What does it mean to affix the “alt” tag to something? Is it a reaction? A sign of the changing times? That’s the very question we’re asking about alt lit.
Yes, it is Tao Lin and most recently Marie Calloway, but there are dozens and dozens more writers in between. It’s in blog posts, videos, gchats and Facebook status updates. In PDFs and folded papers and online chapbooks. It’s fiction, it’s poetry, it’s both. It’s changing, it’s living, it’s growing. It’s here.
I asked three influential “members” of this group—Frank Hinton, Stephen Tully Dierks, and Noah Cicero–to put some parameters around it. See their biographies and their essential alt lit reading lists at the end.
What follows is a succession of slightly edited email conversations. All Vol 1. Brooklyn comments and names are in bold.
How did alt lit start?
Frank Hinton (founder of Alt Lit Gossip):
I think that alt lit came out of the original Alt Lit Gossip Tumblr account which was owned by twitter.com/litgossip.
I’d heard people saying “alt lit”, barely at all, but that seemed to snatch it from somewhere. I have a chat with Stephen in my history that dates back to early 2011 that says ‘lit/alt’ ‘alt/lit’ a bunch of times.
Then Alt Lit Gossip (the original Tumblr) appeared and I was really blown away by it. I thought it was a great idea, it fit a space that seemed vacant and I was in full support. I kind of watched to see what it would turn into and it had some great stories, but I wished it had more content.
Then one day it all disappeared. The Tumblr was deleted, the Twitter was deleted, every trace of the site vanished. The guy who ran it all deleted his Facebook and that was that. I tried to email him but got no responses and I waited and felt a little depressed.
As always when depressed I got fucked up and while I was fucked up I said, “Holy shit, I’ll just do it”. I had Metazen and my real life, but was kind of jazzed about it and then started to come up with ideas. I sort of came up with a new concept, designed a new Tumblr and Twitter, set a launch date and went for it. To keep the content crop farming I asked others to help out and then it kind of took off. For some reason the term “alt lit” seemed to catch on and people were tweeting about it in various contexts.
Stephen Tully Dierks (founder of Pop Serial):
To my knowledge, “alt lit” is a term, popularized by Alt Lit Gossip, for a group of vaguely associated or interrelated writers in an online literary scene. I think it is a way to label and create shorthand for a preexisting online literary scene that started (to my knowledge) with a number of personal blogs, gained something of a nexus with the group blog HTMLGIANT, and continues to expand and see new nexuses within a broader scene, such as Pop Serial, my magazine and Tumblr. One could include or exclude writers and nexuses fairly arbitrarily–based on who Alt Lit Gossip covers, the common links seem to be HTMLGIANT, Pop Serial, Muumuu House, and/or satellites or associates of same.
Noah Cicero (author of six books):
I think alt lit is a rejection of the 90s and early part of last decade. When I first starting getting into literature in the late 90s and early part of last decade, everyone was still very much into either getting published by the Paris Review or writing like beatniks or punks and slam poetry. I felt completely dissatisfied with the whole thing, I like the beatniks, but I also liked a lot of other things, and I had no sense of beatnik spirituality. And I didn’t like Eggers, DFW (David Foster Wallace) and Franzen, I found them all bourgeois. I was reading like Sartre and Nietzsche at that time.
Then I noticed the Internet had websites, like 3AM and Word Riot, which just blew my mind. It made me really excited to see the new literature online, but the new literature didn’t satisfy me either. I wrote some things and Tao wrote some things independent of each other, and we found each other. And we both had the same types of complaints. He didn’t care about DFW, Eggers and Franzen either. I read once that DFW is considered the Jesus of alt, but in reality, no one even considered him worth talking about.
The influences we were talking about were much older. We could see, that the Internet had possibilities, that there were no rules on the Internet. A person could get a blog for free and write exactly what they wanted. And that was going to be the future.
Then we met Gene Morgan who made and operated Bear Parade, and he said, “Write whatever you want.” So we did. Then people kept coming, like Kendra Grant Malone, Brandon Scott Gorrell, Ellen Kennedy and Ofelia Hunt. And people like Nick Antosca, Ned Vizzini and James Chapman were participating and talking with us.
(Ed. Note: Here are videos of early readings at the KGB Bar 1, 2.)
It just occurred to me the importance of Kathy Acker in the alt-lit movement. I don’t think this is common knowledge but we stole the hamster thing and the naming of characters after famous people from Kathy Acker. And Kathy Acker’s spirit of playing with things, and being absolutely fucking nuts with language and ideas. The first story I can think of where someone names a character after a famous person where she puts jackie Onassis’ name instead of a regular person’s. To me anyway, Kathy Acker is the original.
Can you define alt lit? Should you define it? What separates it from “lit”?
Stephen: A commonality amongst most or all writers associated with “alt lit” seems to be knowledge of, influence from, and/or association with Tao Lin. I’m not concerned with defining “alt lit.” The only consistent difference between “alt lit” (based on the writers commonly associated with it) and “lit” generally seems to be a greater embrace of the Internet for promotion and release of work and for socializing.
