When I was seventeen years old, I attended a summer workshop for young writers. We had reading assignments each night — all kinds of poems, short stories, memoirs — and I don’t remember most of them, but I do remember writer and MIT professor Junot Díaz’s short story “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars.” I remember curling up in bed, exhausted after hours of impassioned writing, expecting my eyelids to droop shut before I reached the end. But after I started reading, I knew I had to finish the story — unexpectedly, it was a strange mixture of compelling and disturbing. I really don’t know if I enjoyed reading it — if I did, my enjoyment was stifled by the sense of unease it left me with. It wasn’t just the narrator’s constant references to sex and his objectifying remarks that spurred my discomfort, but also his sense of entitlement; for example, after he wins back the girl he cheated on and books an early trip to the beach for the two of them, he thinks to himself that, for doing this, he deserves sex from her. After finishing the story, I felt this strange sense that, as a young woman reader, Díaz’s story didn't belong in my hands.
Years later, I discovered that Junot Díaz had just been accused of sexual misconduct. Zinzi Clemmons, author of What We Lose, said that, when she was a graduate student, she invited Díaz to speak at a workshop, where he sexually assaulted her. “I was an unknown wide-eyed 26 yo, and he used it as an opportunity to corner and forcibly kiss me,” Clemmons said on Twitter. Following Clemmons’ allegation, other women writers also shared their stories of Díaz taking advantage of them. Poet and professor Shreerekha Subramanian explained how he had taken advantage of her when she was a graduate student and made her swear to be silent about their relationship. Theorist Marianella Belliard wrote about how she introduced herself to Díaz during a talk and he made unwanted sexual advances, becoming angry when she rebuffed them. Other women writers relayed incidents in which Díaz had been verbally abusive to them. Carmen Maria Machado — one of my absolute favorite writers and the author of Her Body and Other Parties — explained that, after she asked him about his borderline sociopathic and sexist narrator, Yunior, at a Q&A, he suddenly appeared angry, and proceeded to berate her for some fifteen minutes, using misogynistic arguments to defend his beloved Yunior.
I wanted to feel disappointed or shocked, but I didn’t. After that first story I read, I had tried reading one other story Díaz wrote, but I stopped there. I felt that there was no place for me as a woman, a reader, or an aspiring writer — his narrator was so absorbed in his toxic masculinity, his stories so saturated with blatant misogyny, that all of the female characters seemed to be mere props, only there to serve Yunior and his story. It was, unfortunately, no surprise to me that Díaz himself had berated, objectified, and preyed on women for years.
The #MeToo movement has provided many women with a platform to share their stories of misogyny, sexual abuse, and assault at the hands of powerful men in the literary world, including Díaz, David Foster Wallace, and Sherman Alexie. However, most of these men have remained virtually unscathed, retaining their jobs and reputations. After many women told their stories of Díaz’s abuse, MIT launched an investigation and cleared Díaz, stating that there was not sufficient evidence of sexual misconduct. He still teaches there today. David Foster Wallace, whose abuse and misogyny I will discuss shortly, never lost any of his teaching jobs, in spite of the allegations against him, before his suicide in 2008. He is still hailed by many as one of the most brilliant writers, and his famous Infinite Jest is often cited as one of the greatest American novels.
It seems that something about a famous male writer being accused of sexual abuse presents a unique challenge that isn’t always present in other cases of powerful male abusers. It goes like this: somehow, his misogyny and sexual misconduct get all tangled up in his so-called genius. His abuse is romanticized, treated simply as another indicator of his passionate, tragic, and torturous genius. His accusers’ stories are seen as inconveniences to his brilliant art. And suddenly, the focus is no longer on the women he has abused, but on him, the victim of his own thoughts, desires, passions — the victim of his own genius.
And suddenly, the focus is no longer on the women he has abused, but on him, the victim of his own thoughts, desires, passions — the victim of his own genius.
David Foster Wallace is perhaps the epitome of this archetype. His abuse was ignored for much longer than that of Díaz and Alexie; he never faced any consequences while he was alive, and, although his abuse of writer Mary Karr was known, it was rarely given attention until after his death. In 2012, D.T. Max wrote a biography of Wallace called Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. He briefly discussed Wallace’s failed relationship with Karr and the abuse that ensued, explaining that Wallace tried to push her from a moving car and threw a coffee table at her. But in 2018, Karr shared on Twitter that this was only a small portion of the abuse:
thats about 2% of what happened. [he] tried to buy a gun. kicked me. climbed up the side of my house at night. followed my son age 5 home from school. had to change my number twice, and he still got it. months and months it went on.
The most unsettling aspect of Karr’s tweet is that it does not relay new information — the fact that Wallace stalked, abused, and traumatized her has been known for years. As Whitney Kimball explained in an article on Jezebel, “…[it] is not a revelation; this has been documented and adopted by the literary world as one of Wallace’s character traits.” Indeed, Wallace’s abuse has often been ignored, but it has also often been accepted by the literary world as simply another manifestation of his irrepressible passion and mystifying complexity. A 2012 Atlantic interview with D.T. Max depicts Wallace’s violent anger as romantic and creative:
That’s one of the most shocking things you discovered: that he considered — granted in a half-baked manner — murdering Karr’s then-husband. He later went on to have a tumultuous relationship with her.
Yes, certainly. I didn’t know that David had that in him. I was surprised, in general, with the intensity of violence in his personality. It was something I knew about him when I wrote The New Yorker piece, but it grew on me. It made me think harder about David and creativity and anger. But on the other end of the spectrum, he was also this open, emotional guy, who was able to cry, who intensely loved his dogs. He was all those things. That, in part, is why he’s a really fascinating guy and an honor to write about.
