For all its gestures toward radicalism and openness, Brooklyn's hip young "alt lit" scene might not be any less toxic for women than...well, anywhere else, according to a series of essays published this week accusing a prominent young editor of sexual assault.
The scandal—now a hot topic across the social-media platforms on which the alt-lit scene thrives—kicked off this weekend, when 20-year-old writer Sophia Katz published an essay on Medium about an alt-lit magazine editor who she claims sexually abused her.
While Katz doesn't name the editor in the piece—she used the pseudonym "Stan"—other writers have said that Katz was writing about Stephen Tully Dierks, the 29-year-old editor of the alt-lit mag Pop Serial. Pop Serial is influential in the close-knit alt-lit scene (Tao Lin designed its latest issue cover) and Dierks is one of its boy kings—a fact which, Katz writes in her essay, makes it easy for him to prey on young girls.
Katz, who's based in Toronto, says that when she visited New York last May to make career connections, Dierks gave her a place to stay and then coerced her, repeatedly, into having sex with him.
Alt lit—short for alternative literature, duh—is the name given to a community of writers, mostly physically based in Brooklyn but spiritually located online, who take as their inspiration and subject matter the internet and internet culture.
Hip, youthful, awkward, and uncomfortably self-aware, its participants—Dierks, Alt Lit Gossip editor Frank Hinton, author Noah Cicero, and poet Steve Roggenbuck, to name a few—are all twenty-somethings fluent in Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook and other social platforms, which they use to self-publish and self-promote. "Its members," the poet Kennth Goldsmith wrote on the New Yorker's website last year, "have produced a body of distinctive literature marked by direct speech, expressions of aching desire, and wide-eyed sincerity."
Its members are also mostly male. While there are certainly female alt-lit writers (perhaps Marie Calloway is the most famous), other women writers—like Safy-Hallan Farah—contend that the alt-lit scene is just as much a boys' club as any other literary scene. Farah wrote for Fanzine last year, "If you're not one of the ... tokens or a girl Alt Lit bros deem attractive, then your work will likely be slept on or tokenized."
Katz's essay paints Dierks as a creepy, self-deprecating-but-self-obsessed Brooklyn dude who constantly proclaims how much he loves women but then treats them like objects. Here, she describes how he invited her to stay with him in May:
Stan (Dierks) invited me to stay at his place after we had exchanged emails for about one week. ... He explained that there would be three other people staying in his apartment at the same time I would be there, and that I was "welcome to sleep in [his] bed if [I would] be comfortable with that haha."
"I'm down," he continued. But if I wasn't, I "might wanna find a different place."
Katz told him she'd bring a sleeping bag and didn't mind sleeping on the floor. He didn't get the hint.
Over the course of her weeklong stay, Katz writes, Dierks would take her to readings, assure her that "we don't have to do anything," and then voicelessly grope her when the lights went out. Here, she describes their first sexual encounter:
That evening we were in his room sitting on his bed, and he began kissing me ... I had no interest in making out with him or having sex with him, but had a feeling that it would "turn into an ordeal" if I rejected him. ... I knew I had nowhere else to stay, and if I upset him that I might be forced to leave. ... Suddenly I heard the lock on the apartment door click, and all four of his roommates entered.
"Wait, Stan we can't. Everyone just got home; they will definitely hear," I said, hoping this was a way out.
"No they won't. It's fine. Let's keep going."
"No, I think they will. I really don't want to if your roommates are home. We really shouldn't."
"No, it's fine. We should. We should. Let's keep going."
"Stan, please can we just do this later. Your walls are really thin." I felt tears welling up in my eyes and tried to dissolve them. I didn't want to do it later. I didn't want to do it ever. I didn't know what I wanted to do. I wanted to leave, but I was trapped with him in his tiny, dimly lit room.
"No, we should keep going. Let's keep going."
He got on top of me. I began to relinquish control.
"Wait, aren't you going to use a condom?" I asked.
"Oh, come on. Please don't make me do that."
"Stan I really, really think you should use a condom, please use a condom."
"I'm clean. Are you?" he questioned.
"Yes but it doesn't matter. Please. Come on."
"Its fine Sophie, come on, we don't need one. I hate condoms."
I realized there was no way for me to win.
Other encounters throughout the week played out similarly.
After Katz published her story, Dierks's former friend, roommate, and fellow writer Sarah Jean Alexander came forward on Tumblr to corroborate Katz—and identify "Stan." She called what happened to Katz "rape" and wrote:
We shouldn't be afraid to discuss this publicly when Sophia has been brave enough to call out her abuser in a community where he has immense support and friendship. Stephen Tully Dierks should not be shielded because he is or was our friend. We should hold our friends as accountable as we hold everyone else, if not more.
Alexander's post was shared by Alt Lit Gossip on Tumblr; soon after, an anonymous 18-year-old woman on Tumblr came forward with a similar story to Katz's—in which Dierks allegedly invited this woman to a reading, got her drunk, and took her back to his apartment after she asked to be dropped off at hers. When she tried to go to sleep, the woman says, he didn't let her:
I left my jacket on in the hopes that it would send a clear message that I wasn't uncomfortable removing any of my clothing in his presence at all, but he asked me over and over if he could take it and hang it up for me. Eventually, I agreed just so he would stop talking. ... Stephen kicked off his shoes, lowered himself onto his bed and crawled over to me. He began caressing my arm and pressed his mouth against mine with feverish urgency. I protested, but it imediately became clear that my attempts were futile. I lay still and stared at the ceiling as he groped and fondled me. Eventually, as Sophia did in her story, I began to do things that I thought would make him finish faster. He used my body off and on all night until he fell asleep.
This woman says she's still traumatized by her interactions with Dierks.
Dierks responded by deleting his Twitter account and publishing this message on Facebook (it's since been removed):
So... hope you didn't spend too much on your Pop Serial subscription?
In the wake of the public accusations, a number of other alt-lit writers on Twitter and Tumblr have also come forward, claiming that they've known all along about the alleged bad behavior of Dierks and the Pop Serial crowd: straight white guys who talk about gender equality but act like pigs.
Safy-Hallan Farah, who first criticized the "sexist" way Dierks ran Pop Serial in Fanzine last year, thinks Katz's story might shut him down for good.
(Farah is referring to Ed Champion, the book blogger who's threatened multiple women on Twitter.)
Dierks's last tweet suggests he has a lot of soul-searching ahead of him.
If you have anything you'd like to add to this story, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or hop in the comments.
[Photos via Tumblr, Facebook]