Power

What’s the harm in reading?

The controversy that erupted over a recent sci-fi short story by Isabel Fall raises questions about how we encounter difficult art.
Power

What’s the harm in reading?

The controversy that erupted over a recent sci-fi short story by Isabel Fall raises questions about how we encounter difficult art.

On the first day of the new year, the New Jersey-based monthly speculative fiction magazine Clarkesworld published its 160th issue, which contained a story titled “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” by then-unknown writer Isabel Fall. The story, which follows a helicopter pilot fused by brainwashing and gender reassignment surgery to her combat aircraft, deals with themes of gender identity, the militarization of the body, and personal identity in a world collapsing under the weight of imperialism and climate change. Initial responses from readers were positive, but on January 11, things took a hostile turn. Readers like Amanda, whose comment is pictured below, expressed their belief that with its focus on a fictitious gender the story was intended as an anti-trans joke or hoax. Others criticized its protagonist’s views of gender and what they saw as the story’s cisnormativity and edginess.

Within hours, the controversy spread to Reddit and Twitter. Some complaints centered the perceived transphobia  inherent in  the story’s title, which had been taken from a common transphobic right-wing meme originating in the mid-2010s. More prominent figures in the science fiction and fantasy community began to weigh in. On January 13, the story was removed from Clarkesworld; a note posted in its stead stated that Fall had asked for its removal and was personally distraught. After the story was taken down, Arrin Dembo, a cis woman and president of Canada’s National Association for Speculative Fiction Professionals, spoke out against the story in harsh terms in Twitter thread that has since been deleted:

Dembo went on to further speculate that, based on its tone and content, a cis man had written the story. Fall’s bio on Clarkesworld included only her birth year, 1988, and her name, not her gender identity. Weekly speculative fiction magazine Strange Horizons’ Editor-in-Chief Vanessa Rose Phin claimed in a Twitter thread that the story was a harmful failure, its removal commendable. In a statement following the story’s removal, Clarkesworld owner and Editor-in-Chief Neil Clarke confirmed that Fall was a transgender woman living a closeted life and that harassment had forced her to out herself. Clarke also stated that Fall’s deteriorating health and well-being, as well as her acute distress over criticisms of her story as “harmful,” prompted her request for the story’s removal.

But what does “harm” mean in the context of a short story posted on a magazine’s website? That art can upset, disgust, and even trigger is a given, but a reader’s pain is no more an author’s responsibility than the tragic Slender Man stabbing was the fault of Erik Knudsen, the fictional entity’s creator. Artists can no more control how people feel while engaging with their work than they can prevent its egregious misinterpretation, two things which often go hand in hand. But it is one thing to critique a work on art with a misguided eye. It is another thing to critique it without actually engaging with it, which is where the “Attack Helicopter” discourse truly goes off the rails.

On January 17, commenting on Fall’s decision to withdraw in a now-deleted Twitter thread, the bestselling science fiction and fantasy author N. K. Jemisin said she was “glad” the story was taken down, stating “Not all art is good art. Sometimes art causes harm. And granted that marginalized creators end up held to a higher standard than others, which is shit, but… that’s bc we know what that harm feels like, up close and personal. Artists should strive to do no (more of this) harm.” She also noted the author’s extreme stress and its health effects as part of the harm “Attack Helicopter” had caused. In subsequent tweets, however, Jemisin admitted that she hadn’t read the story.

The violent and oftentimes ironically ignorant backlash against Fall’s story sheds light on a troublingly regressive, entitled, and puritanical trend in the relationship between artists and their audiences, particularly when it comes to genre fiction. Readers appear to feel a need to cast their objections to fiction in moral terms, positioning themselves as protectors of the downtrodden. Trans writer Phoebe Barton went so far as to compare Fall’s story to a “gun” which could be used only to inflict harm, though in a later tweet she, like Jemisin, admitted she hadn’t read it and had based her reaction solely on its title.

