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 Grist.org, 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, Grist.org, 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.

May Links Roundup: Have a Good Time with Bad Art

Happy May, readers! I have been traveling a lot, writing a little, and gluing things together. Remember how, during the pandemic, those of us stuck at home went through a Little House on the Prairie phase of cooking and handicrafts to stay grounded in our bodies in our suddenly virtual social world? My Instant Pot is gathering dust, but my collage habit remains. The pleasure and challenge of amateur art-making is defending a space where self-evaluation doesn’t enter into the process. Though trying to refine my craft in terms of composition and editing, I’m working hard to keep ambition and comparison out of it. Save that for my literary career!

Caroline Osella, an anthropologist turned freelance writer and novelist, shares similar sentiments in her tongue-in-cheek Substack post “Make Shitty Crafts”. In elementary school, everyone’s encouraged to try painting, singing, and writing poems. But soon this democracy of creativity gives way to the academic Sorting Hat of “talent” and competitive testing that narrows students’ access to the creative professions. Social media threatens to recreate this joy-killing dynamic once we start comparing our quilts and apple pies to perfect photos online. Osella describes how her experiments with fabric dyeing and crochet made her happy no matter how irregularly they turned out.

There was a good slice of humour involved for us all in our house, especially at the beginning, as a kind of transitional mood over the period when everyone’s hopes for gorgeous outcomes to my studio time transmuted into pure and indifferent absorption in activity for me and into a sorrowful letting-go for everyone else. But, unlike those ironic millennials, deliberately setting out to do horrible stuff was never the initial goal. Product – satisfactory or disappointing as it might be – quickly faded out of any reckoning altogether, as I found myself completely taken up in process and flow and gradually developing a kindness towards myself, towards my lack of skill and towards everything that resulted. There’s no archness or camp irony at work here.

On his literary Substack, The Common Reader, Henry Oliver (Second Act: What Late Bloomers Can Tell You About Reinventing Your Life) takes up the question “Is Mary Oliver a good poet?” (And does it matter?) Like Stephen King or Rupi Kaur, Mary Oliver–presumably no relation to Henry?–is a frequent focus of the eternal rivalry between popular, accessible writers and obscure niche weirdos like yours truly. Henry quite convincingly argues why Mary’s work should not be reduced to the quotable platitudes that make the rounds online. She dares to be sincere and straightforward, to such an extent that her work has a transcendent quality, becoming a clear window through which we view the nonhuman world. Citing her “wild and precious life” poem, Henry notes:

If you only quote the last two lines, as happens so often, then you are taking this poem out of context. We do this to Kipling too, another victim of the “middlebrow” label. But he’s still a great poet. If is still a great poem. Just because lots of people turn a poem, or a quote, into the poetic equivalent of muzak doesn’t mean the poem is in fact muzak. Read this poem again. Mary Oliver is asking that final question in a very different manner to the way it is usually asked out of context.

I suppose it’s a special and rare irony to have your work be so popular that it’s underestimated. This past week, visiting the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, I was in the actual presence of paintings that have become so widely reproduced that it’s hard to see them with fresh eyes: Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”, for instance, or Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon”. It takes real self-discipline to sit down in front of these paintings, empty the mind of what you think you know about them, and let them speak to you. I couldn’t do that very well with the Van Gogh because it’s quite small and was surrounded by fans taking iPhone pictures of it, but its juxtaposition with Georges Méliès’ goofy 1902 silent film “A Trip to the Moon” brought out the painting’s previously unnoticed resonances with early science fiction.

The Summer 2023 issue of online lit mag Tyger Quarterly includes poet S. Yarberry’s imagined “interview” with William Blake. Both the questions and the answers are playful and visionary in a manner befitting the author of “Tyger! Tyger!”

Would wings be an improvement for the human body?

Flying is very fun although it’s not bad to save some fun things for the afterlife.

What two historical characters would you like to bring together?

God is a funny historical character and not one I’ve always liked. If everyone who believes in God (“God,“ of course, can and should be interpreted broadly, creatively) could meet God (which to me means to meet themselves more truly, more ardently), they might have a new outlook on the way things could be. That might be nice.

Billy Lezra’s visceral personal essay at Electric Lit, “I Don’t Know How to Live If My Anorexia Dies”, resists a predictable recovery arc in favor of examining how our strengths may be intertwined with a mental illness or addiction that people tell us to overcome. A self without this fundamental trait can feel too hard to imagine. I resonated with this passage in particular:

In her essay “Writing Shame,” Elspeth Probyn draws a connection between the act of writing and the experience of shame. She suggests that writing and shame go hand in hand because there is “a shame in being highly interested in something and unable to convey it to others.” As writers, we are required to wrestle with the question:what if no one cares about what we care to uncover? Or worse, what if people reduce and reject what we disclose?

Yes–my self-hating voice doesn’t say I’m a bad writer, it says “Nobody cares about what you care about.” It’s not imposter syndrome but weirdo syndrome.

Lezra’s author bio took me to Rough Cut Press, the queer lit mag where they are editor-in-chief, and this interview with inspirational nonbinary author and social media influencer Jeffrey Marsh. Marsh’s Buddhist-inspired advice helped me get through some difficult family conversations this week.

In an interview with PBS, you invited the interviewer to describe you in a word, and he said “light.” And then you said: “Well, you just described yourself.” I was curious about how you came to this understanding–that you are a mirror.

I realized quite a long time ago that my mission in life is to draw out what needs to be healed in people. Sometimes that is a great thing if they are in a place where that is what they want. But sometimes it gets ugly: I draw out their bigotry or whatever they need to get over in order to have peace in their lives. And they rebel, which is understandable. But my mission doesn’t change. What I’m here to do doesn’t change. And what I hope to be is a bookmark for unconditional love and acceptance until people realize that unconditional love is actually within them and has been the whole time. I’m always pointing people toward the realization that whatever they see in me is because they have it already.

