"The Basic Problem Here Is That You Are Wrong": The Collected Letters of Tom Scocca and Keith Gessen

TOXICHere are the last few thousand words on the topic of a new essay by Mark Greif in n+1. (The piece, On Repressive Sentimentalism, was published last week. I pointed it out to fellow readers while I was still digesting it. Later, Awl contributor Tom Scocca criticized it strenuously. N+1 editor Keith Gessen replied via his Tumblr, which I briefly addressed here.) Among other things, there was some confusion about “us” versus “them”: who was a reader of n+1 and who was an Internet barbarian? (Who was both? *Raises hand slowly*) Anyway. And now, a couple of things about what follows, which is an extended correspondence, via email, between Scocca and Gessen. First, you’re not actually encouraged, by anyone involved, to read it. Second, you are encouraged to engage in deep, calming breathing if you do choose to read on, particularly if you respond. Third, well, it’s your afternoon, spend it however you like!

From: Tom Scocca
To: Keith Gessen
Oct 9, 2009 at 1:20 PM

Where was the part where we said the Greif essay was over our heads? I understand your note as an emotional transaction (“news-aggregator,” oh, snap!), but I’m not sure how it addresses anything in the actual Awl item.

Thanks for reading.

From: Keith Gessen
To: Tom Scocca
Oct 9, 2009 at 1:32 PM

Are you serious? There was no substance to what you wrote—it was just heckling. Heckling’s fine, but you should heckle people who deserve to be heckled, and when someone calls you on it, I don’t see how you can respond by saying, “What about the substance of my critique??” Or is the substance of your critique that antibiotics are historically more important than sexual liberation? Or that Mark Greif doesn’t know what sex is, or wasn’t born in the 20th century? You tell me. Or, better, don’t tell me. Tell your readers.


From: Tom Scocca
To: Keith Gessen
Oct 9, 2009 at 1:58 PM

See, you’re veering again. Before, the problem was a pose of incomprehension. Now it’s heckling–undeserved heckling (which seems to beg the question a bit). I’m glad you’re defending your guy, but try to choose one and stick with it.

When you write or publish an essay that makes sweeping pronouncements about the human experience–particularly one that uses the first-person plural throughout–you run the risk of having other members of the human race disagree with you. The disagreement might cover not only the facts (uh, yes, antibiotics are much more important historically than Stonewall, I do believe) but also the writer’s persona. Since the writer is putting himself forward as a representative of a larger slice of humanity.

Or are you just writing these essays for each other?

From: Keith Gessen
To: Tom Scocca
Oct 9, 2009 at 3:10 PM

Dear Tom–

Your heckling included a pose of incomprehension. I’m not veering anywhere.

Yes, Tom, human beings can disagree with us. If you consider what you wrote a form of disagreement–a form of protest–a form of critique–then fantastic. Your conscience is clear.


From: Tom Scocca
To: Keith Gessen
Oct 9, 2009 at 3:37 PM

I think you’re taking incredulity–a rhetorical device, but a sincere one in this case–to be feigned incomprehension. I’m sorry it made you think the complaint was that the writing was too fancy.

From: Keith Gessen
To: Tom Scocca
Oct 9, 2009 at 9:04 PM

Dear Tom—So when you say, “What the fuck is this?”—that’s incredulity, like you can’t believe someone wrote this? Or someone thinks this? Or someone writes this way? I guess that seems censorious to me. I think you’re better off with incomprehension.

Look: I’ve never read anything else that you’ve written. It’s possible you’re a wonderful writer. In fact Emily says she likes everything you’ve written. But I’ve only read this one thing and this one thing is bullshit–and I think you know it. You’ve taken a difficult piece by a brilliant writer and heckled it, to the applause of your audience. I have no sympathy for that, and don’t ask me to have any. So that’s that. If you have anything else to say about the matter, say it in public.


From: Tom Scocca
Tp: Keith Gessen
Oct 9, 2009 at 11:09 PM

Well, no.

