Against Literary Heresy-Hunting

Progressives rightly finger-point at Christian universities’ doctrinal litmus tests that end teachers’ careers for any hint of solidarity with LGBTQ folks or nonbelievers. But it feels as though purity culture is having a moment in left-leaning academic and literary circles too. Just because “wokeness” and “cancel culture” have become anti-diversity buzzwords, it doesn’t mean that we are always fighting the right symbolic battles.

Becky Tuch’s Lit Mag News Substack this week asked, “What should writers make of guidelines that promise to monitor writer behavior?” She quotes a guidelines page, not named in her article but revealed by commenters to be Grist: A Journal of the Literary Arts, which asserts the right to un-publish authors’ work retroactively if the author later acts contrary to the journal’s values. (Note that Grist Journal, a publication of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, is no relation to, another literary publication that runs contests about envisioning climate justice. Someone’s trademark lawyer didn’t do the work.)

The guidelines paragraph in question reads:

Grist is committed to diversity, inclusivity, cultural interchange, and respect for all individuals. In the case of all submitted and/or accepted work, if an author behaves or speaks publicly—or is revealed or accused to have behaved or spoken, even in private—in ways that contradict these expressed values of the journal, then we reserve the right to disqualify an author’s submission, release the author from any contract, and/or remove their work from our archives.

Grist Journal seems to be trying to head off a Guernica situation: A few months ago, that esteemed journal published what I thought was a nuanced essay by Joanna Chen about her work as an Israeli-Palestinian peace activist and the difficulties of that work after October 7. Guernica soon disavowed the essay and pulled it from their website, because some of their staff were outraged by any sympathetic portrayal of Israelis in light of the genocidal bombing of Gaza. Then, Jina Moore, the editor-in-chief who had accepted the piece, quit Guernica in protest of their failure to stand by their editorial decisions. You can read about the whole mess on Moore’s website. Needless to say, right-wing and centrist publications like Washington Monthly and The Atlantic have made hay about this battle of sensitivities.

How does any of this materially help the Palestinians, or whatever group Grist is worried about at the moment? I don’t think Biden or Netanyahu is monitoring staff turnover at university literary journals as a factor in geopolitics.

I’m not at all dismissing the importance of art to move societies away from human rights abuses. Poems by Mosab Abu Toha and the late Refaat Alareer have gone viral as cries from a suffering people. Such works are inspiring protests around the world.

What seems counterproductive is scrutinizing the creedal purity of writers or the institutions who publish them. I’m glad that our business, Winning Writers, has so far not been pressured to put out a “statement” about current events. We’re not big players like Harvard or the Poetry Foundation. We only have two full-time employees and 10 freelancers, but I can’t imagine presuming to speak for everyone’s political views. Still less should the editor-in-chief, governing board, president, or any other top brass believe they represent the hundreds of people who teach or write for them. An institution’s values should be expressed through their actions, not empty manifestos.

The Lit Mag News post and the 100+ comments thoroughly break down what’s problematic about Grist Journal’s pre-emptive cancellation policy for writers. In lawyer terms, it’s vague and overbroad, and doesn’t provide writers with notice or an opportunity to be heard.

Perhaps this all sounds ridiculous. But if I am putting my work, and my career, into these editors’ hands, do I not have the right to know how these matters will be handled? As a submitting writer, what kinds of things might get me disqualified, other than the work itself? Under what circumstances might my work be taken down?

For that matter, are these editors saying that my acceptance here is conditional, that my work will remain on the site only so long as I behave in a way they find acceptable? Am I an employee of this magazine? A representative? An ambassador? Do they have the right to monitor my actions and speech, both in private and in public, because once my work appears in their journal, I am forever and always a reflection of that journal?

Does the same apply to them? If they act in a way that I do not like, if they say something in private that offends me, do I have the same right to nullify my contract? Can I pull my work from their archives because their managing editor has announced their political support for a candidate I despise? Is every publication here in fact conditional, precarious, viable only so long as neither party offends the other?

