A first-time author wrote a science fiction story about sexual identity and got it published in a monthly magazine. Critics of the piece attacked the author until she asked that it be taken down. Writing in the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf called it a case of “self-cancellation.”
Recently, Clarkesworld, a monthly science-fiction and fantasy magazine, published a short story by Isabel Fall titled “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter,” an allusion to a viral meme from 2014 that sought to mock and parody claims about transgender identities. The story attempts to subvert that critique, reclaim the phrase, and explore trans identities.
After experiencing vicious and personal attacks online, Isabel Fall asked that “Attack Helicopter” be taken down. Call it a self-cancellation. “The recent barrage of attacks on Isabel have taken a toll and I ask that even if you disagree with the decision, that you respect it,” Neil Clarke, the magazine’s editor, later explained in a statement. “This is not censorship. She needed this to be done for her own personal safety and health.”
Clarke revealed that “Isabel was not out as trans when this story was published,” but outed herself under pressure to mount a defense against the false claims of detractors, an outcome he called “very disturbing.”
One of the leading voices that trashed the story and the author was the “acting president of SF-Canada” who said it seemed to be written by someone with no real knowledge of trans people:
And worse, it feels not only fake but poorly researched. It feels like the take on gender theory that you would achieve by spending a half hour on Wikipedia or reading a few articles. Not the take you might achieve by reading actual novels and memoirs by real transfolk.
— Arinn Dembo (@Erinys) January 12, 2020
So at the risk of pulling a Silverberg? I’m going to come right out and say that this story does not feel like it was written by a cis or trans woman. It feels like “Isabel Fall” is a straight cis person who is a current or former helicopter pilot. Probably a white dude.
— Arinn Dembo (@Erinys) January 12, 2020
Dembo was wrong about all of that. Asked if she had any second thoughts in light of the fact that the author is a trans person, she said her criticism stands and faulted the author for not providing a statement of intent along with the story:
All I can say at this point is that a lot of people might have been spared a lot of mental anguish if that story had simply been accompanied by a sentence or two of context—an artist’s statement of the author’s identity and her intention for the work. There’s a reason that the Artist Statement is so common in art galleries that showcase transgressive or challenging work.
Yes, or readers could choose not to make half-assed assumptions about the author’s identity the way Dembo did.
Friedersdorf argues there’s a real problem with the wholesale move to “art for justice’s sake” as opposed to “art for art’s sake” and I think he’s right as far as he goes. But arguably things are even now worse than that. It’s not just the art that has to toe the ever-changing line, it’s the artists. We’ve seen evidence of this several times in recent weeks. There was outrage last week over statements by Stephen King (that films nominated for Oscars should be judged on their merit without regard to diversity). Before that people were outraged by J.K. Rowling siding with someone who questioned trans orthodoxy. Though the controversy had nothing to do with her books, angry readers began expressing their distaste for her fiction.
Artists are in a bind these days. Any work of art that doesn’t raise identity politics issues is considered suspect but any work of art that raises them risks being shouted down for offering the wrong take. Why try to write or speak thoughtfully about these topics at all if the slightest misstep can create a career-ending controversy? This sad case of self-cancellation is evidence that it’s often easier to say nothing than risk saying something that might be misunderstood by the social justice mob.