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IMG_9879-300x225Always a cauldron of some fleeting controversy or another, the literary world roiled with a genuinely serious scandal over the past two weeks. A number of well-known writers and editors, including Stephen Tully Dierks and Tao Lin, were accused of sexual or emotional abuse.

One of the flashpoints in the resulting fracas was an essay posted to Hobart  by Elizabeth Ellen. In the piece, Ellen offers her opinion on the ongoing reaction to the scandal.

The essay is difficult and troubling, but well-worth reading.

At its heart, it’s about how difficult it is to accurately judge someone from a distance, even someone like Stephen Tully Dierks.  Ellen also makes a startling confession—that she molested several children when she herself was a child. It’s an incredibly uncomfortable and difficult moment, but the admission makes it clear that Ellen is damned serious; by copping to such a sin (unprompted!), it’s clear that she has something to lose. It was, I think, an unorthodox attempt to empathize with the alleged perpetrators in the face of what at times felt like an online mob.

* * *

Given her unpopular opinion and the subject matter, Ellen knew her essay would not be well-received:

And one last thing: I refuse to be afraid of my fellow women. Of entering into a discourse with them for fear I will say something they don’t like. That’s not what our moms marched for. It’s certainly not what mine marched for. Let’s remember this.

The online reaction to Ellen’s piece was predictable. Self-proclaimed feminists have anonymously disparaged Ellen’s capacity as a mother on her Tumblr site, and I’m sure they’ve said far worse in email. In a widely shared piece, Mallory Ortberg self-righteously lectures Ellen, essentially telling her that she must “atone” for her sins. (There’s nothing odder than one feminist telling another how to live. And that’s the thing, to be righteous you first have to be right.)

Perversely, there were seemingly more negative tweets and comments about Ellen—who simply voiced an opinion—than there were about Dierks or Lin. It seems even feminists see a woman as an easier target.

Worse yet, Ellen has begun to suffer professional consequences. This has gone well beyond what Ortberg disingenuously calls “some Internet yelling.” On her Tumblr page, Ellen posted that Black Lawrence Press “unaccepted” a story it had previously agreed to print. They did so presumably because of her opinions on the controversy regarding Tao Lin, et al.

From an email sent to Ellen by a Black Lawrence employee:

I hate that I have to send this email, but my boss and her board have decided that they would like to remove your story, “Winter Haven, Florida, 1984” from our anthology. They were distressed by your open letter at Hobart. While I didn’t personally agree with everything you had to say, or the way you said it, I do think you had some valid points in your post. I felt that we didn’t HAVE to remove you, but after talking with my editors, this is not the kind of provocative that Black Lawrence Press wants associated with this anthology and the press. I think it took a lot of courage to write that article, and I wish you only the best of luck in the future. I think you’re a powerful writer, and I’m saddened that your fiction won’t be in this anthology, but I hope you understand.

* * *

Think about that for a second: A writer is arbitrarily punished because of their personal opinion on an unrelated matter. If it sounds familiar, it should.

Ellen’s case is incredibly similar to that of Steven Salaita, a university professor who accepted a job from the University of Illinois only to have it revoked after the administration became aware of controversial statements he made about Israel and the recent war in Gaza.

Salaita had already resigned his previous post and was planning to move his family cross-country when he received word that he had been “un-hired.”

The wider academy and the left (myself included) have rallied around Salaita’s case; clearly the university erred. They made an obligation, and they should honor it.  Similarly, Black Lawrence Press should never have reneged on their agreement to publish Ellen’s piece.  Both Ellen and Salaita were punished for their thoughts, but only one is being hailed as an icon of freedom of expression.

That’s inconsistent, but worse than that, it’s wrong. I won’t defend everything Ellen said in her piece, but I will defend her right to speak, to write. If a disagreement on one issue —even one as serious as this—is enough to cause you to write off a person entirely and abjure their work, then you’ve got a pretty flimsy definition of freedom of expression.

* * *

When I was 18, I tried to have a book banned. I was that combination of self-righteous and absolutely ignorant that can only be found in a teenager about to leave for college.

