This Is a Long One, I'm Telling You Now
I have a lot of thoughts about The Men, the Lambda Literary Awards, and Twitter. I've tried to get them into something like a straight line.
I should preface all this by saying I know Sandra Newman, the author of The Men. I feel presumptuous calling myself her friend, thanks to longstanding insecurities about whether I’ve bridged the gap between “acquaintance” and “friend” in most of my interactions with others, but we have a friendly rapport, especially on Twitter, where we see each other most. I have significant respect for her as an extraordinarily thoughtful writer, but beyond that experience has led me to consider her an extraordinarily thoughtful person, period.
Thus, if you had heard about the plot of The Men, her forthcoming novel about what follows the mysterious disappearance of everyone with a Y chromosome in the world, and said that you were concerned because from the limited information available the book seemed transphobic, I’d most likely tell you that didn’t sound like the Sandra Newman I know and we should wait until we’ve read the book to make any final judgment.
(I say we because I haven’t had a chance yet to read The Men, although I had resolved to do so even before a public controversy did break out over the description of its plot. Obviously, my respect for her colors my perspective and my inclination to give her some benefit of the doubt, but it doesn’t impair my critical faculties entirely, or at least I’d like to think so. You may doubt that; I understand why you might.)
If, though, you had said something more along the lines of “The Men is going to be a transphobic shitshow” or “why is Sandra Newman writing a transphobic novel?”, I’d more likely respond dismissively or vehemently, perhaps even profanely, depending on your tone, because I would hear that as an attack on a writer I like and admire by someone who hadn’t taken the time to read the book first.
Lauren Hough, who has a closer relationship with her than I do, had read the book, and did respond to people who said it “sounds kinda terfy,” as one person put it, dismissively and vehemently, and, as the conversation went on, profanely. I don’t know Hough, but I saw some of those tweets, and I didn’t see a problem with them, because I shared her belief that people should read books before criticizing or condemning them (especially, of course, a book by someone in whom I place no small faith).
I did not see Hough’s initial responses as transphobic. Blunt and increasingly uncivil, yes, but not even necessarily inappropriately uncivil, and precise in the object of their scorn: people talking about a book they had not read, acting as if they knew with certainty what that book was like. Hough made her criticisms without attributing anyone’s behavior to their gender identity, and she expressed her argument consistently: Read the book before you criticize it.
We’ll come back to this point a little later, so please hold any objections you might have after reading that last paragraph. For now, the plot thickens.
Ana Mardoll, a nonbinary trans fantasy writer (with xie/xer pronouns), obtained a copy of The Men and read it, then shared an extensive analysis of the novel on Twitter. I caught a glimpse of one of xer tweets, and immediately saw that the analysis was detailed enough that I would be spoiled many times over if I read it before reading The Men. So I haven’t read Mardoll’s criticism yet, and therefore I have nothing to say about it at present other than that I look forward to reading it. (I’ve had limited familiarity with Mardoll’s writing prior to all this, but xie’s come up in my timeline often enough, because nearly a dozen people I follow follow and occasionally retweet xer, for me to recognize the name and trust in the thoughtfulness of the writing.)
I want to emphasize this, because it matters: Hough challenged people to read The Men before expressing an opinion about it; I believe in the principle underlying that challenge. I also believe that, having met that challenge, Ana Mardoll deserves to have xer criticism treated with the same attention xie gave the novel. If you tell someone that you will not take what they have to say seriously until they do the reading, and they come back to you and show that they’ve done the reading, you now have an obligation to take what they have to say seriously. You may not agree with it, you may disagree with it vehemently, but if you cannot engage with it as seriously as you expected that person to engage with the book in the first place, you’re the one who ought to shut up now (or, at least, for the time being).
Let’s backtrack for a bit.
Lauren Hough garnered a substantial deal of recognition on Twitter for her skill in creating threaded narratives—long stories, in tweet-sized bursts, that caught people’s attention and held it. The kind of stories that make people quote-tweet the opening lines and tell all their followers to read her, the kind of stories that attracted a large enough audience that the book publishing world took notice. She got a book deal, and published an essay collection, Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing, which has brought further acclaim and increased readership.
A few days ago, Hough revealed that she’d been told, a few weeks back, that she would probably be named as a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, one of the most prominent prizes focused on LGBTQ+ literature. Now, however, she was not going to be a finalist, because the Lambda people had seen the flame wars on Twitter, and informed her editor, who passed the news on to her, that “they grew concerned… and decided not to move forward with her nomination.”
