Four Women Discuss: Sherman Alexie, #MeToo, and Diversifying Publishing

The literary world is not insulated from the world outside. Recently, #metoo was used on Sherman Alexie, an author many of us at The Poetics Project are familiar with; in fact, Melanie Nichole Figueroa once met him at a conference when she was attending publishing school. Conversations around #metoo, Alexie, and harassment in general are difficult – especially for women because this is new territory for most of us. Never before have women been so openly able to discuss harassment of any kind. But what does that mean for authors like Sherman Alexie and their work? What about longtime, well established feminist authors like Margaret Atwood who are accused of being apologists for inappropriate male behavior?

Melanie Nichole Figueroa (MNF), Nicole Embrey (NE), Missy Lacock (ML), and I (ALR) sat down (over the internet) and decided to discuss the accusations against Sherman Alexie and to share that conversation with our audience.


ALR: So I think first and foremost we should talk about like, what we thought of Sherman Alexie and how this effects that maybe? Or should we start someplace else?

NE: I know that I personally was extremely disappointed because I use his books as texts in my classes. But upon more reflection, there were perhaps some moments with women that seemed… odd to say the least. And now I have to consider: do I still want to use his text in my classes?

ALR: That’s a rough one – like does his work diminish because of him or does it stand on its own? Like I’ve actually been a huge fan of his since I read his short story, What You Pawn I Will Redeem in the New Yorker. While working as a reading tutor at CPP we used a collection of his short stories, Ten Little Indians, with our students. His works have always been humorous and enjoyable. But his representation of women, in light of what’s been put out now, has always been lacking.

MNF: I have read several of Alexie’s short stories and books. I watched him speak on a panel at AWP a few years ago. I’ve had discussions in college classes about his work. He was someone who I, and I think probably a lot of readers, would think of every time I thought about Native American authors. He’s obviously so popular he’s at the top of that list, better or worse. So yeah, it’s pretty disappointing when there are no doubt a ton of amazing Native authors but this is they guy most people know about.

ALR: And his actions were aimed at other Native authors too. That’s the thing.

MNF: It seems–unfair. Which is probably childish to say.

ML: Did you make a decision, Nicole?

ALR: I don’t think it’s childish Melanie–it’s accurate. His work wasn’t just his.

NE: I think that is a solid way to react: unfair. We wanted more from him. Maybe even we expected more? Which may not have been fair either.

And no, I’m not sure yet. I’m also grappling with whether or not I want to use Aziz Ansari’s book anymore as well.

ALR: That brings up another question: Do authors have to be perfect for us to appreciate their work?

MNF: When I read books, I can tell the protagonist or even the writer is trying to make sense of something. I think we are all trying to make sense of our world. I think it’s unsettling, then, to read a book written by someone who you later find out is kind of a monster. It’s unsettling to read because maybe you realize that, for the most part, the writer doesn’t sound much different than anyone else. The monster fooled you. They fooled all of us. And that’s terrifying because what does that say about humanity?

Maybe monster is too strong a word, but you get my point.

ALR: I think, in this case, it’s just that Alexie was a creep.

He backed off when the women said no, but he also lost interest in patronizing them and supporting their work.

NE: Really what we are talking about is power plays here. I think Anzari’s allegations fall into that camp too.

ALR: I think Ansari’s are a step further – the woman accusing him said no. And he forced her head down onto his penis. Alexie made a joke “oh, should we go fuck now?” and the woman said “no” and he backed off. He did have a (bad) consensual sex with one of them, twice, and I’m not clear on those charges. That he didn’t support her after they stopped sleeping together? Or that she wasn’t interested and he kept persisting? I need to read those again.

MNF: So much of art seems to be based on empathy. We read books to our children to teach them empathy. And the books we read become our favorites because of empathy. Yet, when these men were preying on their newest victim, where was their empathy? We expect more from writers—from artists. Whether it’s right or wrong, we do.

NE: True, but both responded with apologies, which was interesting to me. Apologies for misreading situations. Again, a larger problem with society today.

