Junot Díaz Is Back on the Pulitzer Board Because We Can’t Quit Powerful Men
American culture is committed to a narrative that men in power are irreplaceable
This past May, award-winning author Junot Díaz stepped down as chairman of the Pulitzer Prize Board after facing allegations of sexual misconduct. Author Zinzi Clemmons confronted Díaz at the Sydney Writers’ Festival and then on Twitter, describing an incident in which she claims he cornered and forcibly kissed her while she was a graduate student. Shortly afterwards, multiple other women, including the writer Carmen Maria Machado, came forward about experiences in which Díaz was verbally aggressive, misogynistic, or demeaning. The Pulitzer Prize Board hired the Washington D.C. law firm Williams & Connolly to carry out an independent investigation into Díaz’s conduct, promising to “follow the facts, wherever they may lead.” On Friday, the Board announced that they “did not find evidence warranting” Díaz’s removal, and they are “welcoming” Díaz to fulfill his term, which expires in April.
Seeing this news I am disappointed, but not surprised. As we’ve seen demonstrated again and again recently, we are loath to unseat the powerful, even if they’re known abusers. In America, as in much of the world, the harder a job is to get, the harder it is to lose.
There was no recorded evidence to back up Clemmons’ story—all we have is her word to go on—and institutions often refuse to stand up for victims under the guise of lack of evidence, even though victims hardly ever have anything to gain from speaking out (though they risk much; ask Christine Ford, who has moved four times and is still receiving death threats). The statistics — only 2–10% of rape accusations are false, and the accusers usually fit a profile, specifically teenage girls or their parents lying to get out of trouble) — speak for themselves, but many people choose not to hear them.
Díaz’s behavior matters because the Pulitzer Prize matters.
Even if the Pulitzer Board is comfortable dismissing Clemmons’ story, there are corroborations of Díaz’s verbally aggressive and dismissive behavior from other women. Though he now says he wishes he could take it back, Díaz himself acknowledged his poor behavior in the New York Times, saying, “I take responsibility for my past. That is the reason I made the decision to tell the truth of my rape and its damaging aftermath. This conversation is important and must continue. I am listening to and learning from women’s stories in this essential and overdue cultural movement. We must continue to teach all men about consent and boundaries.” So, unwanted advances aside, we’re left with a man who, by his own admission, has a dysfunctional relationship with women.
The fact is that Díaz’s behavior matters because the Pulitzer Prize matters. It’s hard for even the most talented authors to make a living from writing books, and winning prizes sells copies; as Emma Straub, author and co-owner of the Cobble Hill bookstore Books Are Magic, told Vulture at this year’s National Book Award, “Whoever wins, we’ll sell twice as many as we would have. Ten times as many.” Other money-making opportunities, such as teaching and speaking engagements, follow prizes, helping to make a writer’s career sustainable. Winning a major literary prize is a distinction that anyone, except maybe Bob Dylan, would treasure immensely. Given his behavior towards women, can we trust Díaz to fairly understand, access, and judge female writers’ work? If we can’t, we risk both overlooking worthy authors as well as the cultural cachet of the Pulitzer itself.
The allegations against Díaz came during the initial unfolding of the #metoo movement and have mostly been discussed within a larger conversation we’re having about sexual assault and harassment, how to define them and how to deal with known perpetrators. Díaz’s own history as a victim of sexual assault and his talent as an author have also been considered. Yet the question of his appointment to the Pulitzer Board should be considered separately from any discussion of his work and how we might interact with his texts going forward—because his place on the board has the power to determine how we interact with other people’s texts, too. It comes down to a simple question that’s been hounding me ever since the news was announced: is it so much to ask that a public face and influential member of the Pulitzer Prize Board not be one who is unfriendly to women? American literature is exploding with great work; we’re not suffering from a lack of talent. Why not make the Chairman of the Board of one of our greatest literary honors a writer who hasn’t yelled “rape!” repeatedly in the face of their female dinner companion?
Is it so much to ask that a public face and influential member of the Pulitzer Prize Board not be one who is unfriendly to women?
The answer lies in a crisis that is greater than Junot Díaz and the Pulitzer Prize Board. America is stuck in a cult of personality. We mythologize people in positions of power, transforming regular employees into genius CEOs who can do no wrong, metamorphosing struggling actors into celebrities whose every movement and haircut captivates us. When I see this unsettling pattern of men being exposed for harassment, apologizing, and then continuing on with their careers, I know it comes from the story we’ve created about powerful men, one that imagines bad behavior is some kind of ancillary to talent. I’ve had bosses do and say things for which I would have been fired on the spot when I worked the cash register at a food store. We regularly hold people with the least power to much higher standards than those with the most. It’s not just men — female leaders are also so immune to punishment that they can do things like tank a company and walk away with 236 million dollars. In general, the more powerful your position, the harder people will work to convince themselves that you deserve it, and the harder they’ll work to make sure it’s never taken away.
But having been on the Pulitzer Prize board is not sufficient reason to deserve being on the Pulitzer Prize board. Nor is being a great writer sufficient reason to deserve control over whose writing is recognized. Junot Díaz may be a great writer, but a great writer is only entitled to write great books. He is not entitled to keep a position solely because he won it in the first place.