She did not, you might imagine, take this well. “I told them to read the book before assuming the worst,” she wrote. “For this, I was labeled a TERF.”
My initial reaction shared in that anger and frustration, because “I told them to read the book” mirrored what I’d seen of the discourse so far, and cancelling her nomination over those tweets struck me as, I tweeted when I shared her essay, “bullshit.”
Monday, the New York Times weighed in, because a lesbian writer being “silenced” by a literary foundation over accusations of transphobia neatly plays to the media’s current obsession with assigning equivalency to both real and imagined threats to freedom of expression. The Lambda Literary Foundation’s co-executive directors gave the reporter a joint statement:
“In a series of now-deleted tweets, Lauren Hough exhibited what we believed to be a troubling hostility toward transgender critics and trans-allies and used her substantial platform—due in part to her excellent book—to harmfully engage with readers and critics. As an L.G.B.T.Q. organization, we cannot knowingly reward individuals who exhibit disdain and disrespect for the autonomy of an entire segment of the community we have committed ourselves to supporting.”
They did not provide examples of any deleted tweets that informed this decision. Hough said she didn’t remember deleting any tweets. One of the directors went on to say that Hough’s tweets “did not uplift other queer people and these voices.” I seized on that comment and tweeted, “I’m confused as to why someone defending a literary novel from uninformed criticism should ‘uplift [the] voices’ of people who haven’t read the fucking book.”
Remember Ana Mardoll’s analysis? I did, but I also didn’t see any responses that Hough had made to it and, taking her statement that she didn’t remember deleting any tweets at face value, I had doubled down on the notion that Hough had only ever told people who hadn’t read the book that they should read the book. She had not, to the best of my knowledge, and after a brief look for any tweet exchange between them, said anything in response to Mardoll’s criticism.
Various people on Twitter, including Ana Mardoll, soon clarified this matter.
Hough was, in fact, aware of Mardoll’s criticisms, but rather than respond to them, chose to belittle the effort Mardoll had put into reading and reflecting on The Men, implying that Mardoll was piggybacking on her reputation to raise donations from readers when, she wrote, “I haven’t the first fucking clue who this person is.”
Then there was a whole other batch of tweets in which Hough initially misgendered Mardoll and grew increasingly exasperated and belligerent when people pointed this out. Some people perceive it as a deliberate slight; it struck me as sloppy and inattentive rather than intentionally transphobic—but whether it was transphobic or not, it underscored what looked more and more like an intentional lack of respect toward Mardoll, who had done what Hough had demanded, and deserved better.
To quote myself:
If you tell someone that you will not take what they have to say seriously until they do the reading, and they come back to you and show that they’ve done the reading, you now have an obligation to take what they have to say seriously.
Hough clearly had not taken Mardoll seriously or treated xer with respect, and I could, at this point, no longer stand by the assertion that Hough had only ever told people who hadn’t read the book to read the book, so I deleted the tweets in which I’d said that (although I did screenshot them, to provide context for acknowledging them as mistakes). I do still believe the underlying principle in Hough’s initial argument—read The Men before making up your mind—and I rather wish she had lived up to her end of the bargain implicit in that argument, which was to accord people who read The Men the same respect they had accorded Sandra Newman by reading it.
(Sidebar 1: Does all this merit Hough’s removal from consideration for a Lambda? Part of me still wants to say no: Literary prizes should reward literary merit, not polite behavior; Hough may have treated several trans people and their allies unkindly, and treated Mardoll in particular shabbily and hypocritically, but Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing didn’t. Yet I have to admit I’ve excluded writers from my personal reading list for their extra-literary behavior in the past, and that I’m doing so right now, too, so even though I might consider it an unliterary decision on their part, I really can’t blame the Lambda Literary Foundation for exercising similar judgment.)
(Sidebar 1A: Furthermore, although I think the Lambda could probably have done a better job of showing the receipts on their decision to remove Hough from consideration—and I think they would have been much better served if nobody had been dropping hints to publishing insiders, far in advance of the official announcements, about who was likely to secure a nomination, which would have provided significantly less opportunity for Hough’s failure to make the final cut to ever have become an issue—I recognize the foundation’s explicit acknowledgment of its effort to at least attempt to create an environment that’s supportive of the LGBTQ+ community from a holistic perspective, not just a literary one.)
