Issue #68, Fall 2018

Politics in Prose

Then & Now

Jennifer Niesslein

Politics in Prose

We’ve all been to good parties and bad parties. The best parties have interesting guests, respectful and thought-provoking conversation, and a goodly amount of laughter. The bad parties are filled with awkward small talk. The worse parties are ones where people make asses of themselves. The worst parties are the ones where you are that ass. For almost twenty years, I’ve been editing literary publications with the philosophy that it’s like hosting a good party, and I thought I had it down pat. For the past five years, I’ve been editing Full Grown People (FGP), an online literary magazine about the thick of life. Twice a week, I publish essays that explore the kinds of moments and experiences that make even adulthood feel like another awkward age: looking for love at midlife, caring for a parent with memory loss without robbing him of freedom, dancing the line between two cultures. Stories about grown-ups navigating the world.

Then came the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, and the election itself, and, well, life ever since. In my personal life,I had heated political Facebook debates with my cousin about the truth in media; I downright shunned others in my life. (I’m liberal in my politics but old-order Mennonite in my grudges.) I shudder to think of the Thanksgiving dinners mixed-politics American families endured in 2016. Given that the right has been growing steadily more extreme for decades, these interpersonal messes didn’t surprise me, but I was blindsided by the realization that the era of Trump was going to force me to re-examine my professional life. 

•••

After Trump won the electoral college, I initially fell into the default mode I’d followed after 9/11—the last time I remember the news cycle being so completely dominated by one subject. Back in 2001, I was co-editing—with my friend and cofounder Stephanie Wilkinson—Brain, Child, a literary magazine about motherhood. It was a quarterly magazine, and after some discussion, we decided that the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center weren’t really ours to cover. They didn’t have, on the face of it, much to do with motherhood, and whatever hot takes we would publish would be stone cold by the time the next issue came out, anyway. Stephanie and I had both started our careers as journalists, and we respected the jobs that journalists do. More to the point, we understood that our jobs as literary magazine editors were different.

In the days after 9/11, when I had binged on too much TV and taken in too much visual horror, I longed to escape into essays and short stories about regular life, whichwas—despite everything—still going on. Love lives and careers still had to be nurtured (or abandoned); kids still left home; loved ones still died; friendships still transformed.

In 2016, I initially worried about alienating readers who, like me in 2001, had their own views on politics but, as lit-seekers, just longed for good essays.

And what about the politics of Full Grown People’s readers? I believe FGP’s core readers share my values, generally, but I’m not delusional enough to believe that all readers believe as I do or have lives anything like mine; a publication is always bigger than its editor. I considered the readers who weren’t really jazzed about Trump but weren’t about to get behind the Democratic party. Would invoking the Trump name invite them to flee? What was the risk?

I also considered how much to worry about the Trump supporters among Full Grown People’s readership. I knew we had some—my Trump-voting step-grandmother has liked a few posts on Facebook, casual reader though she may be. I didn’t know how large an intersection existed between our readers and conservatives/Trump voters.

I watched what other magazines were doing, too. The Sun—a magazine that surely slants liberal in its readership—went full-on anti-Trump immediately after the election, dedicating first almost an entire issue, then a recurring section, to “One Nation, Indivisible,” quotes of their previously published liberal thought, and I read a goodly number of letters to the editor from readers who declared they were canceling their subscriptions.

FGP doesn’t rely on subscriptions for cash influx, though I do hope readers are moved to buy our anthologies or stuff a little in the online tip jar. Most publications are businesses, albeit not very lucrative ones. FGP was already a niche market—did I want to narrow that niche further? And yet, even before Inauguration Day, refusing to publish damn fine essays on the grounds that elements in them might be politically divisive—touching on, say, immigration or a sexual assault survivor’s flare-up of PTSD sparked by Trump—started feeling to me like pandering. And, really, I’d published essays by members of populations that Trump mocked, dismissed, and/or demonized on the campaign trail; if a more traditional conservative or Trump voter hung in for all those essays, would taking the extra step to connect those narratives to policy really be such a big whoop?

•••

And anyway, editing is always political. Editors get to decide whose viewpoints see print and become public consumption, and if those editors and the voices they publish are powerful enough, those voices get inducted into the canon of literature.

Just have a look at the VIDA counts. Since 2010, VIDA, a nonprofit feminist organization, has been tracking the demographics of writers published and reviewed in what the organization deems “top tier” publications. Originally, they focused on gender, but they’ve since taken a more intersectional approach and expanded their counts to include race, disability, and other types of diversity. What their work has made visible is the extent to which top tier publications still mostly favor male writers, white writers, cis writers, abled writers.

Whose voice gets space? Whose voice is worthy of space?

I started publishing essays that addressed GOP policy directly, like J. J. Mulligan’s essay about how his stress from working as an immigration lawyer affected his baby daughter; Sarah Einstein’s essay about her fears of this administration; Catherine Newman’s essay about her not-at-all-inexplicable constant anger since the election.

It troubles me now that I ever considered these subjects politically charged. For the most part, Full Grown People’s community ate these essays up. Because, as Catherine Newman says in another essay, “There’s a nasty woman joke in here somewhere, but I can’t bear to put Trump in this essay. He is its missing center.”