You write that Infinite Jest was motivated by his “dysfunctional yearning for Mary Karr.” How did she influence his drive to write the book?
What I meant by that was that he was trying to impress her. He really wants her to think he’s doing wonderful work, and I think when she, at various times, breaks up with him, he’s thrown into those negative spirals that can also be enormously productive for a person, a creative spiral of anger. Almost like something out of a Hollywood movie.
The language with which both the interviewer and D.T. Max describe Wallace and his abuse of Mary Karr is telling. Karr breaking up with Wallace and him subsequently abusing and stalking her is just a “tumultuous relationship.” His obsessive stalking and violence is described in an odd, almost romantic way as a “dysfunctional yearning.” Apparently, his entitlement and anger are actually “productive,” resulting in a “creative spiral of anger, almost like something out of a Hollywood movie.” And, of course, Max is “honored” to write about Wallace — his abuse just makes him all the more complex and “fascinating.”
The fact that Wallace is not held accountable for his abuse is even more apparent in a 2012 New York Times interview with Max. One of the questions asked was as follows: “What was it about his feelings for her that created such trouble for Wallace?”
Of course the problem was not Wallace being a violent abuser — it was actually his “feelings” that created “such trouble” for him! What about the impact that his actions had on Karr? Just like that, the trauma that Karr still experiences because of Wallace is completely erased. Not only that, but, in these conversations, Karr is always relegated to the margins — Karr’s writing is celebrated by many, but when the subject is Wallace, suddenly, she is just a prop in the story of a tortured male genius. Karr herself has said, “Sometimes people go on and on about David Foster Wallace. As though my contribution to literature is that I fucked him a couple times in the early nineties… Everybody in America owes me a dollar who read Infinite Jest.”
Perhaps the most damaging consequence of the myth of the male genius — and the consequent excusing of male writers’ misogyny and abuse — is the fact that it erects invisible but wholly real boundaries that obstruct women writers’ paths to success. It has allowed powerful male writers — or “geniuses” — to prey on aspiring women writers, take advantage of them, and hinder their progress. We know Díaz took advantage of Zinzi Clemmons and Shreerekha Subramanian when they were young graduate students. Similarly, the (at least) ten women who have accused author Sherman Alexie of misconduct, from inappropriate comments to unwanted sexual advances, “said Alexie had traded on his literary celebrity to lure them into uncomfortable sexual situations.” Three writers — Jeanine Walker, Erika Wurth, and Elissa Washuta — explained that he expressed interest in their writing, and they expected he could be a mentor to them, but then he made unwanted sexual comments or advances, leaving them shocked and devastated.
Writer Anne Ursu explains how such experiences are often traumatic. “If you are an aspiring author,” she says, “and you go to a reading of someone who is famous and beloved and whose work you admire, and he suddenly takes an interest in you and your work, and he thinks you’re special, and you start emailing, and he wants to mentor you — and then suddenly it turns out all he wanted to do is have sex with you. Those writers are left utterly devastated.”
Unfortunately, Wallace, Díaz, and Alexie are far from the only male writers who have abused their power. In her essay called “Experts in the Field,” writer Bonnie Nadzam discusses a number of unnamed older male writing mentors who took advantage of her. One was her professor, who she says “told me an early draft of my first novel was ‘so good it made [him] want to sleep with me.’” Chillingly, she explains that a number of the men she discussed are “among many of [our] favorite authors and teachers.” Throughout her essay, Nadzam intuitively unveils a dynamic that affects a number of young or aspiring women writers. She is not alone in sharing these stories; Emma Cline also wrote an essay about sexual harassment in the literary world, and Literary Hub published a piece with quotes from 11 women writers’ who responded and related to Nadzam’s story.
What I want to emphasize is this: this is not about David Foster Wallace, or Junot Díaz, or Sherman Alexie. I am not writing this piece simply to tear them down — although I do think that justice should be served for the sake of the women they have harmed — nor am I suggesting that we should forever abandon their writing, or that their contributions to literature have no value. Rather, my purpose in writing this is to critique and illuminate the ways in which our culture instantly exonerates men who abuse women if they are thought of as “geniuses.” Powerful male writers often feel entitled to act on their desires and make unwanted sexual advances towards women writers — and, by constantly enshrining the myth of the male genius and worshipping writing that is blatantly misogynistic, our culture emboldens them to do so. Put simply, my point is that we should strive towards getting rid of the entire myth of the male genius.
Carmen Maria Machado, one of the women Diaz berated for simply asking about his novel’s misogyny, explains how she believes the purpose of the #MeToo movement is “previously unspoken elements of sexual harassment, rape, and power being brought to light. If all things were equal,” she explains, “if it was fair, men would get to experience what we get to experience. In terms of having their art utterly devalued at every turn. In terms of not being taken seriously. Obviously, I don’t think that will happen.”
Machado is right. The myth of the male genius is so pervasive that it goes perpetually unnoticed. It is always there — our culture is submerged in it. It is what is at play when powerful male writers feign interest in young women writers’ work, only to try to have sex with them. It is what is at play when an acclaimed author abuses and stalks a woman writer and he is simply labelled even more “fascinating” and “creative.” It is what is at play when a young woman writer shares a draft of her novel with her professor and he says it is “so good it [makes] him want to sleep with [her].” And unfortunately, it is not a movie and we cannot press pause — all we can do is continue to identify it, over and over again, no matter how painful it may be.