Funny not funny: When Adam and I read Tuch’s exposé, we decided to tell Grist they could no longer advertise in the Winning Writers newsletter unless they took out this paragraph. That’s how we discovered that there were two Grists, and our actual advertiser,, was not the one that Tuch wrote about!

I’m telling this story because it shows the danger of acting unilaterally on accusations, as Grist Journal’s submission policy asserts the right to do. (“If an author…is revealed or accused to have behaved or spoken, even in private…”! Emphasis mine.) What if we’d cancelled the wrong Grist’s ads and refunded their money without querying first? How unfair and confusing for everyone.

Last point: I think this attitude infantilizes writers. We don’t want or need some random editorial board to be our Jiminy Cricket. We should educate ourselves, write as responsibly as we can, take in feedback from sources we respect, admit our mistakes and “fail better” next time. Similarly, as publishers, we should stand by our authors and explain our judgments even if we wouldn’t do it again in retrospect.

June Links Roundup: Speaking for the Trees

Happy Pride Month! Or, if you prefer one of the other so-called deadly sins, how about Rainbow Sloth Month?

“Diversity leads to resilience, and it is the reason we, and every other living thing on the planet exist,” says Ames Reeder at the Sloth Conservation Foundation.

At the ecology-minded literary journal Terrain, Ana Maria Spagna’s essay “Yes, and… Talking Wings, Queer Ecologies, and the Rights of Rivers” profiles a pair of queer environmental activists who are attempting to give legal rights to some rivers in upstate New York. They belong to a growing global movement to assign “standing”–the right to sue for injuries, or to be recognized more generally as a rights-holding entity under the law–to nonhuman natural phenomena. The movement traces its rationale back to Christopher Stone’s 1972 Southern California Law Review article “Should Trees Have Standing”, which is quite readable for the non-specialist and veers into poetic and spiritual territory by its conclusion.

Essentially, the argument is that our legal system should value trees, rivers, and ecosystems for their own sake, not merely for their economic or recreational use to humans. Their well-being would then have to be balanced against proposed developments that cause pollution or habitat destruction, just the same as any other stakeholder’s property rights or their right to be free from injury. Spagna quotes one of the activists in Talking Wings:

How can we give rights to a nonhuman entity? We do it all the time, they said, with a hint of incredulity. We give rights to states and municipalities, to estates, to infants (who know less than, say, a chimpanzee), and most damningly, if you consider real damage to humans and nonhumans alike, to corporations.

Stone eloquently questions the whole impulse behind our cramped and anthropocentric notions of property rights toward the end of his law review article:

A radical new conception of man’s relationship to the rest of nature would not only be a step towards solving the material planetary problems; there are strong reasons for such a changed consciousness from the point of making us far better humans. If we only stop for a moment and look at the underlying human qualities that our present attitudes toward property and nature draw upon and reinforce, we have to be struck by how stultifying of our own personal growth and satisfaction they can become when they take rein of us. Hegel, in “justifying” private property, unwittingly reflects the tone and quality of some of the needs that are played upon:

‘A person has as his substantive end the right of putting his will into any and every thing and thereby making it his, because it has no such end in itself and derives its destiny and soul from his will. This is the absolute right of appropriation which man has over all “things.”‘

What is it within us that gives us this need not just to satisfy basic biological wants, but to extend our wills over things, to object-ify them, to make them ours, to manipulate them, to keep them at a psychic distance? Can it all be explained on “rational” bases? Should we not be suspect of such needs within us, cautious as to why we wish to gratify them?

