The Talented Victim Is Not the Point

Americans will always seek out, discuss, and be moved by art that is messy, tense, and chaotic, whether the censors of any moment like it or not.

Someone in a hoodie works at a computer, with the background covered in black and green computer code.
Kacper Pempel / Reuters

About the author: Conor Friedersdorf is a California-based staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

Pity the fiction writers trying to make art in the era of social-media mobs. Start with one in particular, “a nonbinary human … who loves to dream and create.” Last week, this young writer asked on Twitter, “You know how there are sensitivity readers, courses, and guidelines for writing outside your own experience? Can there be courses and advice for writing one’s own experience?” This young writer used to believe that “writing about my marginalizations and my own personal experience will be okay”—no more. “I have learned that is not the case!” this young person observed, fretting that, without meaning to do harm, “I might be writing my gender wrong.”

What made this young person fear that honest writing about their own gender identity could be “wrong” and hurtful, rendering it not “okay”? Watching a trans author get dragged for unorthodox art.

Let me back up. Recently, Clarkesworld, a monthly science-fiction and fantasy magazine, published a short story by Isabel Fall titled “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter,” an allusion to a viral meme from 2014 that sought to mock and parody claims about transgender identities. The story attempts to subvert that critique, reclaim the phrase, and explore trans identities.

After experiencing vicious and personal attacks online, Isabel Fall asked that “Attack Helicopter” be taken down. Call it a self-cancellation. “The recent barrage of attacks on Isabel have taken a toll and I ask that even if you disagree with the decision, that you respect it,” Neil Clarke, the magazine’s editor, later explained in a statement. “This is not censorship. She needed this to be done for her own personal safety and health.”

Clarke revealed that “Isabel was not out as trans when this story was published,” but outed herself under pressure to mount a defense against the false claims of detractors, an outcome he called “very disturbing.” As for the work of fiction itself, “The story had been through multiple revisions over many months and it had been seen by sensitivity readers, including trans people,” he noted.

The story remains available via the Wayback Machine and other sites where people opposed to the removal reproduced it. Like all worthwhile fiction, no summary fully captures what it achieves, but a sense of its sci-fi premise and explorations of gender identities can be gleaned from this short excerpt:

Generations of queer activists fought to make gender a self-determined choice, and to undo the creeping determinism that said the way it is now is the way it always was and always must be. Generations of scientists mapped the neural wiring that motivated and encoded the gender choice. And the moment their work reached a usable stage—the moment society was ready to accept plastic gender, and scientists were ready to manipulate it—the military found a new resource.

Armed with functional connectome mapping and neural plastics, the military can make gender tactical. If gender has always been a construct, then why not construct new ones?

My gender networks have been reassigned to make me a better AH-70 Apache Mystic pilot. This is better than conventional skill learning. I can show you why. Look at a diagram of an attack helicopter’s airframe and components. Tell me how much of it you grasp at once. Now look at a person near you, their clothes, their hair, their makeup and expression, the way they meet or avoid your eyes.

Tell me which was richer with information about danger and capability. Tell me which was easier to access and interpret. The gender networks are old and well-connected.

They work.

Various other passages offer highly particular characterizations of gender as the author understands it. The story struck many readers as original, unexpected, and human. The writer Phoebe North declared “Attack Helicopter” to be “a story in which I found myself reflected,” and told its self-canceling author, “Whatever you decide to do with your story, Isabel, thank you for writing your story. Thank you for making me feel seen and heard. We don’t get a lot of ourselves in fiction. We often only get scraps. This was more than that. A mirror.”

But for other readers, the narrator’s descriptions of gender did not resonate. And a subset of those readers took that lack of resonance as a justification for denigrating the author of the story, casting doubt on her good faith, or positing that her voice was either inauthentic or invalid. Some went so far as to seize on the birth year noted in the author bio, 1988, to speculate that the author was a neo-Nazi troll using the 88 to signify “Heil Hitler.”

The writer and game designer Arinn Dembo, the acting president of Canada’s National Association for Speculative Fiction Professionals, published her critique in a series of tweets, where she asserted that the story “did not feel like it was written by a queer trans author” and even if it was, it “just sucks” because “no amount of beautiful writing can dispel the toxicity, the oily taste of garbage” of its title and premise. In her estimation:

The writing about gender transition, about life and sex as a woman, and about PTSD-like reactions in women, feels flat and fake … Like the take on gender theory that you would achieve by spending a half hour on Wikipedia … Not the take you might achieve by reading actual novels and memoirs by real transfolk. Or even by cis women, for that matter.

Dembo continued:

I’m going to come right out and say that this story does not feel like it was written by a cis or trans woman. It feels like ‘Isabel Fall’ is a straight cis person … Probably a white dude. Because honestly, this story is just dripping with all the lies that straight men tell themselves about both cis and trans women. They always want to see the female gender role as powerful and fascinating. They never internalize the physical or emotional pain of Femme life.

Later Dembo added a qualification:

This could have been written by anyone: it’s pure sentimentality to assume a cis woman, a trans person or a queer person couldn’t write a story about gender transformation that handled its themes badly. When I say, “This reads like it was written by a straight white dude who doesn’t really get gender theory or transition & has no right to invoke transphobic dog whistles for profit”, I’ll stand by my critique. Even if “Attack Helicopter” turns out to be an #ownvoices story.

Even if the author did successfully communicate their actual personal experience of gender identity, the subject was still handled badly, in Dembo’s telling, because the story diverges from a general orthodoxy of what “gender theory” purportedly dictates. No wonder a young nonbinary writer watching such critiques unfold on Twitter reacted with, “the whole Isabel Fall thing is getting me worried that I might be writing my gender wrong.”