The difficulty of the piece and the brilliance of the writer–these are not points of discussion, they’re points of non-discussion. You’re entitled to your opinions, but not to other people’s. I read a piece that seemed fairly simple-minded to me, mostly a mix of handsy Whitmanism with some dusty Sixties hedonism-as-liberation poet-guru jive, rendered in a pompous (not difficult, not challenging, but turgid) authorial voice.

Let me slow down here and make this point clearly, because people have a terrible habit, especially in New York, of refusing to believe this sort of thing and throwing around all kinds of silly chaff–accusations of bad faith and pandering and whatnot–to avoid it: I disliked the piece.

On its merits, I disliked it. I know very little about you as a person, and I know even less about Mark Greif. There were words, arranged into an essay. I disliked the way the words were arranged and thought that the ideas they expressed were not well considered. It seemed to me that the author was assuming a stance of moral, political, and intellectual superiority that he had not, based on the contents of the piece, earned. In fact, it seemed to me that the morals, politics, and ideas expressed in the piece were bad.

And that, as I said, the language used to express these things was ungainly.

The piece struck me, at bottom, as hostile to some of the very values it professed to champion. What it offered as a theory of liberation and anticapitalism came across instead as a grim vision of consumer self-gratification applied to the private sphere–of people ordering their lives on an axis between “fun” and “fitting in.” It reduced the issues surrounding gay rights and women’s reproductive freedom to stepping stones on the author’s personal garden path to “fun.” It struck a pose of epater la bourgeoisie, but was really just a guy tickling himself.

So, yeah, I ripped into it. I used some low diction and vulgar language. I cast aspersions on the figure of the author, as rendered by the author, and on the intellectual context that the author had chosen to construct around himself. You call that heckling and censoriousness. I call it reading.

And God forbid I tell you to re-read my brilliant argument from The Awl, but please, do have one more look at what was happening in this one small bit:

Um, the very institution of anyone choosing anyone else as an individual with whom to make, let alone “remake,” something that could be thought of as a “sexual household,” which would be synonymous with “household organization”-he thinks that sort of thing has been around for 3,000 years?

Crude, sure, but if you can find another writer who took the essay that seriously–reading Greif’s words, unpacking the assumptions behind them, and asking whether those assumptions were supported by historical fact–send me the paragraph, and I’ll buy you some popcorn.

From: Keith Gessen
To: Tom Scocca
Oct 9, 2009 at 11:43 PM

Um, the very institution of anyone choosing anyone else as an individual with whom to make, let alone “remake,” something that could be thought of as a “sexual household,” which would be synonymous with “household organization”-he thinks that sort of thing has been around for 3,000 years?

I’m not sure I follow. Do you mean it’s been around longer or not as long? I’m not a scholar of the ancients but Socrates had a wife. Uh, Odysseus had a wife–Penelope. Agamemnon had a wife–I think she killed him when he got back. Abraham had a wife. Noah had a wife. We don’t have a lot of sources for these things. But the men described in ancient literature seem to come by their wive by some sort of free choice, and they seem to form households with these women, and have sex and produce children. Even the women, at times, had a form of volition in it. If you’re saying that it’s longer than 3,000 years, well, I don’t know. I think 3,000 years is about what our sources go back to. I really didn’t understand what you were saying in that paragraph.

You’re welcome to dislike the piece! And what you wrote in this email is something I can argue with. I think you’re wrong, but it’s–to use your word–arguable. What you wrote on the Awl was inarguable because purely dismissive. Read the comments below it if you don’t believe me. Choire’s post today, even though it’s written in the snippy Choire style, has led to people actually making real objections to the piece in the comments; what was under your dialogue was just hooting. Look, if this thing were published in the New Yorker, or even the New York Review of Books, I’d probably think, Hoot away. But it’s published in a small leftwing literary magazine. It’s supposed to be odd and jarring, it’s supposed to be offensive. You’re still welcome not to like it but jeering at it is exactly the wrong thing to do. In my opinion. As for someone reading the piece more seriously—ok. It’s been online for two days, so I suspect there’s more to come. Here’s something from my email and here’s something from the comments section on my tumblr. Neither of these folks liked the piece. Neither of them is as effective at *annihilating* the piece and suggesting that no one should ever read it. If that’s what you wanted to do, then good. But it seems to me that’s not what you wanted to do! You can mail me the popcorn.