Many reactions to Fall’s story, for all that they come from nominal progressives, fit neatly into a Puritanical mold, attacking it as hateful toward transness, fundamentally evil for depicting a trans person committing murder, or else as material that right-wing trolls could potentially use to smear trans people as ridiculous. Each analysis positioned the author as at best thoughtless and at worst hateful, while her attackers are cast as righteous; in such a way of thinking, art is not a sensual or aesthetic experience but a strictly moral one, its every instance either fundamentally good or evil. This provides aggrieved parties an opportunity to feel righteousness in attacking transgressive art, positioning themselves as protectors of imagined innocents or of ideals under attack.

It’s a poignant thought — who among us wouldn’t want to protect our younger selves, or hypothetical children who remind us of ourselves, from life’s nettles and pitfalls?

Further, the idea that minorities in fiction must be represented in a uniformly positive light is an old and pernicious one inextricably linked to the idea of the Model Minority, which holds that every member of a minority demographic is an ambassador to the mainstream and must behave unimpeachably. In this instance it led to cis critics like Jemisin denouncing the story as transphobic based solely on its title, ironically stifling a transgender voice. Some fans even appear to believe that art’s purpose is essentially instructional, that it should communicate moral lessons to its audience like a Goofus and Gallant strip. Art that features transgression — think of Nabokov’s Lolita and the ongoing perception that it functions as a handbook for pedophiles — is often seen as endorsing that transgression and encouraging its spread in real life.

The rhetorical and sometimes actual violence with which this belief is enforced — in spite of the lack of evidence behind it — lends its proponents a great deal of online clout. By nature such eruptions of rage, occurring largely on social media and involving persons of widely varying levels of prominence, are difficult to track, but examples like Fall’s achieve a critical mass upon which they become visible to a broader audience. It was only last year author Amelie Wen Zhao withdrew her debut novel from pre-publication over online outrage over its perceived racist themes. A full decade of highly publicized moralistic opposition to the blockbuster television program Game of Thrones has helped to further mainstream such conflicts. The show’s depictions of rape and other forms of sexual violence drew frequent assertions that even portraying such actions equated to endorsing them.

That someone reacts with hurt to art doesn’t make that art dangerous, and claiming that all art that’s capable of causing pain is inherently toxic is a solipsistic nightmare in which a reader’s personal experience becomes an act of violence committed against them by an author whom they likely do not know. It’s a reflexive model of critique, a rejection of evaluating art on its own merits. In a way it takes the place of criticism entirely, ignoring aesthetic concerns in favor of moral ones. Perhaps in that emotional reaction is some trace of readers reliving their own trauma and, casting the artist in the role of an attack or abuser, reimagining it as a scenario in which they can stop that violation from happening. It’s a poignant thought — who among us wouldn’t want to protect our younger selves, or hypothetical children who remind us of ourselves, from life’s nettles and pitfalls? It also locks us in memories of our own pain and reduces art to something strictly individual, cutting away its ability to let us experience the lives and dreams of people we’ll never know.

Stories like “Attack Helicopter” are vital to unpacking the webs of intersecting forces which make up every human consciousness. They constitute an outlet for the suffering of marginalized artists raised in bigoted, imperialist cultures, a way to process the poison we’re spoon-fed from birth into something that awakens and lays bare. Calls for the destruction or censorship of such stories constitute a rejection of life’s intrinsic complexity, a retreat into the black and white moral absolutism of adolescence, or theocracy. These rigid moral strictures strip marginalized communities of their full humanity and of their history as makers of painful, difficult art stemming from their experiences as outsiders. They rob audiences of the space and tools necessary to engage art thoughtfully and in good faith. They make our world a poorer, harsher place, clannish and merciless, and smother beauty in its cradle.

Gretchen Felker-Martin is a Massachusetts-based horror author and film critic. You can follow her work on Twitter: @scumbelievable.