I would like to ask you about anger. You write: “At its best, anger is a call to fairness and a hand stretched out in your direction, an invitation to honor how much you care.” How do you distinguish between generative anger and destructive anger?

Yes–what we might call righteous anger versus run-of-the-mill hate. To me, I think they’re one and the same. I’m going to give you a very non-binary answer: constructive and destructive anger both spring out of a sense of injustice. I would imagine that someone hateful hates me because there is some sense that my freedom is not available to them, which is an injustice: that I’m getting attention, that I deeply love myself, and that they’re not allowed to. And that sense of injustice creates a lot of anger, just from what I’ve observed. But anger can be a source for good because there’s a lot of injustice that ought to be overturned in this world. Anger is a friend. Anger is trying to tell you something. Jesus got very angry in the Bible, famously. And that story, as far as I understand it, is about injustice. So anger is human. Anger is a kindness. For so many of us who have been traumatized, the worst thing we can think of is inflicting trauma on other people. We tend to associate anger with one or both of our parents being very traumatic, violent,  hateful, mean, being the chaos. And if you break anger away from those associations, it really is a story of injustice and sensations in your body. So anger can really be an invitation.

A word I’ve seen surface in your work is “nonviolence.” What does this idea mean to you? 

I’m committed to nonviolence both internally and externally. And as we were discussing before, you almost can’t have one without the other. You can’t do activism to end the violence in the world without ending the internal violence as well.

What does it look like to be nonviolent with yourself?

Unconditional love. These phrases get thrown around and I’m guessing some people reading may be rolling their eyes. But what I mean is: even if something happens that doesn’t go well, even if you have feelings, you have trauma, you have things that are coming up…can you love yourself in every single situation? To me, judging yourself, hating yourself, those voices inside your head saying, “Why’d you do that?”, “They’re going to laugh at you,” “You’re so stupid”– that’s internal violence. And if you’re going to commit yourself to nonviolence and commit yourself to be nonviolent in every possible situation, that is a wide-open invitation for life to bring in things that may challenge you because you’ve committed to facing challenges.

Marsh’s latest book is called Take Your Own Advice. It’s about learning to honor your own needs as an empath or trauma survivor. Added to my long wishlist!

Also from Electric Lit, I recommend Laura M. Martin’s salty essay, “Fake Authenticity Is Toxic, and So Are Iowa-Style Writing Workshops”. In it she slams the encounter-group model of writing workshops where the author stays silent while their classmates gang up on them with feedback. She compares it to a meet-up series she tried, Connection Games, whose social norms ended up pressuring participants to share vulnerable feelings more quickly than wanted to. “Unnerving people by oversharing and demanding reciprocal vulnerability” is at best untrained group therapy, at worst a technique for pick-up artists to neg women.

The game assumes honesty from others; it requires trusting what they say over your own impressions…

In both writing workshops and Authentic Relating, participants are expected to share deeply personal information with people they don’t know and may not even like or be comfortable with. Both spaces require vulnerability without providing the room to acknowledge discomfort or push back against assumptions…

“Authenticity” has become code for ignoring the impact of our behavior on the people around us, being unattuned to their responses. Others will be freer, the guidelines state, if they don’t have to worry about your “unspoken needs.”  But a lack of concern about the feelings of other people isn’t authenticity, it’s immaturity…

I hated writing workshops, but I also believed they were necessary. How could a method used by dozens of universities for over seventy years be wrong? Once, I voiced concern to other members of my cohort. They said they found the criticism valuable, but after graduation, most of them stopped writing entirely.

If we make people feel unsafe, we aren’t seeing their true selves; we are seeing their responses to threat. Forcing personal disclosures and giving unsolicited “feedback” puts us in a state where self-reflection is impossible. Who can work on self-improvement when they’re under attack? Safety is a necessary prerequisite for connection and growth. It must come first.

April Links Roundup: Contested Histories

Happy cruelest poetry month, April, etc.

Speculative fiction pioneer Samuel R. Delany, who is still going to gay sex parties at age 80, wants you to stop treating the terms “literary fiction” and “high art” as synonymous. One is a genre description, the other is a value judgment. He explains in this 2019 interview with John Plotz at Public Books:

SD: …There’s a reason why the term “science fiction” jelled around 1922.

JP: So that makes Frankenstein not science fiction?

SD: No.

JP: Making The Time Machine not science fiction.

SD: With all due respect, I think that’s a crock of shit. They’re gothic novels. And the gothic novel is a perfectly good and reasonable genre. There’s no point in snatching it out of one genre. The gothic novel has enough problems maintaining its own dignity.

JP: You use the word paraliterary a lot.

SD: The paraliterary genres in the mid-20th century were specifically those that if you asked someone on the street, they would say: That’s not literature. That’s science fiction, westerns, mysteries, comic books, pornography, for example. Now, I think any of those can rise to very high art. The fact that it is a separate genre means that it has its own way of becoming. That there are people who can do something with it, and then there are people who don’t do very much with it.

JP: But the point of the classification would be that, even if someone becomes great in that field, it’s not like they earned the title of literary.

SD: Yes, although there are some writers who have—Theodore Sturgeon, for example, who I think is just one of the great writers of the mid-20th century and whose collected stories create one of the best portraits we have of the world from that time through to the end of the century. And some of it was science fiction, some of it was very borderline science fiction, but it’s a great art. I would much prefer to see him in a Library of America edition than Ursula Le Guin: whom I liked personally very much, but don’t think was anywhere near as interesting a writer.

I agree, it’s weird that no one talks about Sturgeon these days, because he was such a big deal when I was devouring every book in my high school library’s sci-fi section in the 1980s. I recommend his novel More Than Human, about a found-family of people with various paranormal abilities and cognitive impairments who together make up a superhuman gestalt consciousness.

