A reading at a summer workshop has put questions about inclusion front and center for Tin House, the Portland-based magazine, book publisher and literary hub.
The New York Times podcast “Still Processing” is a kind of laboratory of the imagination. On each episode, two writers for the paper, Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris, talk through news and pop culture from the very personal perspective of two black people trying to stay grounded in explosive and confounding times.
On the latest episode of the podcast, entitled “We Can’t Burn it All Down,” Wortham tells a story of coming to Portland for the workshop in mid-July, and the unexpected things she experienced there. Some were hopeful, some disappointing.
Tin House has been on a journey dating back to at least 2010 when editor Rob Spillman told VIDA magazine the publishing house was making a commitment to improving the parity of women’s representation in the magazine.
The conversation deepened at Tin House’s summer workshop in 2016. It took place during a week when it felt like the world was on fire — days after the shootings deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police on opposite sides of the country and the fatal shooting of five police officers in Dallas.
Kiese Laymon, an African-American writer and professor of creative writing at the University of Mississippi, attended the workshop that year. He delivered a critique, as he describes it, aimed at “myself, the room, American literature, writing workshops, American writers and what we really are trying to do” in responding to the times.
“It was obvious to me,” Laymon said, “that unlike a lot of other institutions and organizations, they took the critique seriously.”
Tin House diversified its teaching staff and took measures to ensure that a broader range of writers would be able to come to the workshop. Private donations now fund scholarships for those who can’t pay the workshop fee, and Tin House adjusted fee schedules and financing policies to ensure that writers struggling to pay travel costs, tuition, room and board might have a chance to attend.
“One still has to ask why the critique had to be the impetus for the change,” Laymon said. “I think that’s a really important question. [But] I also think it’s important that they heard it.”
Flash forward to two weeks ago and the 2018 Tin House summer workshop.
Initially, Laymon and Wortham both say they were delighted to see the changes in teaching staff and attendees. Wortham, in the podcast, talks about a vibrant range of writers and teachers, “much weirder and blacker and more interesting than I’d ever seen it before.”
But toward the end of the week, a reading by Wells Tower, a white writer from North Carolina, brought the group to a standstill.
He was reading a passage from a 2010 essay first published in Harper’s magazine.
“He starts reading this story about this … mentally-unwell man who’s a deep misogynist, an abuser, has been abused, living beyond the edges of society,” Wortham told her podcast audience. “And he’s reading it in this … very Hunter-S.-Thompson-inspired, William-Burroughs [way] … And Wells, via this character, is saying some pretty heinous, misogynistic stuff.”
Several people, Wortham reported, left the event right away.
The director of the workshop, Lance Cleland, said he spoke with some faculty members shortly after the reading, and agreed that both the story selection and presentation were unacceptable.
“I took Wells aside after the reading,” Cleland told OPB. “It was a good idea to bring in other faculty members as peers.”
After discussing what to do, Cleland said the group concluded, “It was a public reading, so it should be a public apology.”
Tower’s publicist did not reply to OPB requests for comment.
Tower addressed the entire group the next morning, apologizing to the entire Tin House community.
In “Still Processing,” Wortham explained her own feelings:
“It’s not that he shouldn’t have written what he wrote … but in a way that glorified this character’s ideology, in a space full of all these brown and black people, all these queer people — many of whom it was their very first time at Tin House,” she said. “It really felt like we’d taken all these steps into the future … and in that moment we were yanked back, not only 10 years, but 50 years.”
The rest of the episode is an engrossing deep-dive into what is meant by institutional change, particularly in the context of mostly-white institutions like Tin House.
Some felt Tin House blundered by inviting a writer capable of so badly misreading a room full of women and people of color.
Laymon, the University of Mississippi professor, said he hopes Tin House will think twice in the future about inviting a writer such as Tower without setting some ground rules for the kind of discussion they want to create.
But he adds he will return if invited.
“I’m not trying to pat them on the back,” Laymon said, “but they are doing work a lot of other institutions and organizations don’t do.”
Hard as it was to be in the room for Tower’s reading and apology, Tin House workshop director Lance Cleland said, “It’s really important that places like Tin House, even places you love and want to be published in … are being held accountable. That’s the only way those institutions can reinvent themselves. We have to be under constant scrutiny and be made to listen.”
Did Tin House make a mistake by inviting Tower to read in that particular room?
“That’s a really hard question to answer,” Cleland said. “I’m not sure I processed that yet.”
Tower has taught at Tin House twice before, and Cleland called him “a valued member of the Tin House community.” But, he added, of the 10-year-old essay, “there’s some problematic stuff in there.”
Cleland said his conclusion from the incident is that Tin House has work to do and is listening.
This story will be updated.