On October 10, the author Stephen Elliott filed a lawsuit against Moira Donegan and 30 other Jane Doe Defendants. The complaint outlines a plan to make public the “names, email addresses, pseudonyms and/or ‘Internet handles’” of all persons who had edited the so-called “Shitty Media Men” list, which was a limited-access Google spreadsheet created and then taken down by Donegan in October of last year. In addition to uncovering identities and releasing personal information, Elliott is seeking $1.5 million in damages.
The lawsuit revolves around names: the names of contributors to the list, and Elliott’s own name, which is on it. The list, according to the complaint, is “damning to the Plaintiff’s reputation and good name.”
“You find yourself confessing to every sin you’ve ever committed, real or imagined,” Elliott writes in an essay for Quillette, “How an Anonymous Accusation Derailed My Life.” “Meanwhile, your accuser doesn’t even have a name.”
Elliott is no stranger to the power of a good name, or rather, lots of good names, a phalanx of them. Among the eight books he lists on his website—including a memoir, The Adderall Diaries, which was made into a movie starring James Franco, and a book of essays, Sometimes I Think About It, whose lackluster reception Elliott blames on his inclusion in the “Shitty Media Men” list—are three anthologies of short fiction, loosely united around the theme of “politically inspired”.
In bold lettering, the books’ covers shout the names of the contributors, a who’s who of contemporary American letters: Jami Attenberg, Charles Baxter, Sandra Cisneros, Dave Eggers, Adam Johnson, Lydia Millet, Peter Orner, ZZ Packer, and Elizabeth Tallent, just to name a few.
And then, in two of the collections, there is F.S. Yu. As a Chinese-American woman and writer, I pay attention to the names and reputations of Asian authors. For someone hand-picked by Elliott to appear among these luminaries, F.S. Yu has a remarkably low profile. The name brings up only two Google results related to publication, and one is the Goodreads web page for Stumbling and Raging, one of the Elliott anthologies. The other is for an F.S. Yu who published a scientific paper in 2015, based on research conducted at National Chung Hsing University in Taiwan.
The author biography in both anthologies only says “F.S. Yu lives in San Francisco,” which seems to rule out the researcher. Who is this writer? The name is gender-ambiguous. The stories are disappointing. One, “The Shield,” is a vague first-person account of being a soldier in Iraq, so light on specific details that its characters read as thought experiments.
The other, “Social Contract,” is a BDSM encounter told from the perspective of the submissive, enduring physical pain and a rambling soliloquy from his wife, the dominant, about post-World War II international politics. The writing is muddled and laborious; the wife “dips through the door, rummaging through the sound of paper bags.”
If you run that phrase through Google, it pulls up four versions of “Social Contract”—the one from Stumbling and Raging, attributed to Yu, and three other copies—one published on the website of Monkey Bicycle, one in Issue 11 of Fiction Attic, and one in the collection Sex for America, Elliott’s follow-up to Stumbling and Raging. In all of those places, the story is credited to Stephen Elliott.
In an email exchange, Anthony Ha, an associate editor for Stumbling and Raging, has this to say about Elliott’s intent for hiding behind the non-existent F.S. Yu:
“I brought this up with Steve, and he made it clear that he wanted people to assume that F.S. Yu was Asian or Asian American. If they thought ‘she’ was a woman, even better. At the same time, he was careful not to state any of this outright in F.S. Yu’s bio, which was intentionally vague. It was more like: If people wanted to draw the wrong conclusions, and if those conclusions made them think the book was more diverse than it really was, then great.”
Ha adds, “As for why he needed to use a pseudonym at all, you’re right that Steve *could* have just published the story under his own name. But it would have looked bad. Many fiction anthologies don’t include any stories by their editors, and if they do, it’s usually one at most.”
Elliott had been looking out for his own name, as Stephen Elliott, respected writer and editor. But when it came to F.S. Yu, he was willing to let anyone assume whatever they wanted about this random Asian-American, or Asian-whatever.
Among the editors of the first anthology in the series, Politically Inspired, is the writer Jenny Zhang. In 2015, in a BuzzFeed essay about the treatment of false and real Asian identities in literature, “They Pretend To Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist”, Zhang wrote about her experience working for Elliott (without naming him):
“I had a white teacher in college who published some of his stories under an ambiguously ‘Asian’-sounding name (and also ambiguously gendered) in an anthology he edited so that people would not accuse him of not having enough diverse writers in the anthology. Was that shitty? Yeah. It was. But so was not soliciting or finding actual writers of color to include in the book. So was recruiting me, an Asian American writer, to be an assistant editor (for free of course) for the anthology.”
In Zhang’s telling, Elliott created F.S. Yu not only to sneak more of his own words into print, but to obscure his inadequacies as an editor. It showed a shrewd understanding of the politics of names.
Ha feels similarly, “If you’re asking me whether I think this was a shitty thing to do: Yes, of course. At the time, I think I was uncomfortable with it while being somewhat convinced by Steve’s logic that we weren’t *explicitly* lying. (Also, I knew that he was going to do whatever he wanted, regardless of what I said.) In retrospect, this seems like a ridiculous excuse.”
Stephen Elliott did not reply to emails and a Twitter direct message asking for comment.