A historian friend sent me this provocative long read from the London Review of Books, “The Shoah after Gaza” by Pankaj Mishra. According to Mishra’s account of post-WWII Jewish identity formation, the first generation after the Holocaust did not want to make this great trauma and humiliation central to their self-understanding as Jews. It was only in the 1970s that Zionists within and outside Israel started to emphasize the Holocaust as a moral trump card to silence criticism of how the Palestinians were treated.

[Israeli Prime Minister Menachem] Begin, who had organised the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in which 91 people were killed, was the first of the frank exponents of Jewish supremacism who continue to rule Israel. He was also the first routinely to invoke Hitler and the Holocaust and the Bible while assaulting Arabs and building settlements in the Occupied Territories. In its early years the state of Israel had an ambivalent relationship with the Shoah and its victims. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, initially saw Shoah survivors as ‘human debris’, claiming that they had survived only because they had been ‘bad, harsh, egotistic’. It was Ben-Gurion’s rival Begin, a demagogue from Poland, who turned the murder of six million Jews into an intense national preoccupation, and a new basis for Israel’s identity. The Israeli establishment began to produce and disseminate a very particular version of the Shoah that could be used to legitimise a militant and expansionist Zionism.

…Primo Levi, who had known the horrors of Auschwitz…and also felt an emotional affinity to the new Jewish state, quickly organised an open letter of protest and gave an interview in which he said that ‘Israel is rapidly falling into total isolation... We must choke off the impulses towards emotional solidarity with Israel to reason coldly on the mistakes of Israel’s current ruling class. Get rid of that ruling class.’ In several works of fiction and non-fiction, Levi had meditated not only on his time in the death camp and its anguished and insoluble legacy, but also on the ever present threats to human decency and dignity. He was especially incensed by Begin’s exploitation of the Shoah. Two years later, he argued that ‘the centre of gravity of the Jewish world must turn back, must move out of Israel and back into the diaspora.’

Current rhetoric about the uniqueness of the Holocaust, Mishra writes, prevents us from calling the genocide in Gaza by its true name. This is not to deny the unspeakable suffering of the Jews under Nazism, but to question the political uses to which it’s been put. In fact, this very point was made by Jewish critics of ethnic cleansing in Palestine in the 1960s-80s.

In 2024, many more people can see that, when compared with the Jewish victims of Nazism, the countless millions consumed by slavery, the numerous late Victorian holocausts in Asia and Africa, and the nuclear assaults on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are barely remembered. Billions of non-Westerners have been furiously politicised in recent years by the West’s calamitous war on terror, ‘vaccine apartheid’ during the pandemic, and the barefaced hypocrisy over the plight of Ukrainians and Palestinians; they can hardly fail to notice a belligerent version of ‘Holocaust denial’ among the elites of former imperialist countries, who refuse to address their countries’ past of genocidal brutality and plunder and try hard to delegitimise any discussion of this as unhinged ‘wokeness’. Popular West-is-best accounts of totalitarianism continue to ignore the acute descriptions of Nazism (by Jawaharlal Nehru and Aimé Césaire, among other imperial subjects) as the radical ‘twin’ of Western imperialism; they shy away from exploring the obvious connection between the imperial slaughter of natives in the colonies and the genocidal terrors perpetrated against Jews inside Europe.

One of the great dangers today is the hardening of the colour line into a new Maginot Line. For most people outside the West, whose primordial experience of European civilisation was to be brutally colonised by its representatives, the Shoah did not appear as an unprecedented atrocity. Recovering from the ravages of imperialism in their own countries, most non-Western people were in no position to appreciate the magnitude of the horror the radical twin of that imperialism inflicted on Jews in Europe. So when Israel’s leaders compare Hamas to Nazis, and Israeli diplomats wear yellow stars at the UN, their audience is almost exclusively Western. Most of the world doesn’t carry the burden of Christian European guilt over the Shoah, and does not regard the creation of Israel as a moral necessity to absolve the sins of 20th-century Europeans. For more than seven decades now, the argument among the ‘darker peoples’ has remained the same: why should Palestinians be dispossessed and punished for crimes in which only Europeans were complicit? And they can only recoil with disgust from the implicit claim that Israel has the right to slaughter 13,000 children not only as a matter of self-defence but because it is a state born out of the Shoah.

Jewish Currents had an interesting article last month about Israel’s dependence on underpaid Palestinian labor. Jonathan Shamir’s “Between Exclusion and Exploitation” details how the state is balancing competing pressures from security hardliners and Israeli businesses. Give them just enough work permits to keep the economic frustration from boiling over into violence, but not so many that they become an organized labor force who want equal rights. Meanwhile the BBC reports that enterprising Israelis are already planning beachfront resorts in Gaza once it’s cleared of its pesky inhabitants.

For some in the Israeli cabinet, the Palestinian territory – now drenched in blood – is ripe for resettlement. That includes Israel’s hard-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir – a settler himself.

In late January, he made his way through a packed conference hall, slowed by embraces and handshakes. He was among friends – about 1,000 ultranationalists pushing for a return to Gaza at the event entitled Settlement Brings Security.

Mr Ben Gvir, who favours “encouraging emigration”, was among a dozen cabinet ministers in attendance.

“It’s time to go back home,” he said from the stage, to loud applause. “It’s time to return to the land of Israel. If we don’t want another 7 October, we need to return home and control the land.”

