My phone notification light blinked green. I was in bed, having coffee, on a weekend getaway in Seattle, my Christmas present from my boyfriend: “SO PROUD OF YOU! Congratulations for being on The List!” “What is it?” my boyfriend asked. It took some clicking around to figure it out. I found my way to a Medium.com post, “The Shitty Women of Literature List.” The post began, “A while back, there was again circulating the Shitty Men in Media List…” The author continued blame-shifting away from abusers in the media and instead excoriating the women who call out abuse, and he vowed to do the same in literature. “These individuals have thus become very powerful in independent literature’s scene and many fear ever getting on their lists or their radar for fear of their careers being stonewalled and their peers shunning them out of the same fear.” I laughed. I got up and showered. We went about our day, exploring Seattle. I periodically checked my phone when a cluster of messages piled up. Some messages were angry on my behalf, friends who were upset I’d been named to “The List.” Many were congratulatory. One was an invitation to a Facebook Group celebrating “Shitty Women.” Another was a message from a male writer who vowed to buy all of the books written by “Shitty Women” if we would bring them to his booth at AWP.
There’s a saying, “If everybody loves you, you must be doing something wrong.” I’m glad to report that there are at least thirty-five women in the literary world who are doing things right according to this now-defunct Medium.com post, which named us “Shitty Women of Literature.”
I won’t speak for the other shitty women because it’s up to them to share their own stories if they want, but I’m happy to reflect on what I’ve done to be a shitty woman. Let’s journey back through my shitty womanhood. There are many instances, far too many to write about, but this should give you an idea.
In 2015 a writer showed me an essay she’d written about being sexually assaulted at the AWP conference. “I believe you / it’s not your fault” had just taken off, and like many women, she was wondering if she should share her story. A writer whom she’d thought of as a mentor had offered to let her use the extra bed in his hotel room. He knew how prohibitively expensive AWP hotel rooms are, and he was looking out for her the way people had looked out for him early on in his career.
And because we’re in the age of #MeToo, I’ll let you figure the rest out for yourselves. Some key plot points involve him offering her an anti-anxiety pill and a massage so she could sleep, if you need more clues before guessing what happened. (In the end, she decided not to release the essay. The pressure of dealing with retaliation was too much, and she was upset that I had given her name to an editor and named the perpetrator.)
Just months later another young writer told me how excited she was about getting her author pictures done for her first poetry collection. She’d received a very generous offer from an author who promised to bring his camera to AWP to do her author photos for free. As in any well-constructed plot, generous-room-sharer-sexual-assault-poet and generous-photographer-poet were one and the same. Did I tell the young author about generous-photographer-poet’s history of sexual assault? Yes! Does that make me a shitty woman? If it does, so be it.
I have even been a shitty woman as recently as Tuesday. My fiction writing students were divvying up stories to discuss from our anthology, and I shared my relief that a certain story had not been chosen. “Why?” they asked. Because no one had chosen the short story in our book by a man who has psychologically, sexually, and physically abused his students over the years. Why won’t I teach his work? He’s a great author. I used to revere him. I used to show his online lessons to my students. But then I learned the truth about him and stopped. Why, if his stories are so enviably good? Why can’t I separate the art from the artist as the author of the “Shitty Woman” list demands I do? Because I teach one state away from this man, and if I teach his works, if I show his lectures, my students will take this as an endorsement. They might apply to his school. They might become his next victims. If keeping my students from suffering this fate makes me shitty, I guess we can replace all of my author photos with the poop emoji for the rest of eternity. I’m fine with that.
Other writers I refuse to support have lured minor students into sexual relationships, been arrested for child pornography, molested children, called other women writers and me “cunts” for liking Sharon Olds’ Stag’s Leap, told me that men of his generation knew how to treat women like me, and racked up scores of other offenses. Are some of these issues more serious than others? Yes. But this is what the author of the Shitty Women list doesn’t understand. We each get to decide where to draw the line and what lines we will and will not cross. And I’m still trying to figure out where the lines are for me. Some victims want to keep their stories secret, and this often translates into putting other women in danger.
The women named are not some secret cabal of literary editors, or a coven of lesbian poets-witches. We are individuals who get to make decisions on who we will and will not associate with, promote, and publish. What the author of the list doesn’t understand is that it’s a badge of honor to be on the Shitty Women of Literature List. If calling out rapists, abusers, and sexual harassers to keep other authors safe makes me shitty, so be it. I’m not in the game of telling anyone what to do. Publish these men, or don’t publish them. Invite them to your schools to fraternize with your students or don’t. It’s your choice. What I will admit to doing is informing others, so they can make their own decisions, and I will continue keeping other writers around me safe. #ShittyWomenUnite