ALR: I don’t think Alexie apologized yet? He was like “sorry if I did it but I don’t think I did.” Is that an apology?

NE: I read somewhere he was “trying to be a healthier man.”

MNF: That’s a cop out, in my book.

NE: Right? Like, apologies only do so much AFTER the fact.

ALR: I feel like they’re always “sorry I got called out and exposed.” Public apologies are not for the victims–they’re for reputation.

MNF: Exactly. The apologies only come after they’ve been caught.

What bothers me is not that these artists are humans, that they’ve made mistakes. It’s that their careers are based on giving someone or some group a voice, and yet, their actions in their real lives have taken away the voices of real people. There seems to be a kind of narcissism in that, building yourself up while dragging other people down.

ALR: I can see that: and it’s directed towards women of the group they’re uplifting. But that calls into question like, identity politics and the fact that it seems to first put men ahead of women in light of representation and two that it’s not really fair to expect one person to uplift a group and be perfect in representing them.

ML: I may be the odd one out here, but I feel like NO is the simple answer to Amanda’s question: Do authors have to be perfect for us to appreciate their work? This isn’t a new question…there are a million articles asking the same thing, and there are a million “bad” artists (whatever that means). Just TWO examples: The author of Lord of the Flies writes in his memoir a detailed account of him trying to rape a 15-year old, but I would never even consider throwing away that book. In fact, his issues probably informed his book about human depravity. And T.S. Elliot. was an outright antisemite. If you eliminate imperfect authors from the canon, I doubt we’d have much left.

NE: HP Lovecraft was a horrible racist. The list goes on of awful authors, unfortunately.

ALR: Like, we’re talking about Alexie and Ansari; would we have the same conversation about Faulkner or Fitzgerald? That’s true–and Faulkner was a sexist and Fitzgerald had his wife locked up after steeling her money and story ideas. Canon is filled with fuckfaces.

ML: Plus, we’re kind of talking about censorship in some ways. We don’t agree with book banning that talk about the subjects (like Lolita), but we’re kind of talking about banning them based on the author’s lifestyle. I am always on the side of free speech.

Also, I don’t know, we all have our shit. What is good and what is evil? Or what is mental illness or addiction or products of previous abuse? Or what are false accusations? Silencing anyone is never a good idea, and we don’t know shit.

NE: Absolutely, I will still enjoy these books. But I may not teach them because these books come with loaded conversations now. And we should absolutely have these conversations, but it is hard to do in a three week unit. I think that’s my concern as a teacher: there isn’t enough time to cover the book itself and the author.

ALR: Going with Missy’s line of thought, is it better to not put anyone on a pedestal and to read these in light of what stupid things the authors did?

I mean, in light of #metoo, in light of Trump in the white house and some of his racially motivated policies, wouldn’t those conversations be appropriate though?

Like, if students don’t have those with their teachers in class with a book, where do they have those then? What sources are they listening to?

NE: Perhaps for my next course and theme. The issue is I have set lesson plans that be hard to adjust at times. But these conversations are still had in some small way. I mean, I’m big into pop culture, so students always bring new information like this to my attention.

MNF: If basically every single one of Alexie’s book wasn’t written about Native people, then sure, I’d say he doesn’t have to feel like he’s the voice of “those people.” Whatever group that might be for any artist. But his work is. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t stand on its own. I don’t think we should run off and ban his books. Will I go and buy another one? No. Because if I’m being honest, there are tons of books out there, thousands of which are written by Native authors I haven’t heard of, and I’d rather read their work.

ALR: But Melanie–isn’t that his experience though? Should he not write about his identity and his experiences to not have to represent a whole race of people?

I think the fact that his actions were aimed towards Native Women authors says a lot.

ML: Also, this is just one aspect of who he is. If you remove his content, you’ll remove one of the leading writers representing a incredibly marginalized group, Natives. For me, my view is pretty strict about the WORK, not the person, I guess, and his work is very significant in diversifying the canon.

ALR: But I don’t know if we can blame Alexie. He didn’t stand up and say “I am my whole race and I shall uplift them”–that was put on him.