In answer to the question of what philosophy undergirds the view that abortion is “tragic” (rather than a positive social good) (from my comments section):

The “tragic but necessary” view accepts that there are circumstances where abortions are, well, necessary, and it says that the pregnant woman (not the state) is the most competent person to decide when that is. But it also sees tragedy-not murder, not abominable sin, just ordinary, human-scale tragedy, the collision of two mutually exclusive goods-in the loss of a quasi-person. (Behind all this is a concern bordering on anxiety about humanism, but that’s a story for another day…) I recognize that it’s exactly this view that Greif was targeting-he sees it as some kind of sentimental hangover. Which, okay, but why not offer some argument against it, instead of just the derision and scorn he delivers?

I like a lot of Greif’s work, but I guess what puzzled me most in this essay–it showed up in the part about sex, too–was the evident yearning to escape moral consequence, which is fine for a fantasy but seems at odds with your (plural) professed dedication to the serious consideration of life as it’s lived.

From my email:

The marriage piece is in some ways a return to form. It contains much that is admirable about Mark’s writing; its polemical courage, a certain architectonic clarity in argument (even as his sentences are often muddled at the line level). But in the end, what is admirable about the piece is, in my opinion, far outweighed by what I think is genuinely scary about it.

He’s talking about all these things pertaining to being a person with a human life and real experiences, and it’s clear that he’s substituted all these abstract categories and then a lot of sentimental bullshit (the stuff that Scocca makes fun of) about what sex is like and what people are like for an honest account of being a person. He never tells us what is really wrong about marriage today; he doesn’t situate it within a historical setting, and he rides roughshod about what it means for abortion to be a tragedy in a way that is too enamored of its heedlessness. Abortion is an unholy act — a sacrifice of something to the God of one’s individual freedom. And to be unholy is part of what it means to be free. He’s willing to say that you must give something up in order to be free, but he also says that giving that thing up means overcoming the domination of the patriarchal family, and that sex is the “anti-capitalist experience par-excellence,” which is just insane 1960’s Marcuse-Norman O. Brown horseshit.

We want to be free, but we have to honor that there is tragedy in that freedom, that the denial of tragedy is itself a kind of tragedy.

And here–bonus track–from a Tumblr I just found, also not bad, also opposed to the essay, but in a way that one can say: OK, here’s where I disagree with you.

We can do things better. Maybe we can couple better or triple better or even go for the home run. We can live better and we can work better and fuck better and eat better. But it’s just a sad, dangerous, persistent fantasy that we can do what we want without there being consequences after. That applies especially to love and war, but really to everything.

Here’s a bit from Greif on sex and consequences.

Among abortion-haters, an underlying charge is that abortion encourages sex. This is really puzzling. What they mean to reject is “sex without consequences.” Their counter-strategy has been abstinence education for children, which plainly encourages sex “with consequences,” namely pregnancies

The value of “sex with consequences”-which gays can never have (except for the brief shifting of gravity during the AIDS plague), because they don’t get pregnant, and which feminists say it’s good to escape-is that it enforces domination.

After accepting these definitions of “consequences”-pregnancy, death-Greif speaks of sex beyond them.

We have no better model for a bodily process that, fundamentally, is free and universal. It does not produce (there is no experiential remainder but pleasure) nor consume.

Cloistered in between the parentheses lurks the key phrase. No remainder but pleasure. Does sex produce no consequences between the participants? Does it consume nothing? Is there nothing left after? No consequences at all? Are we still, ineluctably, in the backseat of the Chevy? “It doesn’t have to mean anything…” I’d say “if only,” but that’s not true.

Without consequences, nothing would change, nothing would grow, nothing would die, nothing would be born. Not even pleasure and pain. Without consequences, we’d be lost in the prisonhouse of the present, frozen, chasing after that last drop of ecstasy, oh hell, okay like the boy on the grecian urn.

