Like everyone in literary land, I’ve been following the events of the past week with a lot of interest. The allegations of rape and abuse have been absolutely abhorrent.
Tao Lin’s case—and the reaction to it—has been compelling. As everyone by now knows, Lin has been reviled for sleeping with a much younger paramour and subjecting them to an incredible amount of abuse. Clearly, what he did was reprehensible and he’s essentially admitted as much.
The open question seems to be—what now? Is Lin banished forever? Should he be?
In a widely shared piece, Mallory Ortberg, addressing an essay written by Elizabeth Ellen, seems to think so, until he at least makes amends. A portion of the piece, which discusses a confession by Ellen about her childhood, could easily be directed at Tao Lin:
How have you atoned? How have you made amends when possible and granted your victims freedom from being reminded of how you trespassed against them? How have you supported other victims of other sexual crimes, either through your time, money, or public support?
So, is this is the proposed plan going forward? If so, I don’t understand the endgame. Here’s the thing: Bad—even terrible—behavior is hardly rare if you take a look at the literary canon.
As an easy example, we still read Pound, even though he was a literal mouthpiece for fascist Italy. But OK, maybe Pound is too extreme, an apples-to-orangutans comparison.
Let’s consider Anne Sexton, a much more similar case.
Sexton cheated on her husband constantly. She abused her children physically, possibly even sexually. Living with her, one would imagine, must have been a nightmare, at least on par with what has been alleged about Lin. Maybe even worse.
Nonetheless, Sexton was never sent into the wilderness. Her work remains popular and well-regarded, even (especially?) in feminist circles. Nonetheless, it’s not clear if she ever atoned for the harm she caused, as Mallory Ortberg seems to expect from Tao Lin. (Given that Sexton committed suicide—an added burden upon them—it seems somewhat unlikely that she atoned at all.)
So as readers, is it our job to make judgments on an author’s private life, and then to take action on them? So is Sexton out? If so, fine, but where exactly is the cutoff? And who is the arbiter when it comes to a punishment? If we’re going to play at prosecutor—and when we take Twitter as akin to court testimony, that’s what we’re doing—we need to at least set some ground rules. And if we insist on angels we’re going to end up with a damn small canon.
To be sure, the Internet has never been particularly good at restraint—and it certainly doesn’t forget—so Ortberg’s claim that all is going on is a little “internet yelling” seems pretty disingenuous. As a veteran of some Internet Yelling, I know all about that. That was tame stuff compared to Lin affair; when your name, rightly or wrongly, is plastered on Gawker and elsewhere along with serious allegations, it’s more than a bit beyond yelling.
Ortberg also argues that nothing has actually happened to Lin despite the past week—he hasn’t lost a job, etc.—but that’s laughable. Lin has a reading coming up at Columbia. I’d put money on it that it gets canceled or at least interrupted. Once a literary darling, he’s going to have a hell of a time going forward getting work published in many circles, and the same goes for future book deals and the like. (Not to mention a teaching gig should he pursue one.)
Now Ortberg would likely say, “So what? He deserves it.”
Maybe so, but who gets to decide how much punishment is enough? And once something is loose on the Internet, is controlling the impact even possible?
If I seem reserved about the whole shebang, it’s not because I have any sympathy for Lin and company. Hardly. Rather, I have a deep distrust of instant judgments rendered online and I worry about the precedent: a culture of denunciation can quickly spiral out of control, leading to recriminations and settling scores. As Elizabeth Ellen noted, such denunciations have already happening with more frequency. Ellen, in turn, was immediately denounced and lambasted as a misogynist and an apologist.
For writing this, I might be too, I don’t know. If so, maybe we’re all Jacobins now.
 There’s no malice in these questions, by the way: I have next to nothing riding on this, and I’m genuinely interested in the relationship between a writer’s private bad behavior, their work, and their public life.