I don’t remember the exact book, but I was offended that it contained ethnic slurs. There was no place in the library for such a book, I argued. The librarian was vehement, arguing that libraries are so vibrant because they are replete with dissenting viewpoints, even those we find repellent.

Years later, I was teaching an introductory English course. The lesson: banned books. In class, my students laughed as I gave some examples of books that had been banned: The Shining, Scary Stories, Harry Potter. I’d outline the reasons each book was pulled: religious objections, obscenities, racism.

I then launched into my admission that I was once a would-be censor. My students were usually surprised, but I pitched the experience as an exercise in skepticism and reserving judgment. I told them that it’s easy to vilify something or someone instantaneously, but it’s a hell of a lot harder if you step back and see yourself amid your own failings first.

Unfortunately, that’s a lesson most of us still need to learn.

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BRETT ORTLER is a writer and editor from the Twin Cities. He is the author of The Fireflies Book , The Mosquito Book and Minnesota Trivia: Don'tcha Know! His other work has appeared in Salon Living Ready, Rattle, Ascent and online at McSweeney’s, among other venues. He is the editor of Knockout Literary Magazine.

3 responses to “Sympathy for the Devil: In Defense of Elizabeth Ellen”

  1. Mike Crossley says:

    This is pretty much on point. And, sadly, there is not much we can do about it. What I mean is, people have a difficult time working in triplicates. Joseph Campbell noted people work better with Yes and No. (Going beyond the text, it’s safe to include Maybe as well). Ellen was working in that difficult area that is not so neat and clean, and you kind of have to be OK with feeling uncomfortable to navigate these areas. I have pretty strong opinions regarding the whole situation, but kept a space open in my mind and spirit for that “other zone” of available thoughts and emotions that are either outside of my current perception, or that are kept at bay as they may not apply to the ongoing formation of my perception.

    I think we have to begin not being surprised at these situations — where writer-folk receive repercussions for what they say and do. In every other industry I’ve worked in, this happens all the time. Especially in the film industry. The only difference is the literature world has largely kept this sort of thing behind the curtain. Pretty brave of Ellen. I don’t know her at all, but yo, this is incredible of her, all the way. In the sense, shit just feels more real.

  2. Ben says:

    I love TNB, I do, but honestly this is really dumb.

    “I won’t defend everything Ellen said in her piece, but I will defend her right to speak, to write. If a disagreement on one issue —even one as serious as this—is enough to cause you to write off a person entirely and abjure their work, then you’ve got a pretty flimsy definition of freedom of expression.”

    Who is denying Elizabeth her freedom of expression or right to speak? This is a takeoff from (an apocryphal) Voltaire quote concerning a book that the church and state were condemning and burning; Elizabeth, meanwhile, wrote a really bad and offensive essay, and many people were offended, and perhaps–very reasonably–don’t want to be associated with her and those thoughts. When people start pulling Fast Machine off the shelves then this essay will perhaps make sense, as will Elizabeth’s bizarre proclamation that we’re living in 1984.

  3. j b nimble says:

    Brett, thanks for this reflection. I saw your comment on this on Facebook, went to read the Black Lawrence public comment and then Ellen’s piece. (Followed by Mallory’s.) I have to say, I was ready to be offended by Ellen’s essay. And I knew it would force me to wonder about Ellen’s free speech rights versus Black Lawrence’s rights to do what they will with their anthology. But Ellen’s essay caught me off-guard. There is a lot to digest there, and reading Mallory’s response makes me think that she did not take the time to really sit with Ellen’s essay.

    Whether or not we agree with Ellen’s points (any or all), it strikes me as a serious piece of writing that forces one to think through the issues involved. Why someone should be punished for that is beyond me. Were it straightforwardly sexist or racist, or even mere apologetics for rape, I might have more sympathy with Black Lawrence. (I would still be unsure of whether they would be right, but at least I would find it a more difficult question.) But Ellen’s piece isn’t that.

    Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for a thoughtful response to this situation.

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