Frank: I don’t know if you can define “alt lit” because I think what people are doing right now is defining it. In the end it will be judged on what it brings into the world, and if that is something larger than a few chapbooks, some drunken parties and a 300 press novel then maybe it will become an actual movement. It needs a book though, and someone credible to back it up, I’m not sure if that exists yet.
Alt lit is (to me) a sort of term used for a population of people that are connected with one another through their interest in the online publishing world. It is kind of a scene that could only exist in a ‘Tao-conscious’ environment. That being said, Tao is not really alt lit. He is and isn’t. Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian (ugh, what a stupid thing to say).
Alt lit writers are in a lot of ways “the children of Tao” as they adopt not just writing styles but methods of marketing their writing in ways that are akin to Tao’s marketing strategies. There is a playfulness though and willingness to experiment and a lot of people are doing really unique things.
Another big thing I would say is Steve Roggenbuck. He seems to be connected to every single alt lit writer in some way. He is kind of the host of the show. He has the energy and now the mobility to move about the country hosting alt lit parties, recruiting and inspiring new alt lit writers and he himself brings about new trends within the group–like the illuminati stuff, or the misspelling. My hope though is that more than just his form starts to shine through and identify itself. I love what he does, but there’s a lot more to highlight.
Noah: What I think is most important, essential to all this, is the idea of the return of the literary life. The idea of a person ‘living a literary life’ was dead. Dave Eggers, Franzen and DFW weren’t living a literary life, they were like professors and do-gooders. The literary life is about ‘living,’ like Rimbaud, Whitman, Celine, Bukowski, Hunter S. Thompson, traveling, doing drugs, partying, standing on street corners in cities and thinking crazy thoughts, taking shits in gas stations in Nebraska at 4 in the morning, going to Asia to teach English, flying over from New Zealand or England just to get drunk with people who’ve met online. Staying up till 5 in the morning talking about philosophy and politics. Making a ten-minute long YouTube video about something you can’t get off your mind. It’s that kid walking down the street with headphones playing Ladytron, carrying a laptop, and a copy of The Stranger, who just feels like this is fucked.
I think what I described really wasn’t alt lit, but as Frank Hinton said, “…Tao is not really alt lit. He is and isn’t. Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian (ugh, what a stupid thing to say).”
No, that wasn’t stupid at all. Feel like what I described were the Jews. Feel like Tao, Gene Morgan, Blake Butler and myself are strangely all Jews. You can tell when reading us that we the crossover from older style of literature to a newer style. I feel no matter what, I am entrenched in an older ambition of the grand novel, as is Tao and Blake.
But when I read Roggenbuck, Ana Carrete, Brittany Wallace, Spencer Madsen, Jackson Nieuwland, Gabby Gabby and Walter Mackey I can see such a sense of liberation and purity of vision. Those writers don’t care at all about getting into the Paris Review, it has never even occurred to them. I went to AWP and met and talked to so many writers, and the idea of New Yorker and big press fame was completely absent. Instead they dreamed of Word Riot or Pop Serial fame. Instead of talking about Harper Collins or Random House, they talked about Lazy Fascist and CCM. The idea of something like that happening 15 years ago is mind blowing to the world of literature.
I feel that Roggenbuck changed the game a lot. He brought in a new positivity that a lot of younger people could relate to. Feel early online literature, Tao, Blake Butler, Kendra Grant Malone, Brandon Scott Gorrell put out a lot of really depressed and morbid shit. Now, I am trying to understand this through Brittany Wallace and her friends who all got into alt lit, they are younger and were too young to see the early Bush years, and how America turned into a war mongering hate machine. And there was 9/11 which didn’t help our souls. Which younger people, especially people from Canada, Mexico, New Zealand and England don’t care about at all. Roggenbuck and the newer writers have Obama and the new optimism in their writing.
But I agree with Frank’s assessment that alt lit requires a full-length novel that really displays its style. But everyone in it alt lit are young and novels don’t come till a person has lived through a certain amount of experiences.
I can see the purity of Roggenbuck or Walter Mackey, that they have crossed over a line into somewhere new. But I’m not sure that even matters, what matters is that the movement keeps growing, what matters is that everyone is having fun, making new friends, even finding lovers.
Currently I am sitting in Seongnam, South Korea on a beautiful blue sky morning, staring out at a Buddhist pagoda on a mountain. I can see some cherry blossoms from my seat writing this, I wouldn’t be here unless I met Brittany Wallace through the alt lit connection. To reduce alt lit, online literature or whatever, to merely literature is not the truth. It is a way of life, a new type of view that doesn’t correspond with the views of societies that want us to be good little college kids that get jobs and pay off our student loans, then buy televisions and cable, and spend our lives watching “Two and Half Men”, Fox News, CNN and Shia Lebeouf movies in some dumbass suburb going deeper and deeper into debt.
