Litblog Roundup is a bi-weekly overview of topics, trends and highlights from the literary Internet. In this roundup I’m going to break from my usual habit of writing a round-up about many things. This roundup is about a single issue that has had discussions going all over the literary Internet.
The irons have barely cooled from the fire of controversy surrounding the incident when Kenneth Goldsmith appropriated the autopsy of Michael Brown. Now, another important conceptual writer has committed an act of racially charged appropriation. Here’s what happened.
Writer Vanessa Place began a project on Twitter to retype text from the novel “Gone With the Wind.” As I’ll explain in round-up fashion, the project gained enough notoriety to warrant a summary on Wikipedia.
Place has received criticism for her Twitter account, on which she is retyping text from the 1936 novel Gone with the Wind. The account’s page includes a stereotypical African American mammy image as its banner. A film still of Hattie McDaniel as the character Mammy in the film version of the book is also used as the account’s profile picture. Though some have argued that the account is meant to scrutinize stereotyping and racism in Gone With the Wind, many have accused it of being racist and petitioned for Place’s removal from the 2016 Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference committee on these grounds. On May 18, 2015, the AWP announced that Place had been removed from the committee.
The work, its criticism, and the resulting discourse has been called by at least one blogger, “The Vanessa Place Affair.”
It’s an exercise in what the author calls “iterative poetics” as explained in an essay that introduces the project, and which is linked from the Twitter profile, entitled “On Not Repeating ‘Gone with the Wind.'” The very first sentence of that essay says “Iterative poetics can serve as a mode of questioning political authority while remaining conscious of the danger that one might be merely repeating what one seeks to overthrow.” The danger is real.
A petition began on Change.org in protest of the work. It was led in part by an organization called the Mongrel Coalition. As the petition points out, Vanessa Place was a member of the panelist selecting committee for the 2016 Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference. The petition advocated her removal from that position, on the grounds that “we do not believe it is right that she have a hand in deciding whether panels having to do with race and identity will be a part of next year’s AWP.” The petition was successful. The AWP decided to remove Place from the committee.
One of the voices that inspired the petition was that of Shane McCrae. In an interview with The Stranger’s blog, McCrae responds to Place’s justification and explains his own response to the work.
The Stranger: Place’s justification is: “Some art offends, and sometimes it is the job of art to be offensive because the world art mirrors and moves is offensive.” The use of the imagery, she says, is in the service of revealing the racism of the text.
Shane McCrae: 1. Although I agree that it is sometimes the job of art to be offensive, that doesn’t justify every offense. In fact, the idea that it is the “job” of art to be offensive doesn’t actually justify ANY offense. It is the job of a professional assassin to kill—does that justify the assassin’s murders? 2. The racism of Gone with the Wind doesn’t need to be revealed—it is apparent.
Is this a black-and-white case of poetic justice where a fair reprimand was given to the author of an offensive work? It could seem that way.
Appropriation is a Dirty Word
As critics are increasingly fond of pointing out, the literary avant-garde has begun to resemble conceptual art with its collage and appropriation. Conceptual writing is full of examples of this, but appropriation is problematic. It’s one thing, in a free world, to engage in an open process of borrowing, remixing and exchange of ideas. Unfortunately, we do not live in a free world, and in that world, like it or not, valuable things have been “appropriated” by some, at the expense of others without their consent. Those things include rights, dignity, property, and sovereignty; and human beings themselves have been appropriated at times in this world. Appropriation has a dirty history. Anyone who engages in an act of appropriation, for any reason, should be cognizant of that history. However, no one holds an exclusive license on that cognizance, because we do live in a world that includes the free exchange of ideas.
At Harriet, CA Conrad wrote an article “Kenneth Goldsmith Says He Is an Outlaw,” and compiled responses from a number of writers. Cathy Park Hong said:
I also speak with deep frustration that in the wake of Kenny Goldsmith and Vanessa Place’s antics, we are also called upon to respond, to react. I am sick of reacting because yet again, we have been relegated to the role of chorus. Even if Goldsmith or Place is being put on trial, as their defenders like to accuse us of doing, they are still the center of the drama.
Je suis Vanessa
Ron Silliman is the author, among other notable works, of an epic “weblog focused on contemporary poetry and poetics.” He posted an entry into the discussion, likening the petition and its results to censorship, or worse.
They may think they are being “culturally sensitive,” but they are in fact siding with the very same forces that, for example, banned ‘degenerate works of art’ during the Nazi regime. There really is no middle ground. None.
The petition to remove Vanessa Place from the AWP Committee was not the only public effort to reprimand her work. Shortly after Silliman’s post an open letter went out to the organizers of the Berkeley Poetry Conference.
We are surprised that, despite a recent successful petition signed by over 2,000 people demanding her removal from an AWP 2016 subcommittee, Place will still be presenting at the Berkeley conference. We understand that Place and her supporters have explained the Gone With the Wind project is meant to confront other white people with their own racism and that the fact such a performance might be painful or traumatic for people of color, particularly Black people, is an intended side-effect. We are uninterested in this defense of a project directed at white audiences which explicitly relies on the creation of Black suffering. Moreover, we are uninterested in “free speech” defenses of this project that ignore the inevitable impact of such minstrel performances on the participation of Black and brown students and community members in the conference. We recognize Place’s project, and the resulting discussions around it (that often re-traumatize Black and brown people), as a direct attack on us and not a ground for productive dialogue.
Perhaps in response to this letter, the Berkeley conference has since been redesigned to be “a new multi-day event around readings given by and seminars led by several poets of color of national reputation.”
It’s difficult to conclude a round-up of a discussion that has no tidy conclusion, so in closing I’ll just offer a quote and a link. The quote and the link are both from Collin Kelley, who seems wowed by the scope of all this.
So much has been written across the literary blogosphere and social media about the Vanessa Place controversy since my last post on May 17 that I can’t possibly link them all here. Go ahead and Google her name and you’ll spend the better part of a day trying to digest it all. However, I will link you to Atticus Review, which has just published a series of essays on Place.
I’ve done what I can to round it all up, but what do you think of the Vanessa Place affair?