“Why VIDA Matters to Me: Part II, Words are Power (Or Another Rant about Stephen Tully Dierks),” by James R. Gapinski
Preamble (again, in case you missed Part I)
A few months ago, I was talking about the VIDA “count” with a friend-and-fellow-writer. The count has been at the forefront of our editorial discussions this year—The Conium Review journal has a large gender gap, but we’re trying to change that this year and beyond.
In the middle of the conversation, my friend-and-fellow-writer said something like “I feel like, as a woman author, I should care about VIDA, but I don’t. It doesn’t matter to me.”
“Doesn’t matter?” I couldn’t believe it. But over the past few months, I’ve dug deeper. I’ve explored some critiques of VIDA, and I’ve discovered how some writers, editors, and readers consciously or unconsciously determine that underrepresentation and misrepresentation isn’t a ‘big deal.’
I can’t speak for my friend-and-fellow-writer, but I can speak for myself and why VIDA matters to me (and by extension, why the VIDA count is on The Conium Review’s radar).
Part II, Words are Power (Or Another Rant about Stephen Tully Dierks)
While the VIDA count matters to the integrity of literature and books (see “Part I” of this essay), it has deeper connotations too. Words are power. By silencing women, the publishing industry explicitly proclaims that women do not matter. The “important authors” that we read in MFA programs are mostly white men (or maybe not—that depends on your MFA program—but generally speaking, most academic programs venerate a ton of white men alongside tokenistic women and minorities here and there). Men are the ones who currently have the most omnipresent voice, and so we can’t help but pay attention. White men have become the metaphoric “megaphone guy” from George Saunders’s essay “The Braindead Megaphone.” (Yes, I realize Saunders essay isn’t about this topic specifically, but the metaphor fits.) Men have the power. Words are power. Silence is subjugation.
Just look at Stephen Tully Dierks. I can’t write an essay about misogyny in literature without talking about Dierks. It’s on everybody’s minds right now. It’s current. It’s worth mentioning again, because it speaks to the larger problem (not just a problem with “Alt-Lit,” but a problem with the literary community as a whole).
I didn’t know the name Stephen Tully Dierks before September 30th, when VIDA shared a Facebook link to the Gawker article “Hip Alt-Lit Editor Quits Public Writing Career After Rape Accusations.” Since then, I’ve read Sophia Katz’s essay, in which she details the sexual assault perpetrated by Dierks. I’ve read a firestorm of Internet commentary. I’ve read Dierks’s half-assed apology that included way too many supposed excuses for his despicable actions. I’ve read about the other victim who came forward. Whenever something pops up about Dierks, I read it.
Most of the literary community has supported Katz. Many have taken to the Internet to express well warranted outrage. A smaller number of people defended Dierks. While I am all for “innocent until proven guilty,” Dierks’s half-assed social media apology points squarely toward his guilt. In it, he does not deny Katz’s version of events. On the subject of Dierks’s apology, I find one line most revealing. He notes “I clearly gravely misread the situation and Sophia’s actions, words, and silence.”
In Sophia’s account, this silence is evident. Certainly, she is not silent the entire time. She tries to talk Dierks out of it. She says “no” more than once. But she eventually gives up because he keeps pushing and pushing. He is offering her a rent-free place to stay in Brooklyn—difficult to come by—and she has no other alternatives besides the street. He coerces. He pressures. He gives her intoxicants. The entire situation is engineered to throw the balance of power in his favor. She is silenced by his power. She had little space to resist. He forced her, even if he didn’t do it with physical violence.
Dierks says he misread her silence, but silence is not consent. Again, I do not know Dierks, but from all accounts, he is a predator. He invited a very young girl to stay at his place—a girl without financial means to escape and stay elsewhere—he tried to impress her with all his connections, he made her sleep in his bed even though she brought a sleeping bag, he waited for the lights to go out, he ignored her whenever she asked to stop or requested that he put on a condom. He used his power. He took away her capacity to resist. He silenced her.
This is a man who worked as an editor. This is a man who is making decisions on which voices to publish and which to reject. And while he is the ultimate example of a piece of shit editor on everybody’s mind right now, any editor who willfully silences women is perpetuating a community where people like Dierks can thrive under the radar, his abuse going undetected for quite a while.
While there is a lot of outrage floating across the Internet, many only extend criticism to the Alt-Lit scene. This problem is bigger than Alt-Lit. This is a mainstream problem. Maybe editors are more subtle in the mainstream—maybe they don’t coerce young authors like Dierks did—but they perpetuate the underlying culture that made Dierks believe he was simply “misreading the situation.”
This is why VIDA matters. We need to shift the balance of power, and it’s something that needs to be addressed across the board, not just in the Alt-Lit scene. There are gender gaps—and power gaps—everywhere. Voices are being silenced. Certainly, the Dierks case is extreme, and these gaps don’t always lead to rape, but they still lead to marginalization and a feeling of helplessness. The publication gender gap hurts the community as a whole.
Journals need to be part of the solution, not the problem. It’s like Roxane Gay says in her essay “Beyond the Measure of Men,” “If women aren’t submitting to your publication or press, ask yourself why, deal with the answers even if those answers make you uncomfortable, and then reach out to women writers.”
Because we need Dierks (and others) to look at the literary community and see all the empowered, loud, wholly un-silent women. We need him to realize that the literary world is one where he is no longer in control. We can only move toward that goal when women are more widely published.
Talking about Katz, Dierks, consent, and silence is a good start. The conversation has already exploded across social media, and hopefully it will become something deeper and more reflective than simply calling out Dierks. We need to call out the entire mindset that preceded this incident. We need to reflect on the VIDA count now more than ever.