Behind the Scenes
That’s it, this site is dead—I’m outta here
There’s a lot of ego on display here and when I’m honest, I enjoy that. It gives this site much of its attraction: people post and comment here in the spirit of one-upmanship, calling attention to themselves. The stakes are real: get a lot of page views, get voted up a lot, and you might win a publishing contract! (I have.) In the increasingly impoverished world of indy lit, what could be better than a website where typing some words into a text field and clicking a button can make you a (virtual) celebrity? When I post and comment, I do so giddy with the realization that others are watching—others who might invite me to their parties, or to contribute to their literary journals. (Some have.)
The indy lit blogosphere that we have made and are currently still making is as much about provocation as it is communication. Since its participants tend to be well-educated writers and artists, we tend to be good at provocation. We intend our comments and posts to make others think and feel differently—including, sometimes, negatively.
I was born in a relatively sexist / racist / homophobic corner of the world (Scranton, Pennsylvania—represent), where I was raised by fairly liberal parents who mostly espoused views one might call progressive. Nonetheless I absorbed a lot of sexist / racist / homophobic ideology, because the culture surrounding me was largely sexist / racist / homophobic. I attended a Catholic grade school and high school, for instance, and became an Eagle Scout—and while I’m not trying to single out those institutions (which did some right by me), we didn’t exactly sit around reading bell hooks.
In high school, I hung out in “the gay crowd” and got beat up more than once for “being a fag.” I had very few friends and mostly dreaded going to school. I didn’t date and I didn’t go to parties. Instead, I stayed home as often as I could, pretending to be sick. Because I was a good student, no one made any fuss. My preferred state of being was to be left alone, with my art supplies and books.
I won scholarships to different colleges and chose the one that was farthest away from Scranton. There, I met others more like me. I made friends and started dating. I wrote poetry and fiction and drew comics and watched lots of movies and made little videos. I also became a vegetarian and an animal rights activist and a human rights activist. I read Noam Chomsky and participated in protests against Pepsi and Nike’s atrocities in Burma.
All in all, I really enjoyed college—relished having four years where I was free to study and explore my interests. I resolved to live the rest of my life like that, inasmuch as I could.
I was able to go to college because the accident of my birth afforded me a certain status and privilege.
I didn’t realize at the time that most people in the United States never get that chance—have absolutely no means of ever going to college. Let alone the rest of the people on Earth.
I graduated and my uncle got me a high-paying job with a telecommunications company. I moved to near New York City, where I read Situationist manifestos and listened to Bikini Kill and Miranda July and watched avant-garde cinema at Anthology Film Archives. I spent tons of money on food and books and CDs and movies and drove all over the place. I was terribly unhappy.
I moved to central Illinois to get a Master’s degree in writing. I was particularly interested in postmodernism and cultural studies, and I read a lot of theory and philosophy. I suffered from depression. I became bulimic.
I moved to Bangkok, Thailand and cheered up some, started eating better, exercising. I started realizing that the world’s a lot bigger than I had thought. I traveled to Burma and Laos and Malaysia and saw the poverty there, or some small fraction of it. Mostly, I found that I couldn’t stand to look at it. Walking down the street one day in Bangkok, I saw an elderly beggar who looked as though her face had been melted. I freaked out and ran away.
Later I read arguments about how part of the thrill of visiting a very poor country comes from being exposed to poverty. I recognized myself in that and felt deeply embarrassed.
But despite how embarrassed I felt, I still had my class privilege.
I’ve been poor by US standards. At times during grad school, I had to walk / bike to school because my car died and I couldn’t afford the bus. For a while I was on food stamps. And at other times I used credit cards to buy groceries, not knowing how I’d later pay for them.
But my experiences with poverty have been temporary. And no matter how poor I’ve been, it isn’t as poor as most of the people on Earth.
After Bangkok I moved to Chicago, where I’ve spent the past eight years living in an increasingly gentrified, increasingly hip neighborhood. I entered a PhD program, where I study and teach writing. I enjoy this life, even though at times I find the experience immiserating and isolating. One bright spot is my school’s diversity: many of my students are the first persons in their families to attend college. I tell myself I’m doing something good, making some kind of difference.
But I’m the one who gets to be the teacher. And none of my students live in the same neighborhood that I do.
I’m hardly unique in any of this. Most of my friends are like me. Nor am I unique in my countless contradictions and conflicted thoughts, and endless feelings of guilt.
I’ve spent the past twenty years studying gender studies, racism, post-colonial studies, queer theory, Marxism, disability studies, etc., etc. Am I an expert on these subjects? No. Do I know everything there is to know about these subjects? No. Will I spend the rest of my life studying these subjects? I hope so. Will that make me a better person, even a good person?
