Let’s Talk About Tao Lin

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?[1]

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.



[1] 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.



  • Seth Marlin says:

    Nice post. I’ve been out for a bit, and had to do a bit of research to get up to speed. I will say this: one thing I’ve noticed is that Internet rage has a pretty short shelf-life. Lin’s career might well be destroyed after all this (and I wouldn’t feel particularly bad about that), but I wonder what the reaction to his work will be after we gain some distance from the memory of his alleged crimes. I wonder how Ted Hughes’ career would have been impact had his relationship to Plath enjoyed the full scrutiny of the modern Internet. It might have been ruined, or it might have experience little to no effect at all. Of course, we really don’t have precedent to see how this will play out over time. I guess we’ll see.

  • Jeffrey Morgan says:

    Perhaps “alt lit” depends (depended–is it dead?) too much on the real life personality/personae and voice of its authors. Perhaps the writing then cannot survive the destruction of the writer’s real life credibility. Perhaps this is more true of all writing in this moment than we would like to admit or to have be.

  • Brett says:

    Thanks, gents. Interesting thoughts all around.

  • For me, this discussion is not so much about whether Tao Lin should be banished from the literary cannon, it’s about the larger issue of rape culture.

    Kat Stoeffel wrote a great piece for New York Magazine, discussing both Lin and Stephen Tully Dierks situations (both well known in the alt lit community): http://nymag.com/thecut/2014/10/doesnt-have-to-be-rape-to-suck.html

    Stoeffel raises questions such as, “It says something about the moral margin we afford male artists that a 22-year-old man could have a harmful sexual relationship with a 16-year-old, write and publicize a hyperliteral novel about it…, but avoid mainstream criticism until the widely known victim speaks out.”

    And she points out that, “The alt-lit jerk reckoning mirrors what’s happening in high schools and on college campuses, where rape survivors are forgoing their claim to privacy to prove “rape culture” is real, even where prosecutors and campus adjudicators fail to address it.”

  • JaimeRWood says:

    I agree with what Jeffrey said. If part of the appeal of the lit is the cool factor of the author, then the author’s rep matters as much as the quality of the lit. However, New Critics would say that the lit has to be able to stand on its own. New Historicists would argue that it’s impossible to divorce cultural context from a text. I’d say that if the writing is really brilliant, it’ll withstand and outlast this blow. If it’s not, then Tao Lin may very well be screwed. (Pun intended.) And yes, Asa, is right, this should really spark another conversation about rape culture. Why should we champion lit that celebrates rape, violence, and emotional abuse in the first place, unless there’s a deeper message attached? Even with the deeper message, I’d question whether that message is worth it when it’s delivered to us rapped in a steaming pile of shit.

  • Melina says:

    Brett, you brought up the question “Am I an apologist?” I’d like to address it.
    Though I understand you are trying to grapple critically with the Canon At Large, and that you call Lin’s actions “reprehensible,” I mainly want to call into question your comment “I have next to nothing riding on this.”
    This disclaimer reflects your privilege of not having felt victimized, targeted, or silenced, as survivors of rape and abuse– who, in most cases, and in this case, are female– have and do. Given the history of the silencing of women who have been raped as an aspect of rape culture that both Jaime and Asa pointed out, by asserting “I have next to nothing riding on this” is problematic because you are not using your privilege (both as a man and a writer with a public platform) to take a stand against the behaviors you already named as wrong– even if they are only second-hand-heard behaviors, even if you are unable to reach Tao Lin for comment.
    I appreciated Jeffrey’s comment about our profoundly changed relationship to writers and artists in the here and now, which renders the comparison to Anne Sexton, et. al., difficult. We have so much information, instantly, all the time– too much.
    But then we have all the more responsibility to resist colluding with the dominant narrative which tells us we should remain indifferent and continue to celebrate these Important Men, thereby admonishing them from their abusive actions.

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