MNF: He can write about his experience. I don’t have to read it.

ALR: That’s true. No one has to read him any more in light of this. I think I’m just trying to get at if it’s fair to say he let a whole group of people down because he was (a creepy) human.

MNF: If you write about women’s issues, women are going to own that book as one of their own. I’m not saying it’s right. It’s just the way it is.

NE: I also have the option of using other Native American voices in my course so that voice is not lost.

ML: I’m actually not a fan of Sherman Alexie to begin with, haha. Not my style. But again, it’s about the work. Not the guy.

ALR: I don’t think he really did a whole lot with women in his works, like ever. They’re mirrors to the main male characters or helping characters – they’re almost always two-dimensional.

ML: Melanie, would you stop reading Margaret Atwood if you found out she had murdered her baby or something. I honestly wouldn’t. I would still think her writing is brilliant, because it is. I can keep it separate, I guess, and I do, since there are a lot of assholes who are good writers.

NE: Here’s a real example: Marion Zimmer Bradley is author of the feminist fantasy text Mists of Avalon. It was recently revealed that she sexually molested her own daughter.

ML: Is her work good? If so, I don’t care. Let the courts punish her. Let us read her books. I may be Satan.

ALR: I’m mixed on that. If the profits go towards the criminal/molester/what have you, I can boycott their work on principal. But if they money goes towards their victims or the estate and the person is long dead and/or punished, that’s fine with me. I just don’t want an asshole to profit off of my entertainment.

NE: It is indeed, but I would be lying if I said these new issues didn’t taint my reading experience now. It colors the book a bit. Which maybe isn’t a bad thing? What I mean is, we engage the text from a different literary lens, one in which takes the author and their intentions into consideration.

ML: I’ve refused to keep participating in certain things, like listening to a radio drama, I LOVE only when the CONTENT became harmful, like seriously homophobic. But if the content is something I can appreciate, I am always on the side of adding it to the human conversation.

ALR: I’m going to bring this to something I think Matt Damon said (and he should shut the fuck up about a lot of things but I think he made a good point here): the more we know about an artist, the less we can be immersive in their art.

Because once we see what’s behind the art and the artist’s life, there’s kind of no going back.

NE: Wow, that’s actually sharp for Matt Damon!

ALR: I should make that the title of this blog.

MNF: I think it really depends on what they did. I found out the Orson Scott Card was a huge homophobe after I read Ender’s Game. It didn’t really change my opinion of the book. But no, I won’t buy his books anymore. Not because I hate him. But because the market is flooded. His book was entertaining. I don’t worship the ground that he walks on. I can live without reading another one of his books, and I will. I will find another author to love, and I will feel better about supporting their work.

ALR: Oh man. Once I found out about Orson Scott Card, my mind changed about his work. Mostly because of how much he used the word bugger, and bugger was a derogatory term for being gay back at the time he wrote that. Like, I imagine the F** word in place and I’m like, no.

MNF: Readers are patrons in a modern world.

Okay, that’s true Amanda. It’s a lie to say it didn’t change my opinion of the book at all.

NE: I think Alexie and Bradley are the biggest blows for me because I TRULY loved their work. But now what do I do with these feelings. How do I present it to my students if I think it is important? It’s so interesting how offended we get as readers by authors we don’t know, yet know in a different personal way.

ALR: Bringing it back to Nicole’s point – is this a good way to introduce and diversify Native American literature? Maybe the issue is having too much reverence for one author and not looking to others in the field. If Alexie wasn’t THE ONLY Native Author many thought of, then he wouldn’t have had the power to be a creeper to the Native Women Authors.

NE: Valid.

ML: Honestly, underrepresented Native work is a huge problem. But that’s true about Native everything, unfortunately.

NE: Perhaps this is the push we needed to diversify our Native American to-read collection.

ML: That’s fair.

MNF: It’s true, Nicole. Readers feel betrayed by Rowling for not making Dumbledore’s homosexuality a part of the upcoming movies. It feels personal for people.