At the Yale Review, Paisley Currah surveyed two new books about the anti-trans backlash from notable queer theory writers: Judith Butler’s Who’s Afraid of Gender? and Jules Gill-Peterson’s A Short History of Trans Misogyny. Butler focuses on the intellectual incoherence of arguments for an immutable binary, while Gill-Peterson takes a materialist approach, looking at how gender and racial classifications are invented to subordinate certain populations.
Gill-Peterson finds the psychological approach, which Butler exemplifies, useful but partial. It might explain violence against individual trans women, but it cannot account for why trans misogyny initially arose as a violent instrument of governing. Trans panic began with an assault in colonial and settler states on what was perceived as sexualized femininity in male-bodied people. The psychological phenomenon that motivates individual violence did not precede state violence but followed it…
As scholars have demonstrated from a variety of angles, it has been politically and economically expedient throughout history to deem certain populations improperly gendered and sexually corrupt. These designations provided chattel slavery and vulner­able mobile labor for capital and granted states the opportunity to consolidate their sovereignty by unleashing immense violence on these groups. Sylvia Federici’s work, for example, recounts the social, political, and economic losses women experienced with the emergence of early capitalism, which relegated women to unpaid domestic labor. In a similar fashion, Gill-Peterson outlines how the dispossession wrought by slavery and colonialism shunted trans-feminized people of color into cities, where they monetized trans femininity through the service economy and sex work.
Something that stood out to me from this article was the link between transphobia and hatred of personal freedom. This is our supposedly liberal Pope Francis: “Releasing identity from the grip of the body leads to a ‘radically autonomous’ conception of the individual as one ‘who can choose a gender not correspond­ing to his or her biological sex,’ as the Vatican explained in its 2019 document ‘Male and Female He Created Them.'” Stop and think about that. Why is autonomy such a dirty word? Is God a narcissistic parent? The issue isn’t even what we do with our freedom, but the affrontery of having freedom at all.
Besides which, choosing to actualize our queerness is not this caricatured break from all communal accountability or formative interpersonal influences. That’s not humanly possible. What we’re doing is leaving communities that don’t let us grow, and joining different ones. That’s what the church can’t tolerate.

In Memoriam: The Poet Spiel

Friend of the blog Tom W. Taylor a/k/a The Poet Spiel passed away on March 1 at the age of 82. In recent years he had suffered from vascular dementia, though he remained active with his creative work. His most recent major publication was the retrospective anthology of his visual art and writing, Revealing Self in Pictures and Words (2018). He is survived by his longtime partner, Paul Welch.

Spiel was a prolific, irreverent, multi-genre artist whose oeuvre included poetry of gay male love, lust, and childhood trauma; vivid animal prints and graphic designs inspired by his travels in Africa; and gritty stories about trailer-park elders and war veterans. His aesthetic could be shocking, satirical, or grotesque, but these techniques were always directed at inspiring empathy for the downtrodden and outrage about American inequality.

The bio he provided for a 2022 retrospective at the Sangre de Cristo Arts and Conference Center in his native Pueblo, CO reads:

Internationally published artist/author Tom Taylor aka The Poet SPIEL (b. 1941) savors the past, dares the future, swallows the present; steady hand, open heart, countercultural, passionate, sardonic, sometimes absurd.

As a child, the artist’s temperament was already edgy and precocious. For survival in the farm world he’d fallen heir to, making art allowed him to discover that he could freely create his personal child-view of a complicated world where everyone was bigger and smarter than he. Amidst his 8th decade on earth, coping with losses associated with predementia, art is the friend which has withstood the petty and the foolish, the graceful, the garish, and the grand of a diverse career in the arts.

As a child, Taylor discovered he could make a sunny picture, a sad picture or a pretend picture. He could define the ME of that moment—happily wishful, pissed off, and lonely, hungry for something he did not know. Making art, as work, as play, as sustenance and medication, has rescued him from drowning in the chaos of his troubled and hungry mind, destined to express the manic-depressive disorder he’d inherited from his mother’s blood. A family curse, indeed; but one with coping tools he’s acquired through introspection and decades of talk therapy so he is able to work it through by painting or writing it’s discomfort to more easily recognize it, then, better cope with its horrors. It’s taken him a lifelong pursuit to become reasonably competent at understanding why he is the way he is and how to accept his Self.

Taylor considers making art to be his best medicine and his safe place.

I was honored to feature Spiel’s artwork on the cover and section title pages of my most recent poetry book, Made Man (Little Red Tree, 2022). He enthusiastically accepted me into the brotherhood of queer male writers. Here’s some bonus art that didn’t make it into the book.

Enjoy these highlights from the poetry he’s shared at Reiter’s Block over the years. “birdchild” was his favorite among his many poems. I have a soft spot for “queers for dinner”.

“a suite of dirty pictures”

“The Baptism” and “Touching”

“birdchild” and “witness”

“Absent Member”

“queers for dinner”

“Reading ‘Sexuality Beyond Consent’ with My Cat” and Other Recent Publications

Sexuality Beyond Consent

It is I, your favorite groomer, and Theodore “Big Pussy” Cavalieri DiMeow, here to share my latest publications!

My poems “Satisfaction” and “Reading ‘Sexuality Beyond Consent’ with My Cat” were published in Action, Spectacle (Winter 2023). I’m honored to share space in this issue with dozens of fine poets including Denise Duhamel, Koss, Rodrigo Toscano, and Eliot Khalil Wilson.

Reading “Sexuality Beyond Consent” with My Cat

the polymorphously perverse nips at my heels.
no, Theodore! in the fishbowl
of the office, the analyst dabbles

a claw in slippery waters. Dr. Saketopoulou:
affirmative consent assumes a rational subject
who doesn’t tear open
bags of raw chicken, who knows what’ll make him sick
of his childhood. Theodore: rrrrr

part-object, infantile desire attaches to feet
like the old ball-n-chain
they taught us was love and kittens.
it’s all over the skin like fur,
attachment’s barbed tongue
supposed to clean us
of saying Yes to No. Theodore,

down! is not a safeword
but a shot we both
didn’t see coming, the future’s needle
that’ll make you perfectly

compliant in my arms. more and more and more
says Dr. Saketopoulou. who wants to eat my eyeballs
when i die. who’s a good boy.