So, again—those all strike me as interesting and useful, if also pretty harsh, critiques of the piece. You might say to me: That’s not what we do at the Awl. Sure. Fine. But I don’t have to like it.


From: Tom Scocca
To: Keith Gessen
Oct 10, 2009 at 1:55 AM

Agamemnon had both a wife and a mistress. And the ancient Greeks in general were known to go outside the household for pederasty. These being just two of the well-established alternatives to the rather narrowly historically bound institution of a two-person heterosexual nuclear household formed by mutual choice. See also: plural marriage, concubinage, slavery, extended family dwelling, arranged marriage, brides as property… The idea that household organization is congruent with sexual pairing, and that the whole thing is set up consensually, and this is an arrangement of longstanding dominance–well, start by having a look at the personals in an Indian community paper.

The question of what is and isn’t a suitable target for the Shadow Editors is an odd one, though you’re not the first person to raise it. The second, maybe. From where I sit–composing the text in IM, making no money for it–it doesn’t feel like such awesome power. We read things, we respond. This response was not kind. There’s a long history of that, in reading and writing.

I’ve never been fond of the metacriticism that a particular piece of criticism has only destroyed, not created. Destruction–or dismissal–is a critical stance, too. It seemed to me that your own response failed to get at what the dismissal was about. We didn’t say “This piece is too eggheaded and highfalutin for us”; we said “This piece is too dumb for its own good, its values are bad, and its authorial pose is irksome.” Part of the way we (mostly I) said that was with deliberately crude and disrespectful writing. (Another part was by comparing it to New York magazine.)

Some of the thoughtful commentary on Choire’s entry today was in fact supplied by the same people you saw as hooting the day before. I don’t think it’s so simple to partition good comment from bad comment, or fruitful discussion for fruitless. Maybe that seems like I’m giving the Shadow Editors column too much credit for Starting a Discussion, but Greiff’s original tone was fairly dismissive of disagreement, too–it was written from a position that he was enlightened and seeking meaning and fulfillment, and other people were dumb squares (your commentator there flagged him for “derision and scorn”). I said the piece needed to be argued with. And now people are lining up to argue with him in detail.

So you do get some popcorn. Not for the first example, because it doesn’t dig into the specific language, but the other two, sure. They went on after the piece, hard. They both seemed to get the themes I was talking (or cussing) about in the first place. I’m happy to see them. You want butter flavored, kettle corn, or what?

From: Keith Gessen
To: Tom Scocca:
Oct 10, 2009 at 9:52 AM

Some of the thoughtful commentary on Choire’s entry today was in fact supplied by the same people you saw as hooting the day before.

Exactly. One entry caused them to hoot, one entry caused them finally to actually voice their objections.

the ancient Greeks in general were known to go outside the household for pederasty.

Right, and the household that they went outside of was… a household! Whereas with the exception of “extended family dwelling,” all your other examples are examples of domination: plural marriage, concubinage, slavery, extended family dwelling, arranged marriage, brides as property.

Mark wrote: No change was more momentous and utopian than that men could choose men for love objects, and women choose women, to remake the sexual household. If the household organization of three thousand years of recorded history could be altered simply in the interest of what people wanted, in the interest of desire, then anything could be changed.

This is really not a controversial point. This is what sexual liberation consists of.

As to the rest of this, really, again, I leave it to you. There’s nothing wrong with destructive criticism if the target deserves it. You appear to think that this target deserved it. So–great. The notion that *anything* written about a piece “sparks” discussion or whatever has not, I think, been borne out by the past fifteen years of our experience with the internet. People get cues and follow them. In this case it took three posts before people actually said something worthwhile in the comments. Does that have something to do with the posts? Of course it does.


From: Tom Scocca
To Keith Gessen
Oct 10, 2009 at 1:20 PM

Yeah, no, I don’t think your reading of how the commenting went down is particularly well supported. Read that Poisonville Tumblr, the main page. Does the writer read the Shadow Editors, say “Ha, ha, n+1 is stupid losers!” and then read Choire’s post and say, “Oh, no, wait, that was totally off-base of me; I want to think and write about n+1 more deliberately”? No. The writer reads the original, heartily endorses what it says, endorses it again, reads the follow-up, and then decides to add more. I rewrote Greif’s argument as dialogue for a sleazy come-on; this person describes Greif’s essay as “an exquisitely long M4W fuck-buddy posting.” For some reason my way of saying the same thing hurt your feelings more.

