Is publishing about to come face to face with the corridor of mirrors that is Alt Lit?
On June 6th, Bloomsbury releases Taipei, the new novel by Tao Lin.
The ear I keep to the publishing ground has picked up very little about this. But the other ear, the one that still listens to the literary underground that’s my spiritual home, has been almost deafened. But from neither side have I really heard anyone talk about why this is potentially a huge moment for publishing.
Tao Lin is best known in many circles as the name most frequently associated with the term Alt Lit, a “genre” that’s sometimes nebulous and sometimes seems like a self-absorbed hipster clique, but one that deals like no other form of writing with life in the 21st century digital West.
Alt Lit not only spreads itself on the internet (largely through the social blogging siteTumblr and frequent use of media such as memes, gifs, and image macros), but whose primary subject is how we live our lives online. And it’s been hitherto pretty much invisible to the mainstream publishing world. Some names within the “movement” have been picked up by exciting small presses (which themselves have often grown from the community).
So Sam Pink, singled out by Damien G Walter in his search for great indie fiction, is published by Lazy Fascist Press, Gabby G’Abby has a book forthcoming from the fabulous Civil Coping Mechanisms, Frank Hinton’s Action, Figure is published by Tiny Hardcore Press, and Tao Lin himself has set up Muumuu House, alongside the likes of Megan Boyle, whose recent liveblogging of her life has been the subject of much attention. And there are others on the fascinating Alt Lit Library archive.
But many of those authors published by tiny presses are no more visible than the vast majority of Alt Lit, which remains self-published online – and not on kdp but, where it ventures out of Tumblr usually as PDFs on Scribd.
Taipei is a perfect distillation of Alt Lit’s themes of online life, casual drug use, introspection, distance from the world and disconnected co-dependent relationships reminiscent of early Bret Easton Ellis. If it’s a hit, it seems inevitable that publishers will be all over what will inevitably seem like a very alien landscape of in-jokes, introspection and misspellings.
Which poses two questions. Where will they look? And how will these two cultures brush up against each other? The latter is incredibly interesting. One of Alt Lit’s many contradictions is that it’s both a tight-knit community and one obsessed by celebrity, populated by authors angsting over their branding, their number of likes, the way they boost and are boosted by their peers. This is a community that feels as though it both craves attention and fears nothing more than its disruptive potential.
Nowhere has this clearer in recent months than in two particular events – firstly the aforementioned liveblog of Megan Boyle, something that feels like a derivative stunt (but one that typifies Alt Lit’s blend of internet and life’s minutiae) but which has created a fever pitch of interest within an Alt Lit community uncertain whether it is the best or worst thing.
Meanwhile Marie Calloway’s What Purpose Did I Serve In Your Life is a fictionalised memoir about the confused relationship between the internet, the Alt Lit community, and control of female sexuality, a book that fits perfectly into a debate that ranges from 50 Shades to Sheila Heti. How Alt Lit will handle outside attention that doesn’t speak its language, and how publishers will handle a community that has built almost a barricade of linguistic exclusivity around itself remains to be seen, but almost certainly it, and the internet blogs it germinates, will be at least as interesting as the waves of Tao Lin copies that hit the shelves.
Where publishers will turn is a fascinating question. As someone who has published three figures from the Alt Lit Scene, Penny Goring, author of the acclaimed The Zoom Zoom, and now Sian S Rathore and Paul Askew, I’d like to offer a sketchy two part map. How it is used will talk wonders about what publishers are looking for in Alt Lit – the literature or the platform.
The writers. The first point is that most Alt Lit is poetry. Which instantly narrows the field for many publishers. But there are some incredible prose writers in the Alt Lit Scene. Frank Hinton has a wonderfully semi-surreal lens through which she views her world. Shane Jesse Christmas writes disrupted sentences like nothing else you have ever read. Sam Pink has created a whole deliciously off-kilter world around himself and his writing, with books with titles like I am Going to Clone Myself Then Kill The Clone And Eat It.
The brands. Image-consciousness is an essential part of Alt Lit, one of many areas where it takes its lead from Brett Easton Ellis. Tao Lin is at the forefront of this, an almost mystical figure smiling benevolently like some airbrushed billboard dictator over everything else that happens. Central to the recent obsession with branding are figures like Steve Roggenbuck, whose poetic wanderings and whimsical feelgood videos spread a somewhat confused message about both supporting your peers whilst at the same time standing out from them, and Daniel Alexander whose Snack Pack brand brings a delightful manchild innocence to the world. Marie Calloway is the perfect example of a writer whose writing and brand have become indistinguishable because her image is everything. It is very hard to tell in her case, or with Megan Boyle, whether the self-dissection, the laying bare before readers, is a clever dissection of internet reality or a sad example of lives that have succumbed to it. That is what makes them so addictive.
Which brings me to a figure who combines these elements, and probably the most divisive figure within Alt Lit whilst at the same time its most incisive critic, Andrea Coates. Andrea’s critical writing on her blog mixes the personal and the incredibly perceptive – and her prose with its random capitalisations and misspellings is fully immersed in Alt Lit’s linguistic quirks. She also shares Calloway’s seeming lack of personal boundaries, happily posting explicit photos of herself. Yet behind that is a fiercely political awareness of what she is doing. Whether she succeeds is not for me to say, but her attempts to unmask and deconstruct patriarchy at every turn make her a figure whose importance goes beyond her awareness of the way the internet and the body interrelate. She could just be the first genuinely important critic of that relationship to emerge from fully inside the community being critiqued.
If Taipei sinks without a trace, it may go down as the one atoll of Alt Lit that peeped briefly above the waves. If it thrives, publishing is about to engage with a whole culture it hasn’t begun to get its head around yet, and that will make a fascinating ride.
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