****

In other news, two poems from my Waste-Management Land series about “The Sopranos” appeared in Lammergeier, Issue 16 (Winter 2023): “Kill Your Darlings” (for Christopher Moltisanti) and “Commendatore” (for Tony Soprano). This issue’s theme was “Party at the End of the World,” because the magazine is going on hiatus. A lammergeier is a bird that eats bones–something that Tony and his crew could have used when disposing of bodies at Satriale’s Pork Shop! The magazine also ran an interview with me as their featured poet for this issue.

Jacqueline Boucher: Your poems are ekphrastic interactions with The Sopranos. How did you arrive at The Sopranos as source material? What drew you to this as a poetic project?

Jendi Reiter: Where else is a short, balding, oversexed trans man with a hot temper and mommy issues going to find himself represented on television? Every one of those New Jersey goombahs is a dad bod style icon…

…Mafia stories are a more colorful, but not really exceptional, illustration of the idolatry that permeates human society. Every institution, if we’re not careful, ends up perpetuating itself at the expense of its members’ souls and happiness. That institution could be religion, the family, the nation, the workplace — anything we mythologize in order to justify sacrificing people to it. I like to say that The Crown is just The Sopranos with posher accents.

Before I transitioned, I thought I would be a David Bowie gay or an Errol Flynn as Robin Hood gay. As testosterone did its work, I turned into George Costanza from Seinfeld instead. Is it terrible to say I learned how to perform masculinity from The Sopranos? Not the sexism or violence, but a certain aesthetic, flamboyant without being effete, not young or pretty but confident in my power. Walk like Tony, dress like Silvio, be as loyal a husband as Johnny Sack. And try not to get pushed overboard from a yacht.

Read the whole interview, and find out what my favorite bone is, here.

February Links Roundup: Do You Know You’re a Rat?

The groundhog may have seen his shadow today, but did he recognize it as himself?

You may have noticed the cute “rat selfies” making the rounds on social media last month. CBC Radio has the backstory about Canadian artist Augustin Lignier, who built a photo booth for his rats Arthur and Augustin to make a point about the addictiveness of social media. The critters were rewarded with food for pressing the camera lever, but soon took pleasure in the action for its own sake.

Arthur and Augustin produced dozens upon dozens of selfies, trying out different angles like real social media pros. But Lignier says they didn’t seem to get any fulfilment from the images themselves.

“I try to show them the images on the screen, so directly after they took the picture, they can see their own selfie,” he said. “But they don’t recognize themselves, you know.”

Philosophers might well debate whether this is a cognitive limitation or a form of enlightenment. The joy is wholly in the act of creation, not the judging and self-promoting ego. For us human artists, that kind of present-moment focus would be a relief, at least some of the time!

I upgraded to the paid subscription to the Straight White American Jesus podcast because I’m obsessed with their lively combo of theological and political analysis of the Christian Right. But their cult-busting mission also extends to the left-wing wellness culture whose paranoid views end up converging with QAnon on topics like vaccines and gender-affirming care. I recommend their July 2023 crossover episode with Conspirituality podcast hosts Julian Walker and Matthew Remski.

I thought of that episode when reading this Alexandra Middleton essay in Electric Literature on Jacqueline Alnes’ memoir The Fruit Cure: The Story of Extreme Wellness Turned Sour. “When so much seems unknowable about the very body you live in, it feels nice to stand on a firm platform made from rights rather than wrongs, even if the very platform itself is a false reality,” Alnes writes about how she fell for extreme diet fads after being struck with a mysterious neurological illness. “Thinking about how many people are failed on a regular basis by U.S. health care systems, it feels totally valid that someone would click on a link to fast for 30 days to cure their diabetes, which I react viscerally to on surface level. But on a human desperation, I want to feel well and these systems are failing me, charging me thousands of dollars a month for very little care, level? 100% get it.”

Ky Schevers writes about a similar example of the horseshoe effect–radical feminists adopting reactionary views on gender–at her trans rights blog Health Liberation Now! Schevers has had an unusual life path, first identifying as a trans man, then becoming a detransition activist, and finally breaking with that community and denouncing their cult-like practices. She now identifies as transmasculine and genderqueer, with she/her pronouns, according to her Wikipedia page. Her longform article “‘A spiritual war in a way’: How Detrans Radical Feminists Influenced WPATH” goes into great detail about how her former community helped introduce stricter gatekeeping into transgender healthcare. Some money quotes if you don’t want to read the whole thing:

Though many [detrans radical feminists] are disillusioned and distrustful towards therapists and other medical professionals and may view the medical system as a whole as part of the larger patriarchy, they’re still very willing to influence it in whatever way they can, especially if they think it will lead to less people transitioning. Many did had negative experiences with medical providers during their transitions but instead of working to improve care they believe that medical transition or even the whole medical system is irredeemable and needs to be shut down and replaced with some kind of alternative healthcare. They’re similar to other people who had negative experiences with healthcare who end up in alt-health cults, who also often end up believing in conspiracy theories and/or reactionary ideologies…

…Gatekeeping only makes sense if you think you can reliably develop a process that will correctly sort out “real” trans people from people confused about their gender. But what if trans people, even those with intense dysphoria, can be psychologically manipulated just as much as any other group of people? Why would trans people be immune to conversion practices or cults?

Following the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack in Israel, there’s been a disturbing amount of groupthink among Jews and those who claim to be our allies. The state of Israel is assumed to represent the values and interests of the Jewish people, and criticism of the former is deemed prejudice toward the latter. I welcomed this contrary perspective from Seth Sanders at Religion Dispatches: “Despite Conflation of Israel with Judaism, Anti-Zionism Is More Kosher Than You Think”.