ALR: I mean, Melanie, when she comes to campus and does workshops on publishing for the students I work with, she talks about how black authors are expected to do black literature and how stereotypical the publishing industry can be–are we seeing a product of that?

NE: I think so. At least in part.

ML: It’s funny how apathetic I am about this. Maybe I don’t have a soul. I guess I just think art is about the diverse human experience, or at least informed by it, the good and the bad. The bad and by the bad can be irrefutably good, some of the best, and my editor’s instinct says it would be a waste to dump it into the fires of Mordor. Maybe it’s the one good thing they’ll give the world.

NE: I wouldn’t say you are apathetic; you are just able to separate the author from the text. And, if I am being honest, I can do that much easier with author’s who are no longer alive. Like HP Lovecraft. But living authors give me pause.

ALR: I think it’s a hard issue and no one is right. Reading the charges in detail, I think it’s interesting to think about the purpose of the #metoo movement as well in this.

ML: Agreed.

ALR: We have Franco being a creeper, we have Aziz Ansari committing (lite?) sexual assault, and we have Alexie who backed down when he came onto women and they said no.

Like, he wasn’t being appropriate, but it wasn’t like, dick-in-the-mouth level assault.

NE: Varying degrees, so to speak.

ALR: Exactly. I think Alexie’s on the tamer end, actually. Which is what makes it interesting–like, people hear he’s accused and their knee-jerk reaction might be to assume the worst.

When he was just like, really awkward but backed down as soon as a woman said no thank you. He stopped supporting their work as well which shows his interest was purely sexual, and that’s what’s not cool.

NE: But it does seem, to some extent, that everyone who is brought up in the movement enters into a level playing field in which all are chastised, hated, or worse. Margaret Atwood spoke out about this and was ripped to pieces.

MNF: I mean, #ownvoices is certainly a trend. I think it’s fair to say that for the last few decades the publishing world has found Native or diverse authors, like Alexie, whose work has mainstream appeal and simply stuck with them, rather than finding other voices and lifting them up too. So now, when something like this happens, it feels like a devastating blow to some.

NE: Astute observation, Melanie.

ALR: Yeah–I can see that Melanie. And Nicole makes a really good point. I saw that with Atwood. She was saying careful this doesn’t become a witch hunt and people wanted to pull her feminist card. It’s like, bitches, she’s Margret-fucking-Atwood.

NE: Right?! I was floored by that.

ML: I think she made a fair point. But again, I’m the asshole.

ALR: Nah–nuanced perspectives here means that we’re human and approaching a problem from multiple sides. No one’s the asshole for saying how they see something.

NE: Especially on a topic no one agrees on as it is! Some will keep reading. Other won’t. Other will boycott. Others will burn the books.

MNF: I don’t think you’re an asshole! I’m kind of with Nicole. For some reason, it seems easier to buy a “bad person’s” (whatever that means) book when they aren’t alive anymore. But if they are, I feel the need to get “political” with my money.

ML: Nooooo DON’T BURN THE BOOKS!

That’s a good way of saying it, Melanie. I guess I just prefer books to politics.

ALR: I think for me, personally, this is a lesson not to make anyone into heroes nor expect artists, authors, etc. to be perfect. Like, every writer in history was probably an asshole to somebody. I think the wider lesson from the #metoo movement is that men should stop abusing power to pick up on women or get what sexual things they want–but at the same time, like, is it fair to #metoo every guy that’s made a lame pass? When is it to the point of shaming men for being awkward and not helping women anymore?

ML: #MeToo shouldn’t just be about men. It should be about consent. I know just as many men who were seriously sexually abused as women in my life.

MNF: Same.

NE: I like that summation, Amanda.

ALR: Same Missy. I used the hashtag and didn’t share. And I don’t know if it’s fair to have sexual assaults along with awkward pickups.

On a scale, I’d say Ansari yes, Fraco yes, and Alexie cringe and I’m not sure – there are details that could make it go either way that I’m not aware of.

ML: Agreed.

NE: I agree. Conversations about consent need to happen frequently and thoroughly throughout our lifetime.

