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Current Affairs

Alex Perez Takes his Leave -- from the "Literary Community" or from his senses? [by David Lehman]

Elizaberth EllenIt's no secret that literary people and humanists are reluctant to take an unpopular position that deviates from the party line. So it is noteworthy when someone pops off, refusing to yield to the forces of self-censorship. An enterprising editor named Elizabeth Ellen [left], the poet and writer who runs Hobart magazine, undertook an e-mail correspondence with Alex Perez, a former professional baseball player who attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop. As Perez explains it: "I couldn’t see—forget hit—a 95 mile per hour fastball, and so it was over. My dream of being the next Alex Rodriguez was wiped away, so I decided to give the writing life a shot—maybe I could be the Cuban-American Ray Carver." Think about it: the American dream reconfigured as the metamorphosis of Alex Rodriguez into Raymond Carver! That rates a wow.

Even someone who had never heard of either the magazine, its editor, or the subject of the interview, could not help taking notice of “Alex Perez on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, baseball, growing up Cuban-American in Miami & saying goodbye to the literary community”. Perez has little good to say about MFA programs and the whole so-called "literary community" -- "community" joining "iconic" as an over-used word that has shed its meaning. 

APerezPerez [right] is a very outspoken fellow, and both he and his editor are courageous, for it is entirely predictable that individuals outraged by his views have denounced them and derograted him vehemently. Here's how Jonny Diamond sees it, pulling no punches: "With encouragement from Ellen, Perez rehashes numerous timeworn clichés about the artistic cowardice of the literary establishment—its elitism, its careerism, its overwhelming whiteness, its simultaneous disgust with and fetishizing of the working class—and sounds like just another caffeinated undergrad reheating yesterday’s manifesto." The staff of the magazine resigned over what Diamond characterizes as a "tedious anti-woke" rant. This event, too, is eye-raising. One wonders whether the tactic of mass resignation or the threat of revolt has run out of gas. (Its precedents include incidents at the New York Times and The New York Review of Books, both of which fired or forced the resignation of a prominent editor because of staff complaints.) "Your editor published something you didn't like, and you resigned? Is that what they taught you in journalism school?" 

Meghan DaumNot everyone joined in the chorus of boos. Meghan Daum [left, author of The Problem With Everything: My Journey Through The New Culture Wars, wrote a piece under the heading: "Who Killed Creative Writing? Thoughts on Alex Perez, Hobart magazine, and price of literary citizenship." Daum's sense of humor rose to the occasion. "To  be honest," she writes, "my appetite for this sort of online blowup diminishes hourly. Though I’m as prone to schadenfreude as any other media professional trying to hold onto relevance in an increasingly winner-take-all economy, there’s something about watching extremely online people have noisy meltdowns that makes me feel like I’m inhaling my own body odor. But some of the stuff Perez was saying was not only true; it was, for lack of a better term, extra-true. It was true on a molecular level. It was true in a way that made you not only nod in agreement but almost physically shudder in recognition." For example, "I’ve come to see the MFA in writing as the educational equivalent of a draft dodge.” That, too, rates a wow. 

Here's a very brief portion of Elizabeth Ellen's interview with Alex Perez (pub date: September 29, 2022). Perez is the speaker.

The literary world is so bland because of the ideological uniformity of the scene. As I’ve said throughout, most writers are seemingly aligned with progressive orthodoxy and wokeness. I say seemingly because a lot of writers reach out to me in private—like you did—who haven’t bought in but are afraid to speak out publicly. So what you have are writers who are woke and others pretending to be woke out of fear and the result is a scene that is totally flattened aesthetically. Isn’t it weird that most writers sound like operatives for the Democratic Party? Do they want to be the press secretary for Joe Biden or do they want to be writers? Do you have to wear a pussy hat and pray to RBG and idolize little doctor Fauci if you want to be a writer? I’m not saying writers need to be rightwing, but it’s strange that most writers present as Democrats.

This restrictive culture that demands ideological uniformity creates a scene in which writers trade relevance and ambition for “literary community.” If you’re not a good, little woke writer who dons the pussy hat you won’t be part of the “literary community” and lose out on publishing your flash fiction about hating America in Ploughshares or a webzine read by fifteen pussy hat wearers. What’s wild is how writers with zero readership micromanage their careers! Tweeting all the Democratic Party talking points. Supporting the correct politicians. Hating the designated “bad” people. These unknown writers watching what they say and doing all this work—for no payment! —and no one even reads them! The mainstream literary world operates this way, as does the indie scene. Everyone a good, little striver, striving for scraps.

The crazy unedited shit we want to read doesn’t exist because writers are now some of the most self-conscious and self-censorious people on the planet. They can’t say anything we’ve said in this interview. They can never have the fun we’re having here. As the man said: Sad! All this to say that, yes, the literary world left me behind, but now I’ve transcended the literary world. This interview, as a matter of fact, feels like my swan song. My final goodbye to the “literary community.”

 “My family left Cuba, left everything behind to come to America, and I was afraid of some of the most mediocre people on the planet. I was deeply ashamed. … I remained a pussy until 2017, when Hurricane Irma, a category five monster of a storm, was set to destroy Miami. A day before impact, I was sitting at Starbucks with a buddy, and said, “If we get through this one, I’m going to write whatever the fuck I want from now on.” The fear of the storm coincided with the peak of my shame, and I just couldn’t take it anymore. Irma ended up missing Miami, but something had changed. I dropped the agent soon after and started writing political/cultural stuff; I started writing about all the stuff I was secretly talking about with friends. My first published piece of cultural commentary, an essay about Philip Roth and American manhood, appeared in Tablet Magazine. I’ve been doing it ever since. This is how I make a living now. It’s very nice to get paid to write, I must say. I highly recommend it.”>>>

For the rest of the interview, click here.

Note: On Elizabeth Ellen's home page we're told that "In 2014, Ellen authored a controversial essay for which she was removed from an anthology of ‘provocative women writers’ to be published by Black Lawrence Press. Upon Ellen's public removal from the anthology, several other prominent female writers pulled their names and contributions from the anthology in support of Ellen, including Roxane Gay, Cheryl Strayed, Laura van den Berg, Amelia Gray, Lindsay Hunter, xTx, Mary Miller and Jac Jemc." Ellen wrote a letter that she knew would prove controversial, saying "I refuse to be afraid of my fellow women. Of entering into a discourse with them for fear I will say something they don’t like. That’s not what our moms marched for. It’s certainly not what mine marched for. Let’s remember this." As a result of the letter, the press dropped a story by Ellen that they had accepted for publication. The editors thought Ellen's letter was "provocative," a no-no, so they canceled a story on a totally unrelated theme. Here's what Brett Ortler wrote on the controversy for The Nervous Breakdown.


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I left it
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