For 2000 years Jewish prayer has hoped ardently that the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael) would soon be redeemed by God and led by His Messiah; some even made pilgrimage to visit or dwell with others in the Holy Land. But there is surprisingly little evidence that Jews also always longed for a sovereign State of Israel (Medinat Yisrael) or to be a Middle Eastern political power. It turns out the idea may be shockingly recent, but its novelty is hard to see because we stand on the other side of such a radical transformation in thought. The shift from Holy Land to sovereign secular state has been rendered almost invisible.

…[T]he greatest Jewish philosopher of the Enlightenment, Moses Mendelssohn, wrote in 1770 that “The Talmud forbids us to even think of a return to Palestine by force. Without the miracles and signs mentioned in the Scripture, we must not take the smallest step in the direction of forcing a return and a restoration of our nation.”

It turns out that opposition to a Jewish state isn’t an isolated theological quirk but a central conviction among Jews for most of the history of Rabbinic thought. It’s contained in the Talmud itself, expounded by Rashi (the most important Jewish Bible interpreter, whose interpretation every Jewish Day School student learns first), and detailed by Maimonides, arguably Jewish tradition’s single most influential thinker…

This Messianic view is anchored in the Talmud, which says that the Jewish people must swear to keep faith in God’s plan for the world. The messianic end, when God will redeem all of reality, is a goal so desirable as to be like a bride in waiting for marriage. Thus it is in a mystical commentary on the Song of Songs that Israel is first commanded to swear three oaths: not to “ascend the wall” to where the Messiah (the Bride) waits, not to “rebel against the nations of the world,” and not to “force the End [times].”

Meanwhile, in our nation of so-called Judeo-Christian values, a lot of our food suppliers (including brands with “progressive” vibes like Whole Foods) are taking advantage of modern-day slave labor. AP News reports: “Prisoners in the US are part of a hidden workforce linked to hundreds of popular food brands”.

Intricate, invisible webs, just like this one, link some of the world’s largest food companies and most popular brands to jobs performed by U.S. prisoners nationwide, according to a sweeping two-year AP investigation into prison labor that tied hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of agricultural products to goods sold on the open market.

They are among America’s most vulnerable laborers. If they refuse to work, some can jeopardize their chances of parole or face punishment like being sent to solitary confinement. They also are often excluded from protections guaranteed to almost all other full-time workers, even when they are seriously injured or killed on the job.

The goods these prisoners produce wind up in the supply chains of a dizzying array of products found in most American kitchens, from Frosted Flakes cereal and Ball Park hot dogs to Gold Medal flour, Coca-Cola and Riceland rice. They are on the shelves of virtually every supermarket in the country, including Kroger, Target, Aldi and Whole Foods. And some goods are exported, including to countries that have had products blocked from entering the U.S. for using forced or prison labor.

Many of the companies buying directly from prisons are violating their own policies against the use of such labor. But it’s completely legal, dating back largely to the need for labor to help rebuild the South’s shattered economy after the Civil War. Enshrined in the Constitution by the 13th Amendment, slavery and involuntary servitude are banned – except as punishment for a crime.

That clause is currently being challenged on the federal level, and efforts to remove similar language from state constitutions are expected to reach the ballot in about a dozen states this year.

Some prisoners work on the same plantation soil where slaves harvested cotton, tobacco and sugarcane more than 150 years ago, with some present-day images looking eerily similar to the past.

Discovered via poet [sarah] Cavar’s newsletter, this essay by Rachael Allen in the journal Too Little/Too Hard challenges the association of “Difficult and Bad” in how we critique writing. Allen talks about dual consciousness as a person of working-class background in literary academia, and argues that ideals of “accessible” writing may underestimate the self-taught intelligence of housecleaners and laborers like her father. When such voices do make it into mainstream publishing, they’re pressured to perform a simplified and traumatic life story that will flatter the benevolence of upper-class readers. “There is a pervading, top-down and patronising mythos of the ‘general public’ or ‘general reader’ – an idea peddled about who can tolerate what under the premise that general audiences aren’t able to manage complicated concepts, formally or linguistically innovative books, or other challenging works, precedents for what is deemed to be accessible set by the middle-class anti-intellectuals that decide it.”

Also on the topic of literary gatekeeping, I recommend this piece in Chicago Review, “Small Press Economies: A Dialogue” by Hilary Plum and Matvei Yankelevich. They call on indie bookstores, review outlets, and distributors to stop disadvantaging small press books in their economic models and attention. I can attest that these barriers are very real.

HP: There’s a failure to understand small press and indie status as a political status and responsibility. For example, look at IndieBound, an organization that represents independent booksellers across the US. They promote a short list of new books every month, selected by indie bookstore staff—a coveted honor that can help launch a book nationally. Understandably, indie bookstores and sites like IndieBound emphasize the importance of independence: you should buy from the brick-and-mortar, rather than from Amazon, and support local community and economy. You should make a little sacrifice on price to protect something you’d miss if it were gone.

But the vast majority of the books IndieBound promotes and celebrates are published by the Big Five. The same is true at too many indie brick-and-mortars. Their uplift of independent, noncorporate business stops at the door—they ask you to buy indie and pay more, but that’s largely not what they do.

MY: So how is that store serving its readers? If you’re a reader and small press books aren’t on the shelf, you’re going to buy what’s on offer. But let’s say you’re into locally and responsibly farmed food and your co-op only carries Cal-Organic, wouldn’t you be concerned?

HP: If you don’t support local farmers, they disappear. People understand that and get why they should buy produce at the farmers market. What’s keeping readers from supporting small presses, and the diverse communities they serve, in similar terms?

MY: It seems to me they can’t see it that way because those presses are hidden from view by structural and economic barriers. On either side of the barriers, institutions, corporations, and small presses themselves often pretend these barriers don’t exist—they’re normalized by the market. Very few literary consumers know that their beloved local indie bookstore is (with very few exceptions) beholden to corporate distributors. Few can imagine what’s missing from those shelves and therefore from their potential reading lives. What’s missing is countless titles from 400 SPD presses, and who knows how many others that don’t have distribution at all.