ALR: Yes. And, actually, these author’s books would be an interesting class on consent–like how do they write about it since their real life interpretations of consent don’t seem to match with the social expectations of consent.

NE: Very true!

ML: Ansuri is a huge advocate for respecting women on paper.

ALR: Oh God, his show though.

ML: His stand up is great.

NE: Ansari genuinely seemed so confused by the accusations, which only concerned me more.

ALR: People talked about that and I watched his show and no. He was about sexualizing women and he actively went after white women and played women of color off as not good enough for the protagonist in all but like one case.

ML: I didn’t see any of his show.

ALR: It’s blah. There are some cute moments but the stuff with women wasn’t great. Same with CK Lewis. His show is funny when it’s about him or other men or kids but when it came to women, he was awful at writing about those situations/for them/women in general. I watched Lewis’s show like a year before his story broke and I felt that way.

NE: I didn’t read that about Ansari? That’s awful.

MNF: There’s literally a scene where Pamela, in Lewis’s show, says “don’t start jerking off in front of me, I’m awake” or something like that. He basically confessed in the show.

ALR: God damn that’s dark and terrible.

ML: How old are your students, Nicole?

NE: College level.

ML: Melanie, he ALWAYS talked about masturbating in his stand up.

College level can handle it.

ALR: Lewis’s apology was also shit. “Sorry I got caught” was like, the base of it. “I didn’t know I could intimidate women” BULLSHIT you’re 6’4″ or something and you are a bulky guy. He blocked the exit and beat off making women watch – bullshit I didn’t know about consent.

Can we slap CK Lewis with a fish or something for that? If anyone deserves it, he does.

MNF: I saw him live once. These people in the front row kept arguing about whose seat was whose and he stopped the entire show, stared at them, tapped his foot on the stage, and waited. It was so awkward.

NE: Ansari tried that argument too–“I’m short, how could I be intimidating?” Ugh.

ML: Actually, I’m pretty sure all Lewis’s accusers specifically said he ASKED them if he could do that in front of them, which complicates the consent issue. They just felt like they couldn’t say no because of who he was. I don’t really care about CK. To me, it’s just his kink, and he had their permission?

ALR: Remind me not to go to a live event with you Melanie–you’ve met Alexie and CK at this point.

MNF: They both gave off bad vibes when I saw them live, I guess is my point. Vibes man, listen to them.

NE: Yeah, listen to your gut Melanie.

ALR: Or Missy, they thought CK was joking? I don’t know. He’s a big guy though and intimidation is a big factor. Like one of Lewis’s accusers was a brand new comedian and this was her first tour and he did that to her. It’s another abuse of power dynamic.

NE: It always comes back to power.

ALR: Yeah. I think it’s not giving one person too much power in a field.

NE: Power: Who’s using and abusing it?!

ALR: The socialist in me wants to shout “KILL ALL THE CEOS” but we’re talking about male comedians here.

ML: But if he asked their permission, if that’s what he’s into, what else is he supposed to do? He can’t help that he’s a “big guy.”

ALR: I mean, he can ask people who don’t work for him.

ML: They said yes, he did. They said no, he didn’t.

ALR: And also not do it at work.

ML: I’ve had sex at work.

ALR: I mean, not at my current job, but I have too–but it wasn’t proposed by my boss at work, nor with my boss at work. I think it’s the boss thing and the power thing – again, he had money and was paying a lot of the women he asked permission from. That makes it icky even if they did say yes–that’s a big fat no-no at work. And it makes it difficult for women to say no when they’re stuck in that situation, even if they wanted to.

ML: Not just women.

ALR: True.

NE: Not just women, but in this case, it was directed at women.

MNF: If I keep buying their books, then am I not just giving them more power? I think that’s my issue.

ALR: Yeah Melanie, I think that’s the thing too. That’s where it’s individual choice in the matter. Like, can you support it or not or do you look for alternatives?

NE: Individual choice, as is everything else I suppose.

ML: I agree. It’s totally personal choice. Freedom of speech, freedom of what we read.

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