Showdown at Hobart Gulch

Online literary magazine editors resign over Alex Perez interview

 Last week’s literary world drama will get us really in the weeds, centering on the literary magazine, Hobart, and the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop. On September 29, the magazine published an interview between self-proclaimed “Iowa pariah” Alex Perez and editor Elizabeth Ellen that caused five editors to resign and all sorts of internet opinions.

The interview itself covers Perez’s life as a Cuban-American in Miami and dreams of playing baseball before diving into wokeness, decrying the MFA “grift,” and lamenting that there’s no place anymore for writers of “masculine fiction.” A representative quote:

“I think every guy who writes from a heterosexual male point of view feels the pressure to apologize for his manhood. First, let’s define masculine writing, since we’ve mentioned it a handful of times. Masculine writing=writing about heterosexual male concerns from a non-feminist point of view. It doesn’t mean that the masculine writer can’t be a feminist or write about feminism or whatever, but he can’t care about not being seen as a feminist or an ally, which is the main concern of most male writers now; this is why the writer you mentioned apologized. If a man is worried about what feminists will think of him, he’s not a masculine writer because he’ll never be able to write honestly about the male condition. He will be the worst of all creatures: the mushy male feminist.”

You can read a great synopsis and analysis of the interview at Gawker. That piece cites tweets from now-former editor Evan Fleischer as starting this conversation:

Writer Rion Amilcar Scott also has a great thread about Perez’s writing “token good boy” stories. Perez says in the interview:

“If you’re a POC, you can’t just submit any old story about the POC experience, but one in which the narrative framing is about victimization at the hands of America and ‘whiteness’ and all the other predictable tropes that now dominate literary fiction. When you write into this framing, you’re performing like a token good boy, hence, you’ve written a token good boy story. The trick to a token good boy story is situating the “brown” characters as victims while also providing the woke white editors palatably edgy scenes that never tip over into the problematic, so they feel like they’re reading an “authentic” POC story. You slip in a word in Spanish or have a character cross the border and dodge a border patrol agent or two; you know, the stuff that makes woke whites salivate. Which is to say that in the literary scene POC characters are only allowed to be victims or noble savages, ideally both—a pure brown person victimized by an evil white system.”

“So dude notes that at one time he wrote what he calls “token good boy stories” cuz he believed that’s the only way he could be published. But if he chose to write inauthentically that is a a decision that he made, not one that was forced upon him,” tweeted Scott. “Of course, what to do with the white gaze is a challenge that every POC writer has to deal with and I don’t want to minimize the difficulty of that, but there is literally hundreds of years of models to follow if you want write with integrity. Capitulation is a choice.”

On October 12, five of Hobart’s editors resigned in a now-deleted letter on the Hobart site. Founding editor Aaron Burch resigned later that day. Among the editors’ concerns is the amount of power that editor Ellen wields, saying:

The publication of Alex Perez’s interview reflects a continued pattern of behavior on the part of a single editor, Elizabeth Ellen, to prioritize attention driven by outrage rather than forwarding innovative work that adds new perspectives to Hobart and the literary community…all staff editors at Hobart have the same publication privileges on the back end of the website. This allowed for flexible work schedules and reduced hierarchy, but it also relied on everyone acting responsibly. We all had the technical power to publish whatever we wanted with impunity; the success of Hobart as a group project required all editors to act with good faith and with the knowledge that our actions would reflect on everyone else.

Their resignation, very cattily, continues, “The content that started all this was regressive, harmful, and also just boring writing.”

Of course, the reactions on social media were numerous and emotional. Many writers thanked and credited the Hobart of the past for giving them their start and asked how they could pull their writing from the site. One thread offered resources for writers looking for new homes for their work, now that Hobart is off-limits. And, of course, folks dunked on Perez, Ellen and the whole scandal:

In a long Substack entry, ‘Who Killed Creative Writing?’ former (and, I guess, current) MFA degree-holder Meghan Daum agrees with Perez on some points and disagrees with him on others, but ultimately feels like the interview, and resulting controversy, show how impossible it is to have a “literary” career these days:

“Perez says he now makes a living writing heterodox-minded commentary for outlets like Tablet, but I find that hard to believe. It’s all but impossible to make a living doing any kind of freelance writing these days, and unless he’s either exceptionally frugal or exceptionally prolific, my guess is that he’s struggling as much as any of us. There will be those who view this Hobart dustup as a premeditated publicity effort. The fact that I spent my weekend writing more than 3,000 words about a magazine and a writer that I’d never heard of until Wednesday suggests they might have a point.”

For their parts, Ellen and Perez have definitely added to the tweet storm. Perez wrote, “Today, I will attempt to do the impossible: Explain to my Miami friends why I am now the “Iowa Pariah.” I will have to explain what the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I will probably also need to define “pariah,” since most of my bros barely speak English. I might get my ass kicked,” on October 14.

Ellen has been tweeting from the Hobart account directly, as well as publishing a response on the Hobart site that called this response a “mutiny” and compared her situation to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” She is also retweeting her supporters, thanking Ellen and Hobart for publishing their writing.

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Katie Smith

Katie Smith is a Philadelphia-based writer. Find her on Instagram @saddy_yankee for cat pics.

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