On the history thing, you totally lost me. Greif described gay marriage as the most momentous challenge to a domestic order that had existed for 3,000 years. That’s simply not true. The household that he sees as so oppressive–a monogamous heterosexual nuclear family, formed by free choice between equal partners–is a fairly recent institution.

I don’t get why you’re invoking domination as some sort of trump card. Yes, earlier forms of household organization were organized around domination. That’s what makes Greif’s version of the history of liberation so totally wrong. The momentous change was that marriage stopped being the transfer of a piece of property, the woman, from one family to another. Along with that, the various ancient ways of separating and partitioning up sexual duties and household labor went out the window–no more breeding children with one woman (or multiple women), who would rear them and do the housework, while other people (sometimes same-sex partners, even) served for sexual companionship.

Instead, there developed the radical idea of marriage as a reciprocal love bond between equals (an idea that is far from being fully implemented, even here and now). Gay marriage is simply a logical next step in the conceptual revolution that’s already been happening. If marriage partners are willing and equal and free to choose, what difference does gender make?

So the bedrock of Greif’s free-love argument is ahistorical mush. Why does he think the dawning of gay marriage is a more momentous social change than Loving v. Virginia was? Really, why?

Anyway, you’ve had some bad times with the Internet before, I guess, but The Awl isn’t Gawker. This whole good-touch/bad-touch thing you’ve got going on seems pretty unhelpful. If you want a safe space where you control the tone of the discourse, you probably shouldn’t commission essays about things that matter to people and publish them where people may see them (especially if the tone of the essays might strike you as provocative or other people as snotty). I’m not sure how the size of your journal, its chosen political position, or its identification as “literary” are supposed to influence the criticism it receives.

You show me people citing the Shadow Editors piece, agreeing with it, and expanding on its themes, and you tell me…what? That it was failed to advance the discussion? That I need to explain myself to the reading public? Honestly, cross my heart, it looks to me like the reading public got the point pretty well.

From: Keith Gessen
To: Tom Scocca
Oct 12, 2009 at 2:17 AM

I made the point about dominance because you wrote

The idea that household organization is congruent with sexual pairing, and that the whole thing is set up consensually, and this is an arrangement of longstanding dominance…

Now I see that you meant it’s an arrangement that’s been around for a while, rather than that it’s an arrangement in which one side is dominant.

Where does Mark say that “the whole thing is set up consensually”? Nowhere. You have a reading of gay marriage which says it’s a continuation of the four- or two-century-long story of the extension of rights to individuals, including their right to choose their mate on the basis of romantic love. Mark believes that men shacking up with men is a more significant rupture. I’m not actually sure why he believes that, but if you’d ask him why, he’d explain it to you. You have not asked him why. You have made hooting noises–in public. In private you’ve tried to engage in an argument and a defense. Again, for the fortieth time, why in private and not in public?

Poisonville’s crack about M4W is silly, but then he goes on to make a genuine objection, about consequences, which can be argued with.

But look, the basic problem here is that you are wrong, and no number of emails to me is going to make you right. You’re wrong about Mark Greif–you’re just dead wrong. I just learned from the comments on my tumblr that you wrote the unpublished Foer emails piece in the Observer. That was really funny! It was funny because it was funny, but also because you were right—that Solomon article was ridiculous, Foer in his preening child-like self-love is ridiculous, and the Times Magazine for occasionally running pieces like that is ridiculous. One, two, three. Whereas here you’re wrong all around, which is why I didn’t find what you wrote in the least bit funny. n+1 is to thought as the Renaissance Fair is to war–if it were true, it’d be funny. It’s not true, so where are we then? You know who else had a really funny style? Nietzsche. Mark’s not Nietzsche, but he really is a strikingly original thinker, certainly the most original thinker I’ve ever met—and he’s got a funny style. And, yes, of course it matters where, under what banner, in what context an essay appears. I mentioned n+1 being a left-wing literary magazine because those should have been clues as to how to approach it. Whose side are you on, you know? I mean, do you know?