But this alt lit is a product of the Internet. There are alt bands like Das Racist and alt news like The Young Turks and Democracy Now. There are alt artists, alt everything now. Because the Internet allows for democracy, it lets people become who they want to be without having to fit into a certain mode of operation.
Sorry for writing so much, but I feel that this needs to be said, in my heart. But the alt way, is that you live differently. If you go into an alt person’s home and watched how they lived, they are eating alt food from Whole Foods, there isn’t even a television, especially not with cable. They are listening to obscure bands or older music no one even cares about anymore. There is a bookshelf with poetry and philosophy. If they listen to the news they get it from Amy Goodman not Wolf Blitzer. They aren’t concerned with getting huge mortgages and life insurance plans. When they hang out with friends, they are philosophizing, not having idle talk about the latest Will Ferrell movie. Some are having weird sex, some are eating vegan, some are doing loads of drugs, some are traveling to Europe, others to Asia, others around America on a shoestring budget, some are spending their summers gardening, this isn’t just about literature.
Is there an alt lit style?
Frank: I don’t even think alt lit is a style. I think you can sort of glance over Person (by Sam Pink) or Orange Juice (by Timothy Willis Sanders) or A Million Bears (by Spencer Madsen) and feel that they’re similar, but maybe it just speaks to a vernacular they share. Everyone tweets and gchats and posts macros and it is a kind of language that is shared amongst a group of people who primarily hang out with one another online. The people get together online by checking out one another’s real estate regularly. They impress one another by making poems or stories or books or images. It’s an art party. It’s not a style: it’s a writerly show and tell.
That being said, again, I think the entire tone was set by Tao. He got everybody playing in the way people are playing now.
I feel like I have read Tao say that he has focused on concrete language rather than extended metaphors or a lot of description—would that style extend across to the other alt lit writers? Or do you think that it isn’t present in other writers?
Stephen: Tao has said many times that he has more than one writing style. The concrete-literal style you reference is perhaps most typified by Shoplifting From American Apparel and Richard Yates. The style he uses in Bed, for example, has extended metaphorical language and description. In his essays and other pieces, such as his North American Hamsters series, he often uses adjectives, adverbs, and other linguistic tropes and sentence structures that mark a notably different style than that of his “nothing extra” concrete-literal style.
I think the concrete-literal style and the robotic or neutral monotone that Tao sometimes–only sometimes–employs is contagious and has been imitated by other writers.
Noah: I don’t know if this matters, but I’ll write it.
I think there is a rejection of what is “good.” Like if you read Emily Dickinson or look at a painting of Picasso. You don’t think, “Oh wow that is good.” When you listen to Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” (especially a live version), your brain’s instant reaction is, “What the fuck is this?” But if you let it, the feeling comes, the power comes, and you are just fucking blown away.
I think it has to do with honesty; honesty isn’t “pretty.”
Noah, are you saying that alt lit writers are intentionally creating something “bad” or just against what is commonly accepted as good or “literary” writing? If that’s the case, though, I wonder how many people still actually think about it in that way, as if they’re writing against something rather than writing towards something.
Stephen: I doubt that many or perhaps any alt lit writers are consciously trying to create “bad” work. I do think some of the more thoughtful writers, such as Steve, realize that writing which brazenly breaks/disregards convention in the name of intuition, fun, and humor is both more exciting and more apt to be dismissed or called “bad” by a less open-minded reader.
Noah: I think for a lot of people, the alt lit scene, online scene, whatever, is a way to meet people and connect to humanity in some small way. I don’t even think that a lot of people are even thinking about a long-term literary career, or even about literature in any serious way. Which is fine with me. I have heard people complain about it, I don’t care.
Ellen Kennedy and Brandon Scott Gorrell wrote one poetry book and they will probably never write again. But those books are awesome; they are both awesome people. Zach German wrote one book, it is a good book, he might never write another. Who cares. Humans in their 20s are full of energy, excitement about life, they need a way to get it out, everything seems epic in your 20s. You gotta let it out. And then time passes and you find other things to do. It is okay. No worries.
Alt Lit Reading Essentials
Stephen Tully Dierks:
Richard Yates by Tao Lin
Person by Sam Pink
CRUNK JUICE by Steve Roggenbuck
I Don’t Respect Female Expression by Frank Hinton
Pop Serial (http://popserial.net)
New Wave Vomit (http://newwavevomit.com)
Stephen Tully Dierks is a writer living in Chicago. He has released two ebooks (one co-authored with Steve Roggenbuck) and been published at HTMLGIANT, Everyday Genius, Metazen, and Thought Catalog. He edits the magazine Pop Serial.
Ana Carrete Penis Envy (http://ana-carrete-pbp.blogspot.com/)
Everything’s Fine by Socrates Adams
P. Edward Cunningham (http://p-edward-cunningham-pbp.blogspot.com/)
“I’m in Love with The Goth Girl” by Walter Mackey
“Selections from Elaine’s Twitter” by Elaine Sun
Noah Cicero has published six novels and currently lives in South Korea. Read more about him at his blog.