Nature Poetry by Duane L. Herrmann and Samantha Terrell

Two of our prolific Winning Writers newsletter subscribers recently sent me great poems that I wanted to share with you. Duane L. Herrmann is a Kansas poet, farmer, and essayist about the Bahá’í faith. We often compare notes about the weather when he sends me his publications news for the newsletter. In this new poem, he describes cutting down an unusual dead tree before snowstorm season.

SAVING THE FENCE

Tree with seven trunks,
all dead,
like spread fingers,
or an open fan,
against the sky,
but some falling.
More will fall
across the fence
with destruction
unless…
until…
brought down
with purpose
which was, eventually,
done.
Now, vacant space
opens the sky
with stubs remaining.

****

Samantha Terrell‘s newest poetry collection is Dismantling Mountains (Vellum Publishing). From the book blurb: “Terrell uses innovative and traditional poetic forms to shine a light on social and ecological issues, allowing the reader to become part of conscious change. An internationally published poet with a global perspective, Terrell moves naturally between themes, from writing her own creation myth, to motherhood, nature, war, and poverty and abundance.” Samantha promotes her fellow poets on her blog Shine, which features a new author every 2-4 weeks. I loved the unique marriage of hot and cold imagery in the poem that she’s allowed me to reprint below.

LUMIERE

Snowball sun
requests an audience
with our eyes.

Insistently, she presses her glassy
winter white bosom
against the backs of

soldier spruce and
mighty maple’s
bare branches–

forcing great flashes of
her soul through gaps, to
glimpse us.

Reiter’s Block Year in Review: 2023

I finally feel cuter than my cat. Photo by Ezra Autumn Wilde; shirt by Robert Graham; body by Pioneer Valley Plastic Surgery.

2023 was another year of huge spiritual and material shifts. I am now a certified Priest of Witchcraft, having completed Year Two of the Temple of Witchcraft Mystery School in September. I manifested the three big things I’ve been working towards for years: top surgery, adopting my own cat, and a publisher for my second novel, Origin Story, which will be out from Saddle Road Press this summer. In case you missed it, my essay “Double Incision Diary” in Solstice Lit Mag describes how my witchcraft practice made my surgery a sacred experience.

Theodore “Big Pussy” Cavalieri DiMeow lives for snacks.

Our family visited Los Angeles, Cape Cod, Boston, and New York City this year. Shane has become the star pupil at Hilltown Sled Dogs, a camp where young people learn to train Alaskan Huskies. I wish they operated a junior high school! Shane’s other happy place is Home Depot. He is teaching me how to use a leaf blower and a power drill.

Adam and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary with tickets to Barns Courtney‘s rock concert at Irving Plaza in Manhattan. It was a Dionysian experience, with the energy of a pagan religious revival. We didn’t go in the mosh pit, though.

I did not publish many poems this year, but I wrote a lot of weird new ones about butts. There’s still time to sponsor me for 30 Poems in November. We raised over $75,000 for immigrant literacy and job-training programs at the Center for New Americans! I achieved my personal goals of raising $500, writing 30 poems, and avoiding my novel.

Some books that made an impact on me this year:

Psychoanalyst Avgi Saketopoulou’s provocative book Sexuality Beyond Consent: Risk, Race, Traumatophilia (New York University Press, 2023) restores mystery and risk to our encounters with one another through limit-pushing sex or controversial art. Saketopoulou proposes that we should not pathologize trauma survivors for seeking out states of “overwhelm”. Wounds have an erotic charge, and going towards this taboo experience can free up our energy for new ways of processing what cannot be cured. It’s liberating to acknowledge that there’s no undamaged state to get back to, because then we can move forward without so much fear of contamination–what she calls “traumatophobia,” or the goal of avoiding triggers at all costs. Therapists are not immune from pushing a patient toward a tidy but illusory closure because of their own discomfort with witnessing trauma.

In fiction, I’m currently enjoying The Best Mystery Stories of the Year: 2021, guest-edited by Lee Child. This series curated by Otto Penzler and The Mysterious Bookshop has been hit-or-miss for me, with some years’ entries stuffed with sad literary stories with a crime in them, rather than real whodunits. This edition will satisfy fans of old-school detection, and also has a good gender balance of protagonists and writers. If you’re feeling more literary, check out King of the Armadillos (Macmillan, 2023) by my fellow St. Ann’s School alum Wendy Chin-Tanner. Based on her father’s life story, this bittersweet novel follows a Chinese immigrant teen in the 1950s who’s sent to a leprosy hospital in Louisiana, and his father and brother left behind in Brooklyn, who must balance traditional family duties with the forbidden loves offered by the freedom and anonymity of America.

2023 was an encouraging year to be an old guy. Henry Kissinger died at 100, bringing joy to the world. Charles III was finally crowned at 75, with Camilla by his side. The guy paid his dues. But “The Crown” is still boring since Princess Di is gone.

“And now, at last, I shall be King of Engl–“

Spooktober Reading Roundup

I love horror. Not gore, so much, but the creepy stuff. Give me dark family psychology (gee I wonder why), cursed objects from dusty archives, the uncanny blankness of our modern built environment and the soulless things lurking beneath its plastic surfaces. Lately I’m especially drawn to historical atrocities with a supernatural twist, a sub-genre where a lot of writers of color are currently making their mark.

I read every horror anthology I could get my hands on in the 80s and 90s, mostly from school and public libraries because our family was broke. I knew I was “movin’ on up…,” as The Jeffersons theme song went, when I could afford to buy the annual Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror trade paperback for $25.

Nowadays I get most of my literary scares from NetGalley or thrift stores, a nice mix of old and new. Honestly sometimes the most chilling aspect of these pulp paperbacks is how much sexism and homophobia you could get away with in the 1990s.

