Backlash after feminist literature organization passes on essay

March 25, 2019

In 2014, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, an advocacy group focused on addressing misogyny and gender imparity in the publishing world, launched a new section on its website called Reports from the Field. The section, a precursor to the “Shitty Media Men” list, was meant to serve as a platform for women in the literary world to share accounts of sexual assault, harassment, and coercion. Some of the pieces could be anonymous; none would be paid.

“Perhaps, as a result of this column, the world of literature will strive to be as progressive as it purports to be,” Lynn Melnick, who launched Reports from the Field, wrote in an inaugural post. “Together we can build a community strong enough and courageous enough to call out sexism and misogyny as we see it.”

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Melnick, a former VIDA executive board member, had been frustrated by the lack of reporting on sexual misconduct in her field. “There were whisper networks, and we all knew who the bad actors were, but no one was talking about them publicly,” she recalls now. On the site, Melnick recounted a few first-hand experiences with sexism, then invited contributions—“essays, screenshots, whatever”—to the section. In four years, Reports from the Field published 64 essays from survivors who felt compelled to do the same.

Then, last September, came a surprising turn: VIDA halted the publication of an essay to Reports from the Field—a decision revealed by Hannah Cohen, the author of the piece, who recounted her experience on December 4, in Entropy magazine, a literary journal. “Imagine being so close to telling your truth, only for the opportunity to be pulled out from underneath you,” she wrote.

Cohen, a poet, had come to learn that another poet—published in The Journal, a well-respected literary magazine of the Ohio State University—had made racist and transphobic remarks. Cohen reached out to the managing editor of The Journal to report the offensive behavior; in response, The Journal removed the poet’s work from its website and issued an apology. A month later, however, The Journal re-published the poet’s work and, Cohen learned, its legal team released her name to the poet. (The Journal tells CJR via email that Cohen’s information was forwarded in compliance with open records laws that Ohio State University is bound to follow; of the poem itself, The Journal stated, “The staff quickly learned that as a state entity the journal was legally obliged to return to its site the inoffensive poem it had accepted.”) Soon, Cohen received threats on Twitter and vicious trolling from the poet and supporters. That experience became the basis of the piece she planned to write for Reports from the Field.

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Reports from the Field, as Cohen understood, was a platform for people in the literary world to call out their abusers, and VIDA staff exercised little editorial control over contributors’ essays. “I felt that they understood me and had my back,” KC Trommer, a poet based in Queens, says of her experience writing for the section. “Being able to speak publicly through a platform that I trust about what happened to me was incredibly empowering and I was glad to be able to warn others,” Emily O’Neill, another poet, agrees. Many pieces were re-published from personal blogs; the VIDA site states that  the essays “are authored and edited independently from VIDA and VIDA Review, solely by their respective writers.” Sarah Clark, A VIDA executive board member, tells CJR, “We want to make sure that the pieces we are publishing are the pieces that survivors want to be publishing and a lot of that has meant to step back as an editor.”

When Cohen submitted her piece to Reports from the Field, she discussed with Clark how to publish it responsibly. “We had mutually decided that we would not name the person to avoid getting into legal trouble,” Cohen says. Throughout the editing process, which lasted four months, Cohen recalls, Clark was sympathetic. A day before Cohen’s publishing date, however, she received an email that VIDA had to hold her piece. Two weeks later, Cohen checked in. She was told that VIDA decided not to publish it due to “a conflict of interest.”

“I was angry,” Cohen says. With no explanation about what the supposed conflict of interest was from either Clark or VIDA, she sent her piece to Entropy.

“When VIDA wouldn’t run Hannah Cohen’s piece (later run on Entropy) due to a conflict of interest, I pretty much gave up on the idea of them as a safe literary space,” Kolleen Carney Hoepfner, a poet and Reports from the Field contributor, says. “I have no idea what’s going on at VIDA or Reports from the Field.”

Soon, criticism on social media ensued. On Twitter, VIDA shared a message that Reports from the field was on “temporary hiatus.” A few days later, Cohen received an email from VIDA apologizing and detailing the reasons for not publishing her piece: “One of VIDA’s former Board members is a faculty member at OSU and a graduate advisor to a student at The Journal named in the Reports from the Field,” editors wrote. (The message was shared with CJR.) “VIDA’s legal advisors were consulted, and they indicated that VIDA could be opening itself up for lawsuits, not only with regard to this piece but all Reports from the Fields.” A week later, VIDA announced on Twitter that Reports from the Field was suspended because of “unforeseen circumstances and legal concerns.”

In an emailed statement, Clark told CJR that VIDA is now revisiting some of its policies, and that Reports from the Field will return. “While we feel we’ve been successful with our policies and practices and the work Reports from the Field has accomplished,” she wrote. “We feel it’s important to inventory, test, and fine tune our methodologies so we can best serve our audience, contributors, and the literary world.”

Melnick, who left VIDA in October, launched #saferlit, a social-media campaign that encourages people to have meaningful conversations that will help free literary workplaces of sexual harassment and abuse. She says that recently, her attention has shifted toward analyzing the systemic causes behind sexual violence, beyond the naming and shaming of perpetrators. She also hopes to use #saferlit as a platform for developing a practical resource guide for survivors and go beyond “call out” culture. “I believe that recalling your experience can be very helpful and often healing in some ways, but it’s like ripping a Band-Aid and doesn’t really solve a problem,” she says. “I think I was very naive when I was thinking that, oh, I’ll name the problem and there won’t be a problem.”

Clark acknowledged that, for VIDA, failure to evolve as an organization that deals with gender and social justice would undermine their sense of purpose. “Almost all of us have a story,” she says. “But people who aren’t women or binary simply don’t believe that these incidents occur with the frequency they do.”

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Zainab Sultan is a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @ZainabSultan.