw a startling reminder of this when Wesley Yang published an insightful and conflicted piece in Tablet called “Farewell to a Scoundrel,” about former Paris Review editor Lorin Stein and the feminist moment.

I teach Yang’s work to my graduate students, so I know a little bit about him. He is a Korean-American man who has written memorably about being viewed as a sexual neuter by the white women in his social circle. Now he is married with a child. Shortly after the Tablet piece appeared, @yoloethics started tweeting:

DAILY REMINDER that the men who can’t for the life of them figure out how to get fucked are more dangerous than those who do.

 

All I want for Christmas is a list of Male Media Virgins!! Having a child does not exempt you from this list, men who direct their repressed sexual rage at women.

In another tweet, she made fun of Yang for publishing in Tablet. After reading these, I was curious about who she was, and discovered that her work had appeared in places such as n+1, Artforum, and Vice, and that in other moods she tweets about her Margiela boots and fur coat; her feed basically mixes the frivolity of Sex and the City with the viciousness of Breitbart.

I wouldn’t normally quote so much Twitter, but the extremes of vitriol unloosed in this conversation find their purest expression there. Some of these seemingly fringe figures are actually writers and editors who publish in places like The New Republic and n+1, who are involved in setting the tone of the conversation; one can very easily connect the dots between their views and those of more mainstream feminists. I have a feeling that if one met @yoloethics or the rest of her Twitter cohort in person, they would seem normal, funny, smart, well read. But the vicious energy and ugliness is there beneath the fervor of our new reckoning, adeptly disguised as exhilarating social change. It feels as if the feminist moment is, at times, providing cover for vindictiveness and personal vendettas and office politics and garden-variety disappointment, that what we think of as purely positive social change is also, for some, blood sport. The grammar is better in these feminist tweets, but they are nonetheless recognizably Trumpian. 

In some ways, if we take the imaginative leap, the world Twitter feminists are envisioning—scrubbed clean of anyone hitting on anyone, asking for phone numbers, leaning over to kiss someone without seeking verbal permission—seems not that substantively far away from the world of Mike Pence saying he will never eat alone with a woman who is not his wife. This odd convergence reveals something critical about the moment: the complicated ways in which we may be snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Part of what bothers many of the people I talked to is the tone of moral purity. As a culture, we seem to be in the midst of dividing ourselves into the flawless and the fallen, the morally correct and the damned. Are the Twitter feminists perfect? Because I know I am not. A former student of mine, Thomas Chatterton Williams, wrote about this strange bifurcation on (of course) Facebook. On social media, he declares,

I’ve come to learn that everyone is perfectly anti-racist, completely woke . . . that every man is a heroic feminist who would have singlehandedly put a halt to all workplace lechery (if only he’d been there!). It’s a good thing to learn this on social media, because in real life I was frequently meeting complicated and flawed individuals.

Inherent in this performance of moral purity is the idea of judging other people before learning (or without bothering to learn) all the facts. Even when we knew little or nothing about what Garrison Keillor did, people felt no obligation to suspend judgment. Instead they talked confidently about what people like Garrison Keillor do, things they thought or imagined that he did, based on unspecified accusations from unknown sources (multiple allegations of “inappropriate behavior”). The absence of details or tangible information invites us to concoct our own opinions and fantasies and speculations based on our own experience of what someone has done to us, or on our impressions of what men in power do.

I am guilty of this behavior myself. Not long ago, I was sitting on a friend’s couch, and she was talking about Lorin Stein, an acquaintance of mine for many years, with a special intensity. She also knew Lorin Stein, who was then still the editor of The Paris Review. Of course, Stein has since resigned under a cloud of acknowledged sexual misconduct. I’m not equipped to investigate or arbitrate acknowledged misconduct or any other allegations that may surface in the future. I simply want to talk about what happened on this couch. My friend was drinking chamomile tea and telling me second- and thirdhand stories about him with what, for a minute, I thought was gusto, but might have been political concern. “I like Lorin,” she told me. “I don’t have a personal stake in this.” She then informed me that he had sexually harassed two interns at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, where he had worked before his Paris Review tenure, leading to hushed-up, sealed settlements. She delivered this piece of highly specific information so confidently that I did not stop and think, even though I teach in a journalism department: Is this factually correct?

As we were talking, I got caught up in her enthusiasm. It’s true that when I thought about the actual Lorin Stein, it was more about words on the page—about his serializing excerpts of Rachel Cusk’s Outline, for example, which I had stopped everything to read. But as she was talking, I was completely drawn in. I found myself wanting to say something to please her. The outrage grew and expanded and exhilarated us. It was as though we weren’t talking about Lorin Stein anymore, we were talking about all the things we have ever been angry about, the ways men have insulted or offended or overlooked or mistreated us, or the way beautiful women are rewarded and then not rewarded. I felt as though I were joining a club, felt a warming sense of social justice, felt that this was a weighty, important thing we were engaging in.

2 According to an FSG spokesperson, there was one “incident of inappropriate conduct” involving Lorin Stein during his years at the publishing house. (He resigned as an editor at large last December.) The spokesperson denied, however, that there had been any complaints from interns or any sealed settlements.

The next morning, I related the troubling new fact of the FSG settlements to a journalist friend. Could it be true? She checked it very thoroughly and called that evening to tell me she could find no truth at all to the settlement rumors.2 I was disgusted with myself for repeating what was probably a lie about someone I liked and had nothing against. What was wrong with me?