…To be able to get away from the view that Nature is a collection of useful senseless objects is…deeply involved in the development of our abilities to love–or, if that is putting it too strongly, to be able to reach a heightened awareness of our own, and others’ capacities in their mutual interplay. To do so, we have to give up some psychic investment in our sense of separateness and specialness in the universe. And this, in turn, is hard giving indeed, because it involves us in a flight backwards, into earlier stages of civilization and childhood in which we had to trust (and perhaps fear) our environment, for we had not then the power to master it. Yet, in doing so, we–as persons–gradually free ourselves of needs for supportive illusions. Is not this one of the triumphs for “us” of our giving legal rights to (or acknowledging the legal rights of) the Blacks and women?

This invitation to shift our consciousness is also expressed in Claire Kohda’s beautiful, disorienting story “An End” in Electric Literature, which is told from the viewpoint of a river observing species extinction and human interventions therein. A sense of foreboding, as in a horror story, is created by the gaps in the river’s knowledge and the alien-ness of its ethical code.

The poet Richard Siken has become a beloved Twitter oracle of late, creating a collective call-and-response poem with his aphoristic answers to people’s advice questions. You can ask him if you should call that guy back, what is the meaning of life, or how to spend less money on groceries. I think the secret of his success is his combination of compassionate acceptance and bluntness. There’s always hope in his answers but it’s not cheap. And he treats every type of question or questioner with equal importance.

@FernandaHofm: @richardsiken how do I make it stop hurting for good?

@richardsiken: You don’t make feelings do anything. You feel them as long as you need to. They go away when you’re done.


@h3ll0t17ty2: richard siken how do I stop being so afraid all the time?

@richardsiken: Some things are scary. Some things only seem scary. Practice distinguishing between them.

In the Spring 2024 issue of BOMB Magazine, Z.L. Nickels interviewed Siken about his forthcoming poetry collection, I Do Know Some Things, a book that came out of his recovery from a severe stroke four years ago. As he does on Twitter, he comes across as a person who is willing to feel deeply and investigate his experiences even when they are devastating. Maybe that’s why he’s become a beacon for others trying to cope with sudden unwanted changes, i.e., life.

On readers’ insistence on conflating the author and the speaker of poems:

People would still ask, “Is this true?” I think they were asking, “Can this happen to me?” and the answer to that is “Yes.”

On his new book’s primary concerns:

In the first poem I wrote, which is the first poem of the book, I considered my death. Other themes arose naturally: What do I know? When is now? Am I a liar, and is that why no one believes me? What belongs to me? How do I make this leg move? What if I can’t make that leg move? And what parts of me died? Truly, a version of me did die, and I had no baseline for the old me or the new me who was writing these poems.

In this exchange, his humility is expressed with such dry wit that it comes all the way round to supreme confidence, like something a British aristocrat would say:

Nickels: This is a selfish thing to say, but I am so grateful you’re doing this. As someone who has closely followed your work, this book really matters. My first thought when I heard about the stroke was, My god, I hope he’s okay. My second was, Oh no. Because there aren’t many writers who are capable of achieving what you have in this book, much less your previous collections. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have your work, and thankfully I don’t have to. But you haven’t published a whole lot of poetry.

Siken: About sixty pages every ten years. I don’t want to waste anyone’s time.

But I think he really means it, because this book was written for himself, out of gratitude and a need to piece his mind back together. I admire that attitude so much.

My neurologist said the fact that I am a painter and a poet is why I recovered. Because of the building of pathways—I already had such weird pathways built on lateral thinking, that continuing to paint and write poetry would help with the neuroplasticity. I made an amazing recovery. I’m lucid, and I can walk, and when I’m rested you can’t really tell I have a limp. I can use my right arm pretty well. So I can make a pretty good recommendation for the power of language and the need for poetry and painting. And maybe I do need to write, but I don’t need to publish and I don’t need to share—and that’s a different thing.

…I needed to write the book so I could figure out who I was. But the idea of having a publication date? That’s weird.

Read some poems from his books Crush (Yale Series of Younger Poets, 2004), War of the Foxes (Copper Canyon Press, 2015), and I Do Know Some Things (Copper Canyon Press, forthcoming 2025) on his website.