From: Tom Scocca
To Keith Gessen
Oct 12, 2009 at 11:05 AM

He’s arguing that changing the gender variable is revolutionary in a way that no change before has been–that it represents the definitive break with tradition. That would mean that consensual heterosexual marriage is the old way things were done, before people got enlightened.

Asking me which Side I am On is not really helping you with the Renaissance Festival thing. Should I be on the correct side? Does that mean wearing a tweed jacket and cap, or should I go all-in and wear a laborer’s coverall? And is Greif’s essay going to help the correct side win?

You’re getting the long-form treatment because in your e-mails you seem to be (mostly) trying to communicate with a real person who can read and think and agree or disagree. Greif’s piece wasn’t speaking to anyone recognizable at all–I wince when I imagine the pro-life people I know reading it, let alone the pro-choice people who’ve actually had abortions. The ideas in it were essentially the ideas you’d find in a dumb anti-abortion, anti-gay-rights culture-war screed, only with “bad” and “Satan” crossed out and “good” and “liberation” finger-painted in.

And I’ve been doing this via e-mail because really, as far as I can tell, your objections to the Shadow Editors piece aren’t broadly representative of how people read and responded to it. We can certainly publish our e-mail, though my appetite for doing that dropped off sharply a few thousand words ago. I’m not sure anyone wants to read that much of what I have to say. But if you think it enriches the discussion or helps highlight my failings, I’m game.

We could probably do it on The Awl, if we put some sort of Yucca Mountain glyph on the top to warn people what they’re in for.

Choire’s willing. Your call.

From: Tom Scocca
To: Keith Gessen
Oct 12, 2009 at 12:15 PM

Anyway, the fruit of my retrograde patriarchal household arrangement (an arrangement that would have been legally impossible a hundred years ago) is off from day care today, in honor of the beginning of the conquest of the Americas, and I’d better feed him and entertain him. The last word is all yours, if you want it.

From: Keith Gessen
To: Tom Scocca
Oct 12, 2009 at 1:35 PM

Aha—it took me this many emails, so maybe I’m the one who’s uncomprehending, to understand that what you think Mark thinks is that the gay liberation movement overthrew household arrangements that had been **exactly the same** for 3,000 years.

But Mark doesn’t think that and nowhere says anything like it. The one thing that *has* been stable in the various forms of household that have existed in the Judeo-Christian space over 3,000 years is that at their core was a man and a woman. And forty years ago that changed.

I know we’ve spent a long time arguing over this small point but I think it gets to my problem with what you wrote and the way you wrote it.

In the field I know most about, 20th-century Russian history, there is a great debate over what constitutes the single most significant rupture. Some say it’s the tsar’s abdication, and some say it’s the October Revolution, and some say actually it’s the cancellation of the Pale of Settlement, and a historian named Edward Keenan argued that it was the collectivization that began in 1928. Keenan as much as argued that the Bolshevik Revolution was a blip, a skirmish, not really a major part of Russian history, but what happened to the countryside in the late 1920s was epochal.

And you could certainly say to Edward Keenan, and people did say, You’re crazy! But no one would be fool enough to say to Edward Keenan, You’re a fool.

I think if you polled Americans for the most important event of the 20th century, they might say–well, first they’d say the OJ trial, but then Communism and Fascism. If you polled philosophers of a certain stripe, they might say antibiotics—the extension of human life past a certain point has actually changed what it means to be human. I don’t know if gay liberation would even make the top 5. But I damn well know that someone making the argument that it should be #1 would not be a fool–and in fact I think it would foolish to suggest that they are.

You’re welcome to post all this, though I too have trouble imagining anyone reading through it. As for how you should dress for the Revolution—I’m not in charge of that stuff but you should probably just come as you are. Bring the whole family.