Now that we know Isabel Fell is trans, I reached out to Dembo to ask if her initial critique stands. “Yes,” she replied, “It was my take when I first read the story. No information on the author or her intentions was provided, and I gave my first impressions and opinion.” Having since read commentary “from the half of Trans Twitter that liked the story and identified with it,” and the editor’s statement, “which establishes the author’s intent and identity,” Dembo doesn’t like the story any better, as is her perogative, but is “happy to know that the story was written in good faith and with positive intent, not as a hateful prank.” She noted with sorrow “that the author had chosen to pull the story,” explaining, “even at the peak of my negative reaction, I would never have wanted the story to be removed. If I had a magic wand to delete transphobic content from the Internet, I wouldn't even consider waving it in that direction.”

Still, she found fault with Clarkesworld because it failed to preempt the upset of readers who made erroneous assumptions about the identity and intentions of the story's author:

All I can say at this point is that a lot of people might have been spared a lot of mental anguish if that story had simply been accompanied by a sentence or two of context—an artist’s statement of the author’s identity and her intention for the work. There's a reason that the Artist Statement is so common in art galleries that showcase transgressive or challenging work.

I don’t think every story needs a content warning or a statement of author’s intent before you read it, but this one clearly did. It takes enormous trust for readers from a marginalized community to let a writer play literary games with their oppression, and most of us can’t give that trust to someone whose intentions are too opaque. There is a difference between letting a doctor or a sympathetic friend probe your wounds, and getting randomly jabbed by a faceless stranger.

I’m skeptical that content warnings or statements of authorial intent solve any problems. (Would critics ready to believe an author’s stated birth year was in fact a form of Nazi trolling trust a statement of authorial intent?) And many readers, trans and cis alike, were able to enjoy Fall’s story and discern the earnestness of its author without any extratextual statement.

The National Book Award finalist Carmen Maria Machado declared herself “crushed” and “angry” at “a trans sf/f writer being excoriated for writing a messy, gorgeous, interesting story,” and defended “stories that are dangerous, weird, jagged, ambitious,” because “art that bites off more than it can chew” can variously “change your temperature, provoke your heart, crack open your brain.” Sometimes, “what seems, to you, to be a failed experiment is actually not a failed experiment at all, and has provided someone else with brain-cracking or heart-provoking or temperature-changing,” she continued, and sometimes that value “only becomes clear in retrospect.”

Needless to say—or maybe not—short stories that are ahead of their time will be lost if their early critics succeed in creating an artistic landscape where ostensibly flawed work is quickly disappeared.

The science-fiction writer M. L. Clark urged better modes of engagement. “When a work *unsettles* you, & you have misgivings about whether the message is clear or ‘correct,’ absolutely, you should talk about it! Name how it falls short for you!” he wrote. “But also: allow it to be broken for you w/o asserting that its jagged edges can *only* be used as a blade, NOT because we shouldn't resist poor messaging, but because *effective* resistance doesn't just take the form of vehement public outcry & denunciation.”

The Vox critic Emily VanDerWerff opined, “This is a story with a lot––maybe too much––on its mind, and to see it written off as agitprop is sad. Art that only celebrates the bravery of trans people, or our fortitude in the face of all we must endure to be ourselves, is fine. But art should embrace our weakness, our shame, and our doubt, too. To insist otherwise is its own kind of prejudice.”

Writing at Medium, an apparently left-leaning observer with the handle The Anarcho Accelerationist lamented that “the reaction to this story—unbridled outrage at the most trivial and good-faith disagreement—has become emblematic of the left,” arguing that “we were right to expel the TERFs and the Red-Brownists, and we were incredibly right to bash those fash,” but adding:

The left has become a movement where people are scared to disagree. Scared to be too far to the left or the right or the bottom or the top of where their friends are.

People will often say that they are scared of being canceled—of people turning on them en masse, and exercising the basic right to walk away. I’m not actually against “cancel culture”—how could I be against people deciding that someone was an asshole, and going elsewhere? But I am against the specific implementation, mostly because it does not work—I now have nearly three times as many followers as I did when I was canceled. The effect of actually-existing cancel culture on the social ecosystem is to select against anyone with a sense of shame.

The left, as distinct from the right, has long dominated high and low art. To its credit, it has used that position in part to tell humanizing stories about historically marginalized people that increase understanding and empathy. America is a more inclusive place as a result. But I don’t know that a salutary tradition running from the films of Sidney Poitier to Will and Grace to Transparent and beyond can endure if Millennial creators and succeeding generations allow their art to be policed by the most essentialist, intolerant voices; or if they are persuaded that deleting a piece of fiction is more ethical than discussing it in the open if anyone at all feels harmed by it; or that it is wrong to truthfully relate one’s own experiences if they are in tension with political orthodoxies.

As Wesley Morris observed in an October 2018 essay:

Art might not have the privilege of being art for art’s sake anymore … It has to be art for justice’s sake … So we wind up with safer art and discourse that provokes and disturbs and shocks less. It gives us culture whose artistic value has been replaced by moral judgment and leaves us with monocriticism. This might indeed be a kind of social justice. But it also robs us of what is messy and tense and chaotic and extrajudicial about art.

The controversy over “Attack Helicopter” is another case study suggesting that rejecting “art’s for art’s sake” in favor of “art for justice’s sake” doesn’t necessarily yield more justice. It may help no one, harm many, and impede the ability of artists to circulate work that makes us think, feel, grapple, empathize, and learn. Americans will always seek out, discuss, and be moved by art that is messy, tense, and chaotic, whether the censors of any moment like it or not. If liberals stop producing art like that, illiberals of all sorts will fill the breach.