Thursday, May 5, 2016

This reader says no more: Appalling cruelty in THE ANTIOCH REVIEW

I try to stay on the lighter side at Better View of the Moon. Divisive and troubling issues come up from time to time in the world of literary publishing—one of my self-assigned “beats”—but I tend to steer away from those topics, instead choosing to critique editorial policies, or to suggest submission hacks for writers, or to translate rejection language from Editorese into real talk. That’s what I enjoy thinking and writing about, so that’s where I put my energy.

Today, though, I don’t have the luxury of addressing simultaneous submission policies or response times or the best way to withdraw accepted work, because a literary journal has published something too troubling to ignore.

This week, The Antioch Review saw fit to publish an appalling article: “The Sacred Androgen: The Transgender Debate” by Daniel Harris. I’m not sure what the transgender “debate” is, but this article claims to address it, and does so in the cruelest and most dehumanizing way possible.

Harris begins by asserting the rights of transgendered people (“TGs,” as he calls them) to do what it is they do—but from the first sentence he seems confused about that, and he begins misapplying the term “gender” in a way he will continue to embrace for more than 5,300 words: “Those who choose to alter or even mask their gender merit full protection under the law merely because their decisions, while they divest them of breasts and birth names, do not strip them of their humanity.”

In his critique of “TGs,” Harris cries sloppy cisgendered tears over the way that transgendered people compel others to change the way they talk about gender:

[J]ust as the issue has come to the fore of public awareness, TGs have ambushed the debate and entangled us in a snare of such trivialities as the proper pronouns with which to address them, protocol as Byzantine and patronizing as the etiquette for addressing royalty. They insult us with the pejorative term “cisgender,” which they use to describe those of us who accept, however unenthusiastically, our birth gender, as opposed to the enlightened few who question their sex. Moreover, they shame us into silence by ridiculing the blunders we make while trying to come to grips with their unique dilemmas, decrying our curiosity about their bodies as prurience and our unwillingness, or even inability, to enter into their own (often unsuccessful) illusion as narrowmindedness.

It is stunning to me that Harris weighs his prerogative to change his language, should he wish to be considerate of others’ feelings, against the deeply felt needs of others to live comfortably in their bodies. Obviously, no one is forcing Harris to write essays that mock and dehumanize transgendered people—it’s a conversation he can take a pass on in favor of talks about the NFL draft or rhubarb recipes or automotive transmissions. But Harris is inconvenienced, and he wants readers to know about it.

Additionally, it is pertinent that Harris talks about transgendered people being divested of breasts; the article ignores female-to-male transition entirely while remaining fascinated by the most prurient aspects of male-to-female reassignment procedures, including “vaginoplasties that create, not orifices, but fibrous lumps.” (The statement is inaccurate and ridiculous, as some rudimentary Googling on the topic of vaginoplasty, penile inversion, and the neovagina will quickly reveal. But sometimes considerations of accuracy stand in the way of our attempts to ridicule and demean others.)

I’m not going to continue a critique of a guy who shoots his own foot in sentence one with his stultifying misunderstanding of the concept of gender. He’s not worth it. But someone who writes entire blog posts critiquing, say, a clumsy clause in a rejection slip really needs to stand up and call out editors who choose to do damage to a minority population with a poorly thought-out and clumsily edited screed.

The Antioch Review has a distinguished history. The journal started during World War II and has lasted, in different incarnations, since 1941. Each issue deals with a topic or theme, and editors take pride in publishing articles that have academic content sans footnotes. The notion is that the journal exists as a way for academics to communicate beyond the academy, within what the journal’s website describes as a journalistic or belles-lettres tradition.

But the article we’re considering is not an academic consideration of gender noncomformity. It fails, even, to display a first-year gender studies student’s understanding of gender as a social construct. Harris ignores the difference between gender and sex quite cheerfully: “Many TG activists believe that gender is a ‘social construct,’ not a physical reality but a set of attitudes and prejudices, of inhibiting conventions that contain and entrammel our infantile polymorphousness.” He later adds,

The “social construct” theory of gender dematerializes the body, which becomes that of a sexless seraph, too sacred and ethereal to be either male or female, a Barbie or Ken doll whose pubis is a rounded bulge of thermoplastic polymer, the genitals having been magically expunged with the vanishing cream of a few meaningless shibboleths.

When we choose to lampoon the very genitalia of a minority population, we have moved past an academic purpose, and we have certainly moved past a literary one. Harris is literally asking us to look at our transgendered friends and picture the sexless crotches of a child’s fashion doll. I don’t think there’s much of a leap between how Harris dehumanizes transgendered people and how genocidal maniacs throughout history have dehumanized their targeted marginalized groups, be they Jews in Germany, Tutsis in Rwanda, or enslaved Africans in our own country.

Literature has a higher purpose. It belongs to the humanities. It explores the human experiences; in general, it humanizes others so that we can appreciate all that we share.

Harris’ article mocks and shames and dehumanizes transgendered people, and in doing so, it makes me question what The Antioch Review even is. What is its role or purpose? Is it a literary journal? There is nothing literary about most of its academic writing, and that automatically throws it into a liminal categorization. And Harris’ article shows a certain flair with language here and there (although it’s hard to recognize, with all of the copyediting errors a reader is forced to endure along with the gut-wrenching, hurtful content—mention of “Pierce Morgan,” instead of the media figure’s actual name, “Piers”; quotations that never resolve; text placement that includes random and confusing hard returns—a little unlyrical foray into poem country). But I would stop well short of describing Harris' article as literary; it's not a literary essay by any measure. And if the ideas are absurdly deficient and there is not literary purpose,  why is it included in The Antioch Review?

Whatever The Antioch Review is, I’m done with it. With the immense cruelty of Harris’ “The Sacred Androgen,” it has lost this reader forever. I’m sad to see the decline of a little journal that once seemed titanic to me in its breadth and scope, but no matter its size, I will no longer make a space for it on my shelves.


  1. Sometimes I read comments on articles and find myself suffering through them. Other times I'm presented with reasons not to read the article while at the same time encouraging me to read it. This response/reply/essay regarding "The Sacred Androgen" does that. From the way you describe and slap it down, it seems like a Trump rally in written form. Your arguments interesting.

    It seems your last sentence regarding The Antioch Review is appropriate: "I’m sad to see the decline of a little journal that once seemed titanic to me in its breadth and scope..." After seeming to be unsinkable, an ice-burg of cruelty has sliced its hull open. I guess it is too early to see if damage control will work, but it sounds like your are already in the lifeboat looking back on what was, once, a mighty work. Maybe they will right the hull and keep it floating.

    1. That's a nice thought. I think I should hope for that. Maybe I'll get there?

  2. Well said, Craigo. Thank you for this.

    1. Thank you for reading! I expect better from literary journals. I expect better from HUMANS.

  3. This was a very interesting read. I had a good time reading it. Very insightful and really gives perspective to things.