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.

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