(Sidebar 2: Not that it’s come up, but I think we can reasonably preemptively dismiss any notion that trans writers went out of their way to push Lambda into dropping Hough from consideration. You’d have to argue that they knew she was in the running for an award, then went to Lambda advocating for her removal from the shortlist. Even after we acknowledge the lack of radio silence through which Hough learned of her impending nomination, one would like to believe the shortlists weren’t common gossip fodder throughout the literary community. It seems more plausible that one or more people directly involved in the decision making process, who may or may not be trans, saw what was happening on Twitter, raised the matter internally, and concluded that Hough’s conduct toward her trans critics did not align with Lambda’s values.)
(Sidebar 3: You know what else hasn’t come up, in either the Times article or any of the subsequent articles at outlets like Slate and Reason and LitHub? Mardoll’s criticism of The Men, and Hough’s disrespectful brushoff of it. And, look, I admit I opened my mouth without knowing what the shot was, but I find it curious that nobody claiming to approach the subject with a journalistic rigor so far has come across that material yet… and, trust me, Mardoll and other trans observers have noticed this lacuna in the coverage as well, and the ways the media’s portrayal of Hough is shaped around it.)
Anyway, as I mentioned a few paragraphs back, Ana Mardoll was one of the people who wound up bringing me up to speed on everything that had transpired, and xie and I had what felt like a useful exchange. You may recall from even further back in the newsletter that I said we’d get back to my thoughts on Hough’s earliest “blunt and increasingly uncivil… but not even necessarily inappropriately uncivil” insistence people should read The Men before talking about it, and how I agreed with that principle.
“Spreading statements about how we shouldn't criticize a book we haven't all read… suggests that we can't see and respond to red flags in a blurb and cover,” Mardoll told me. Even before reading The Men, xie continued, xie and other trans people identified “red flags” in the initial presentation of the book, and determined “the premise and blurb and cover and title were all transphobic.”
“You need to stop saying that people who didn't read the book therefore didn't know what was wrong with it,” xie concluded. I confess I’m still not 100% convinced of that, because I believe in making a distinction between “what one knows” and “what concerns one.” But I also came to recognize something else: If someone comes to you (and by “you” I also mean “me”) and says, “I’m concerned about this book, because I’m seeing a lot of red flags here,” and you tell them to read the book before coming to you with these problems, you have already failed to address the fear they are trying to express to you—and while you might consider that fear unwarranted in these particular circumstances, perhaps you would do well to remember that you enjoy a certain privileged security that allows you to indulge in philosophical distinctions while they’re processing existential threats from a pervasively hostile culture.
Perhaps, in such situations, you would do well to try to listen with greater empathy, and speak with greater circumspection, and just in general center their perspective for a moment rather than your own, particularly if you believe yourself, beyond the immediate disagreement, to be an ally and want them to believe it of you as well.
Perhaps, instead of abruptly telling people to come back when they’ve read the book, you might talk to them in that moment. You could always come back to the book when you’ve both had a chance to read it. Or you might have something else to talk about by then, if you’ve managed to connect with that person rather than pushing them away. You might not have managed that. You can always try to do better the next time you find yourself in a similar situation.
In conclusion: I’m still planning to read The Men soon, not least of all to see how Sandra Newman handles the theme of “everybody with a Y chromosome vanishes from the face of the earth.” I’ll do my best, as I read it, to consider how trans readers might see certain elements of the novel—as Newman has said she made a concerted effort to do while she was writing it, in one of the few public comments she’s made before bracketing herself off from the cascading criticisms. I’ll have, at a minimum, Ana Mardoll’s observations to reflect on after my own reading, and maybe we’ll have an opportunity to discuss our reactions. Something like 20% of the people I follow follow Lauren Hough, so the odds someone I know will retweet her seem substantial, and I guess I hope the flame wars subside and the personal narratives resume.
In the meantime, after a forceful reminder of how easily I can get in my own way as I work on becoming a more consistently thoughtful and empathetic person, someone more likely to do good rather than doing harm, I’ll keep trying my best, and with luck enough people will continue to see enough potential in me, even when I get things wrong, to offer constructive good-faith feedback rather than going in for the kill. And I’ll make an effort not to default to going in for the kill so readily myself.