Lately I’ve been waking up early, predawn, unsure of what to do. I’ve taken to reading Wallace Shawn’s extended monologue The Fever, in particular this passage:
The life I live is irredeemably corrupt. It has no justification. I keep thinking that there’s this justification that I’ve written down somewhere, on some little piece of paper, but that it’s sitting in the drawer of some desk in some room in some place I used to live. But in fact I’ll never find that little piece of paper, because there isn’t one, it doesn’t exist.
There’s no piece of paper that justifies what the beggar has and what I have. Standing naked beside the beggar—there’s no difference between her and me except a difference in luck. I don’t actually deserve to have a thousand times more than the beggar has. I don’t deserve to have two crusts of bread more.
And then, this too: My friends and I were never well meaning and kind. The sadists were not compassionate scholars, trying to do their best for humanity. The burning of fields, the burning of children, were not misguided attempts to do good. Cowards who sit in lecture halls or the halls of state denouncing the crimes of revolutionaries are not as admirable as the farmers and nuns who ran so swiftly into the wind, who ran silently into death. The ones I killed were not the worst people in all those places; in fact, they were the best.
Nothing is changing in the life of the poor. There is no change. Gradual change is not happening. It’s not going to happen. It was only something we talked about.
Snug in my bed, I contemplate hosting performances of this play in my beautiful apartment.
Here are a few beliefs I subscribe to, or think I subscribe to:
- There’s no one place we’re trying to get to—everyone in the world doesn’t have to believe the same thing, or act the same way.
- Revolution is constant and never-ending.
- Critiques should include auto-critiques. How do we contribute to the things we condemn?
- The world does not need you, though certain people might need you. But you’re not any kind of savior.
- Question authority, including your own authority.
- Don’t dictate the terms of the conversation.
- If you have the chance to speak, make sure you also listen. Make room for other voices.
- Have compassion for others. Extend that compassion to yourself.
No doubt various complaints and criticisms could be raised against those principles—and should be.
Picture the largest thing you can think of, then the most worthless.
My guilt is larger than the former, worth less than the latter.
Which doesn’t make me a better person.
Shannon’s response to Jimmy Chen’s latest (last?) post is resonating with me:
This is why these conversations are so hard. This is why people often never learn to hear these types of criticisms and move beyond hurt feelings. It makes me sad and angry.
“Move beyond hurt feelings” seems good advice and I plan to add it to my list of mantras, alongside, “Christ compels us to compassion.”
Also resonating: Blake’s reminder to “Please act like a person.” The different names at this site, the handles belonging to different people busy posting and commenting: each represents a real person, sitting out there, somewhere. I know that but sometimes I forget that.
I know very few of you, really.
When I started writing for HTMLGiant, some of my friends described the site as something of a virtual saloon where vicious fights broke out every minute. “Watch your back,” they cautioned me.
But this site didn’t turn out to be the wasteland of hatred that I’d feared. Sure, some folks here can be obnoxious, or worse. But on the whole, I’ve enjoyed reading the posts, including the ones that have most provoked me. I may disagree with certain claims, and the ways in which they’re made—but I value the opportunity to read them, mull them over, maybe respond.
When I first started posting here, I found myself afraid that others would—mock me? Dislike me? Bully me? Beat me up? (Did I worry I was stepping back into high school?) Part of me wanted to publish my posts and never read the comments.
But the comments are what I like best about HTMLGiant, and this site wouldn’t be half as good without them.
I’ve had, overall, a great experience here, so it pains me that others feel otherwise. I wish they could have an experience more like mine.
To which end, I’d like to do my part in making that so.
Anger, in my experience, is fear projected outward. When I feel threatened—when my sense of the world, and my place within it is challenged—anger becomes a means to force others to conform to my desires.
That’s one of the things I think when I see someone trying to have the final word, or to insist on a particular way of communicating, to mandate a particular kind of response. When someone threatens to take his or her ball and go home.
These statements are not projected at any one person, and most certainly include myself. Ego’s in ample supply here.
Which is not to deny anger its place, or ego its place. But anger and ego have only places, and therefore limits. So, too, does critique.
We are all, despite our best intentions, complicit in endless oppression and suffering, often beyond our ability to articulate.
We’re all imperfect beings, stumbling forward and garbed in faults, hoping to find others who will nonetheless embrace us.
For what it’s worth, I do think this site could use more official, regular contributors who are not young straight white males. I don’t want to conflate biology with identity, mind you. But this site is rather dominated by young dudes exercising their egos, and while I’m not entirely opposed to some of that—and while I am obviously part of it—it would be good if more people could parade their egos here, too. Assuming they want to.
… And assuming that Gene doesn’t delete the entire site. If he doesn’t (I hope he’s just joking), I intend to resume posting regularly here next month, mostly about craft & fiction. My goal is that people find those posts useful—that they’ll be one part of a larger conversation that will interest and provoke and involve many people.
Until then, warmest wishes.