When you are a writer who learns a beloved author has a dark side, you experience waves of disillusionment. When you teach that author’s work, you feel an additional stab of concern: What about my syllabus?
A professor’s syllabus, often set months in advance to facilitate book orders, is a carefully constructed course plan. We have favorite exercises or close readings that are revelatory for students, and joyful for us. As intellectual property goes, a great syllabus is a gold mine. Or perhaps a better metaphor would be a Jenga Game. Take away too many supporting pieces and the whole thing will topple.
Some syllabi are used year after year. I have repeatedly shared excerpts from Junot Díaz’s short story “Fiesta, 1980,” to study diction choices when constructing bilingual characters. When asked to unpack the sestina, my go-to example has been Sherman Alexie’s “The Business of Fancy Dancing,” a vibrant argument for why we employ a poetic form dating back to the 12th-century troubadours.
Do we continue to teach the work of people we now suspect of behaving unethically or abusively? News stories have suggested prominent writers such as Díaz, Alexie and Jay Asher may have acted in predatory ways. Alexie is accused of exploiting authors looking for mentorship, courting them with attention, then threatening their careers when his sexual advances were resisted. The Pulitzer Prize Board has launched an investigation of past Pulitzer winner (and current Board member) Díaz regarding allegations that include forcibly kissing one author and verbally bullying another. Asher left the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators over controversy regarding his relationships with fellow authors. Even when the harassment we hear about is not sexualized or physical, it is misogynist or racist, and always about power: the power to intimidate, diminish and silence.
As a reader, I’m devastated. As a teacher, I’ve got decisions to make.
“Writers in Print and Person,” my class at American University, where I often adjunct, invites undergraduates to alternate sustained analysis of a book with the opportunity to meet and question the author. In the University of Tampa low-residency MFA program where I am on faculty, students meet a variety of authors twice a year through our “Lectores” reading series. Most of our craft learning is subsequently channeled through eight to 10 books assigned for annotation, a selection tailored to students individually. Because of the particular scope of my responsibilities, and these modes of student learning, I have always emphasized the writer as a fully dimensioned being. What do I do when those dimensional flaws are revealed?
Here’s what I can’t do: pretend that this is not happening.
Much of the economy surrounding a contemporary writing career rests not just in what that author does on the page but what the person says at the microphone and in the classroom. I’ve never been a full-time academic. Yet I’ve served as a writer-in-residence four times; I’ve given several hundred readings, led workshops at weekend conferences, and visited dozens of classrooms. In other words, I cross paths with thousands of students, many of whom tell me about their aspirations of becoming writers.
These are the students who raise their hands to ask vague, vulnerable questions at readings. These are students who wait in line afterward, sometimes for hours, so that the author can sign their copy of the book we put on the syllabus. These are students who ask about an interview for the literary magazine, and then agree to meet up at the hotel bar. These are the students who nervously apply for a faraway workshop, and then hustle to cover the expenses, so that they can work with a celebrated writer. These are the students who trust in both that writer’s aesthetic expertise and best intentions.
When I give interviews, I remember that I was once the one asking the questions. I was the student who lost her composure when the famed science-fiction author launched into homophobic vitriol. After the conversation was over, I looked at the hardback edition I had just bought — signed and jacketed in its beautiful cover — and dropped it in the corner of my dorm room. Now, 20 years and four books later, I’ve been adjacent to every range of author behavior. There’s a lot of generosity, and grace, and talent. There’s also more than a few nightmares: arrogant, vindictive or on the prowl.
If your love of literature is grounded in erecting a wall between authors and their work, then you have your philosophy. I respect that. I’m a stickler for addressing “the speaker” of a poem, never the poet. But let’s say that it’s my student heading out the door to meet that poet — a jerk whose work I once adored without reservation. I will have an instinct to pull her aside, to say, Hey, just be aware. If there’s still space for that poet on my syllabus, there certainly needs to be space for that conversation, too.
I look back with deep regret at times I’ve recommended someone as a mentor, editor or visiting writer, unaware of a history of abusive attitudes. There is a tipping point where an author crosses from a “whisper network” of negative stories, to which we may have access, into a public and documenting spotlight. Only then, if at all, does the controversy compel affiliated institutions — those that publish these authors, employ them or give them awards — to investigate and take action. The ability of traumatized parties to be heard and supported, assisted by social media and other forms of networking, is a major step forward.
That does not make this is a bucolic dawn of justice. Why has this tipping point come, to a disproportionate degree, for men of color, while white authors guilty of the same activities or worse stay protected? These behaviors are not exclusive along heterosexual lines, nor do only cis men commit them, nor have we given proper attention to compounding violence based on class and disability. As a living literary community, we have a long ways to go.
I may free up a square footage on my personal bookshelves in the coming months, but I am not kicking anyone out of the canon. I do not expect people to frame modernist poetry without citing the work of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, who demonstrably trafficked in anti-Semitic rhetoric. I am not arguing that every passing mention of an artist has to have an asterisk that leads to footnotes of their bad behavior. I’m just asking that we reckon with this reality: To put someone on a syllabus is to privilege them with our attention. We’re saying, This is worth your time. Unless we actively complicate the conversation, our students will perceive that as a form of admiration.
Are we inviting students into a tall tower from which the world is viewed at a distance? Or are we giving them a compass to navigate toward the horizon? We ask readers to analyze the impact of enjambments, and to differentiate third-person limited point of view from omniscience. So let’s trust them to incorporate nuanced, even troubling information about authors into their knowledge of the work.
Or choose other authors. To not allow dynamics of our era to inflect how we teach is to gird the argument that literature is a self-contained and impractical pursuit. If your principal hesitation is that you’ll struggle to come up with replacement authors while remaining inclusive, consider that the diversity you’ve congratulated yourself on is merely tokenism in disguise. Even Alexie, before he cut short publicity for his memoir, referred regularly and caustically to himself being the “Indian du jour.”
If you want to learn more about Native American voices, let’s talk about Joy Harjo or Sherwin Bitsui or Tommy Pico or Elissa Washuta. For an exemplar of form, let’s celebrate the innovation of Natalie Diaz’s “Downhill Triolets.” When I need to show a narrator toggling between languages, I can reach for Richard Blanco’s memoir “The Prince of los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood” — or Julia Alvarez’s “Bilingual Sestina.” If an MFA student tells me he wants to annotate “Drown,” fine, but I’ll make sure he also reads Alicita Rodríguez’s short prose piece in Copper Nickel magazine, “How to Know You’re a Woman in a Junot Díaz Novel.”
Taking on difficult conversations requires preparation and patience. I’m doubly grateful to those providing elegant, insightful critiques that we can bring into the classroom. To name a few: Claudia Rankine’s 2011 open address to poet Tony Hoagland; Roxane Gay’s reflection on Junot Díaz’s “This Is How You Lose Her” in her 2014 essay collection “Bad Feminist”; and Claire Dederer’s 2017 Paris Review essay “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?” For those of us teaching critical writing, let’s encourage more interdisciplinary, intersectional approaches to evaluating someone’s literary impact.
I hope that my students appreciate that I’m a working writer, with all the juggling that entails. I hope they appreciate my knowledge of sonnets and lyric essays. I’m sure they don’t appreciate my perpetually late return of grading, or my anachronistic pop culture references. But in particular, I hope they appreciate that I have been where they have been. I have not forgotten. I believe that doing better by them will be better for us all.