3 In his letter of resignation submitted to the Paris Review board, Stein professed to having “dated or expressed a sexual interest in women who had professional connections to the Review—past contributors, interns, and writers who might one day submit work to the magazine.” A member of the board, who declined to be identified, told Harper’s Magazine, “It is my understanding that Lorin did date interns after they were interns, but not while they were serving in that capacity.”

Stein admitted to consensual relationships with writers and employees and women professionally connected to the Review during his time there.3 He admitted to creating the kind of sexually charged workplace that may have been viewed as acceptable during the heyday of, say, the Partisan Review (or George Plimpton’s original Paris Review) but is now recognized as demoralizing and wrong. He vehemently denies that either his literary tastes or personnel decisions were affected by this. It can be hard to disentangle one man and the things he may or may not have done from hundreds of years of sexist oppression. Yet I am reminded of something Zephyr Teachout wrote about the mainstream liberal rush to condemn Al Franken: “As citizens, we should all be willing to stay ambivalent while the facts are gathered and we collect our thoughts.”

In thinking about The Paris Review, I found myself agreeing with an argument of Rebecca Traister’s: “The thing that unites these varied revelations isn’t necessarily sexual harm, but professional harm and power abuse.” Creating a fair workplace is what matters here, and if The Paris Review was somehow inhospitable to women, that is truly disturbing. But something was still bothering me. I couldn’t help noticing that female writers flourished so conspicuously in the pages of Lorin Stein’s Paris Review, especially new or younger women writers. Of the seven prestigious Plimpton Prizes for emerging writers awarded on Stein’s watch, five went to women. One of those women, Ottessa Moshfegh, who was nominated for a Booker Prize a few years after Stein first published her, told me, “Lorin is a brilliant editor, and neither my gender nor his sexuality ever seemed to have anything to do with how our excellent working relationship developed.” Another of the previously unknown writers that Stein promoted, Amie Barrodale, wrote me the following intimate account of his editing a story it took her four years to produce:

He pointed out a major problem I hadn’t been aware of—halfway through the story, when it became emotionally challenging for me to write, all the life and humor drained out of the voice. . . . He pointed delicately to a thing I was afraid to say. He didn’t know what it was, but he knew there was something I was withholding. . . . For me somehow this was impossible to write, but I trusted him and wrote it, and I could immediately see 1) it needed to be there and 2) it’d lost its power over me. . . . One thing he also did was catch me every time I was faking it. He’d underline a false phrase, something contrived with a squiggly line. What I was most grateful for was that he recognized what was great about the story.

Whatever its boys’ club ambience under George Plimpton, The Paris Review under Lorin Stein was devoted to writers such as Ann Beattie, Lydia Davis, Vivian Gornick, and Amparo Dávila. Stein discovered or promoted younger talents such as Emma Cline, Alexandra Kleeman, Isabella Hammad, Angela Flournoy, and Kristin Dombek. When you bury yourself in the issues themselves, it’s clear that The Paris Review was a fruitful and vibrant and professionally useful place for women writers. None of this fits neatly into the politicized narrative. (“Lorin Stein can only view women writers as sexual objects,” a professor who never worked with him told me confidently.) But it is also true. The reality of The Paris Review on a Tuesday afternoon is messier and more complicated and confusing than our moralizing politics would have it.

The night the New York Times broke the news of Stein’s resignation, I was with one of the deeply anonymous women in a coffee shop, and after I left she ran out and caught up to me on the dark street to tell me about it. When I got home, I saw that @MegaMoira had tweeted a photo of the piece with the words, “champagne anyone.” I thought of the email Lorin had sent me when my book on writers’ deaths, The Violet Hour, came out. It was such a strange, private project, but in a few lines he made it vivid again to me, renewed and energized me on a long winter afternoon to sit down and start something new. However one feels about the end of an era at The Paris Review, it doesn’t seem like a time for celebration.

To hold a lot of opposites in our minds seems to be what the moment calls for, to tolerate and be honest about the ambiguities. If we are going through a true reckoning, there should be space for more authentically diverging points of view, a full range of feelings, space to hash through what is and is not sexual misconduct, which is an important and genuinely confusing question about which reasonable people can and will disagree. In the meantime, I take out a copy of The Paris Review, with two women sunbathing on a neon-green beach on the cover, which contains my interview with Janet Malcolm, something Lorin edited and published and pushed to fruition under difficult circumstances. In this interview, Malcolm talked to me about how hard it was to be a woman writer in the Sixties, when The New Yorker gave her a home décor column, and almost talked to me about how hard it was to be a mother and a writer, but said we would have to go to a dark bar for that conversation. I wanted to say to @MegaMoira, let’s save the champagne for later.

I can see how the drama of this moment is enticing. It offers a grandeur, a sweeping purity to our possibly flawed and fumbling and ambivalent selves. It justifies all our failings and setbacks and mediocrities; it wasn’t us, it was men, or the patriarchy, holding us back, objectifying us. It is easier to think, for instance, that we were discriminated against than that our story wasn’t good enough or original enough to be published in The Paris Review, or even that it did not meet the editor’s highly idiosyncratic yet widely revered tastes. Or that a man said something awful and sexual to us while we were working on a television show, and we got depressed and could never again achieve what we might have. And yet do we really in our hearts believe that is the whole story? Is this a complete and satisfying explanation? There is, of course, sexism, which looms and shadows us in all kinds of complicated and unmappable ways, but is it the totalizing force, the central organizing narrative, of our lives? This is where the movement veers from important and exhilarating correction into implausibility and rationalization. (One of the deeply anonymous says, “This seems like such a boring way to look at your life.”)

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