Certain flavors of horror don’t appeal to me, but this is my personal taste rather than an aesthetic pronouncement. I don’t usually pick up zombie stories because (I assume) they will be gross and violent. Same for serial killers, whose psychology is not as interesting as they themselves think it is. I can’t picture myself as a character in a post-apocalyptic survival novel, because it’s drearily obvious that I would immediately die from falling into a hole, just like I do in Minecraft every time my son demands that I play. Or else I’d be the person killed and eaten by my starving companions in the first week for complaining too much about the lack of flush toilets.

With respect to horror fiction based on real-life historical injustices, I find these books uniquely satisfying because they have a purpose beyond momentary thrills. I learned about the Negro Travelers’ Green Book from Lovecraft Country. Victor LaValle’s cosmic horror Western Lone Women, one of the best books I read this year, taught me about the diversity of 19th-century frontier homesteaders. Often, the terror and suspense in these books arise from oppressive forces that persist in the present day. The ghosts and monsters, on the other hand, may be a powerless group’s unlikely allies. If cosmic justice isn’t forthcoming, at least coding these stories as horror is refreshing in its honesty, compared to the whitewashed narratives of progress in our “realistic” history books.

A standout in this category is Tananarive Due’s The Reformatory, coming out Oct. 31 from Gallery/Saga Press. Set in rural Florida in 1950, it’s based on a horrendous “reform school” where one of her ancestors perished as a teenager. Robbie, the 12-year-old son of a Black labor activist, is sent there on trumped-up charges to bring his father out of hiding. The sadistic warden takes a special interest in the boy because he can see the ghosts of other young inmates who were killed by beatings, rape, and hard labor. Capturing the ghosts will allow the warden to cover up his crimes. In return, maybe he’ll let Robbie go free. But the ghosts are going to make Robbie a counter-offer that he’s afraid to refuse.

This week in Jessica Dore’s Tarot newsletter, I came across a citation to Saidiya Hartman’s essay “Venus in Two Acts”, which is a meditation on the simultaneous impossibility and necessity of reconstructing the voices of sexually exploited female slaves. Hartman’s remarks about the archives’ “libidinal investment in violence” resonated with themes in The Reformatory, where the warden keeps a secret stash of photos of the boys he’s abused. Robbie and his allies hope to use this evidence against their tormentor, yet they know there’s no guarantee that the images will inspire empathy, let alone effective action from the authorities. The archive is contagious and uncontrollable as the Necronomicon, titillating the white gaze, while infecting Black viewers with further traumatic images.

Comedian and horror movie director (a combo that makes sense if you think about it) Jordan Peele is the editor of Out There Screaming: An Anthology of New Black Horror, just published last week. This one was a mixed bag, for me, with some amazing stories and others that didn’t have enough of a point, but I recommend checking it out anyhow. Tananarive Due contributes another solid tale based on Jim Crow history, this time about Freedom Riders seeking supernatural aid to fend off white supremacists. Nnedi Okorafor’s elegiac story of a Nigerian-American haunted by an Old World deity contains a wry moment when two white Karens in her neighborhood see the monstrous figure in her driveway and demand that she show them her parade permit! You may see the twist coming in Terence Taylor’s virtual-reality nightmare “Your Happy Place” but it’s no less horrifying, because you know that if the technology existed, America would happily sign onto this method of extracting prison labor.

Also out this month, Raul Palma’s A Haunting in Hialeah Gardens (Dutton) is a tragicomic ghost story about an impoverished Santeria priest in Miami who promises to exorcise his debt-collection lawyer’s McMansion in exchange for loan forgiveness. The book is both a Dickensian satire of capitalism and a poignant exploration of survivor guilt, as the priest learns that some emotional debts must be lived with, not expunged.

A pulp anthology that deserves to be rediscovered is Women of Darkness (Tor/Tom Doherty Assocs., 1988), edited by Kathryn Ptacek. Intentionally feminist without being didactic, this collection of horror stories by then-contemporary women writers holds up better than its male-dominated counterparts from this era. Lisa Tuttle’s haunting yet humorous tale “The Spirit Cabinet” reminds me of Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch” in how even a nice husband can dismiss his wife’s perceptions, with fatal consequences. Kit Reed’s “Baby” explores the darker side of the all-consuming bond between mother and child. Elizabeth Massie’s grotesque “Hooked on Buzzer” deals karmic revenge to people who exploited a disabled young woman.

From the same period (and batch of tag-sale paperbacks), I enjoyed Shadows 6 (Berkley Books, 1983), edited by Charles L. Grant, and Supernatural Sleuths (Roc, 1996), edited by Martin H. Greenberg…but with the caveat that both include some cringey sexism and ethnic stereotypes. Some of the new-to-me authors whose work I especially liked were Leslie A. Horvitz, Jack Ritchie, and Lee Killough.

The anthology Dark Fantasies (Legend, 1989), edited by Chris Morgan, evokes the gritty and despondent vibes of Thatcherite Britain, with contributions by Ramsey Campbell, Nicholas Royle, Tanith Lee, Lisa Tuttle, Ian Watson, and others. In a lot of these tales, you’re not sure if something supernatural is happening or the characters have had a psychological breakdown, but either option is suitably unsettling.

Out of Tune, Book 2 (JournalStone, 2016), edited by Jonathan Maberry, is an anthology of horror and dark fantasy stories that each take inspiration from a spooky folk song or murder ballad. Books organized around a gimmick tend to be uneven in quality but this one, in my opinion, was consistently strong. Contributors include Cherie Priest, Delilah S. Dawson, and David J. Schow. Pretty sure I got this one at the NecronomiCon Providence vendor hall in 2017. The Young Master has graduated from “Paw Patrol” to “Wednesday Addams” (and not a moment too soon) so the stars may align for a family trip to NecronomiCon next August.

Just another Sunday afternoon in Northampton.