That’s the key, at least for me. The essays I have been publishing about this cultural schism actually have very little to do with Trump the man. Like any well-informed citizen, I’ve kept up with the Russian collusion investigation, the anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy, the unending tweets. But as an editor, I want work that addresses the effects Trump has set into motion. Those stories get to the heart of what it’s like for regular citizens to live in the United States these days. J. J. Mulligan’s baby holds her father’s stress in her small body. Catherine Newman’s mood touches every relationship in her life. Sarah Einstein has legitimate worries about the sovereignty of women’s bodies, worries large enough to inspire her to write publicly of the existence of an underground network. These aren’t things that will go away when Trump does, whenever that may be. This is how we live now.

There’s a box on the Full Grown People website where readers can subscribe to a newsletter that alerts them to new essays. After I started publishing more politically engaged essays, I watched the newsletter gain subscribers by the bushel. I didn’t lose any. Any publisher knows that’s a feat.

•••

I guess someone could make the case that if I’m truly publishing essays that get at the heart of how the political climate affects us in the United States, I could also publish essays from both Trump supporters and more traditional conservatives.

Yeah, I could. But I won’t.

I’ve received some submissions that, while not explicitly endorsing Trump, endorse the zeitgeist he brought to the fore, as if it’s now OK to publicly be an ass. I’d categorize them as “victim of privilege” essays. Men who think they’ve faced discrimination simply for being men. Siblings of people with disabilities who can’t see the humanity in their brothers and sisters. White people who have encounters with black men . . . and nothing bad happens. (I’m never sure if the point of this last type of essay is to showcase the white person’s epiphany that black men are people or if it’s a racist version of breaking Chekov’s rule about the pistol onstage. If there’s a black man in the first act, he has to go off in the next act.)

What rubs me the wrong way about these essays is their lack of self-awareness. What separates them from, say, a David Sedaris essay is the sense that you know Sedaris is, on some level, mocking himself, that he knows damn well he’s not the victim in any of the shenanigans he writes about. These writers, though, truly believe they’re victims of their own privilege, if I take their writing at face value. Politically engaged or not, any good writer knows that essays don’t exist in a vacuum—anticipating the readers’ reaction is part of the job. Otherwise, you’re just publicly spewing your thoughts.

Lack of self-awareness isn’t only a GOP-leaning problem. I also see it in the spigot-blast of think pieces that have appeared since the presidential election: a (usually well-educated) liberal visits a rural area and harangues the white blue-collar people who live there about their votes. Always, the subtext is Can you believe these dumb-asses? This also drives me nuts. I have coal country deep in my maternal line, and I can’t bear the scapegoating. I have no doubt that racism, sexism, and other isms contributed to Trump’s electoral win, but it’s not as if these biases exist only in rural areas. (And these pieces don’t even begin to touch on the subjects of gerrymandering or who won financially with the GOP tax bill.)

Regardless of political bent, and even if the writing is competent, I’m not going to accept an essay that punches down with claims that the privileged writer is a victim of "reverse" discrimination. It’s not my job to assure writers or readers about their status in our country. That’s work people have to do on their own, and I’m not going to reward someone with publication before they do it.

The United States fell from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy” in 2016, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, a British research group connected to The Economist magazine (not exactly a cauldron of socialist thought). History will look back on all of us, including editors of literary magazines. Under these changed circumstances, what kind of parties should we be hosting?

A literary magazine is not a democracy—full, flawed, or otherwise. And now, I believe, we’re at a point where not taking an editorial stand—even in the subtlest of ways—is, well, taking a stand.

I live in Charlottesville, a community that, for most citizens, unwillingly played host to a white supremacist rally in August 2017. Over that weekend, the white supremacists killed a woman, Heather Heyer, and inflicted debilitating injuries on several other citizens. On the day of the rally, police finally made them disperse; from my back porch, I watched them walk, armed, to the park where my son once played Little League. Trump looked at the trauma of my city—Jesus, right where I park my car when meeting friends for lunch—and said, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence, on many sides. On many sides.”

There are many sides that don’t get to come to Full Grown People’s party. Frankly, I feel protective of our readers. I’ve tried hard to make the magazine feel inclusive and intersectionally welcoming, and I’m not about to betray readers who feel as if someone out there finally gets it—whatever that specific it may be in any given essay—by publishing anything that denies my readers’ and writers’ essential humanity.

•••

I don’t know what the nation will look like by the time you read this. As I’m writing this, in June, our allies no longer trust us. We’ve started a trade war that rewards some domestic industries and punishes others, including small newspapers. Our president is still under investigation for colluding with Russia, and, unless legislators step up, he’ll likely appoint a Supreme Court justice who will tip the court firmly to the right—and have the decisive vote on whether a sitting president is above the law. Environmental protections have been peeled away. Thousands of migrant children are still in concentration camps, separated from their parents. The executive branch lies to us daily.

I don’t want silence on my conscience.

I’m lucky enough to edit a literary magazine, and I would bet my bippy that some of my writers will eventually enter the canon of literature. Future generations will look back at this era in US history and wonder how the great literary minds were processing it as it happened. There’s room for essayists and writers of creative nonfiction here among the op-ed writers, the journalists, the polemicists.

Editors of literary magazines aren’t in charge of the hot take or the fire-and-brimstone. But we are in charge of the personal stories that show how the Trump era is shaping our lives, American by American. We are in charge of making sure the worst of our country doesn’t get to own patriotism. We can offer something newspapers can’t: comfort, solidarity, maybe a little levity, a reminder of humanity. Something to raise a glass to in our trying times.

* Photography by Maranie Rae Staab

Author Bio

Jennifer Niesslein

Jennifer Niesslein is the editor and founder of Full Grown People, editor of two FGP anthologies, and author of one memoir. She’s... read more

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