Alt-Lit Is for Boring, Infantile Narcissists
How did this literature of absolute nothingness get to be so popular?
Some profound alt-lit.
Now that everyone's grown tired of pornography, the internet is only good for two things: passive-aggression and confirming and reaffirming dislikes and prejudices. That last one is important, because it's vital to remind ourselves of what we hate and why we hate it, otherwise we'd all end up being pleasant to each other the whole time.
A good example of something that sucks is this Tumblr, which collects text from people ruminating about "the family home" and layers it atop an over-saturated photo of a suburban house, because that's profound. This was the stanza that broke the camel’s back:
A neighbour, Anne-Marie -
my first friend? First crush?
We played with her dolls once &
It felt transgressive -
even aged ~3, a socialised boy.
Having got my head around the awkward phrasing and the awful, deluded pretence that playing with dolls as a child is somehow transgressive (I used to get my mum to paint my nails and refer to them as "pretties", which wasn't transgressive then and still isn't now), I realised something important: I hate alt-lit.
When I say "alt-lit", I’m referring to a community of young writers who use the internet as their main method to promote their work. There are short story writers, novelists, poets and lots of people who make image macros worse than the kind of sincere Ben-Harper-lyrics-over-a-picture-of-a-mountain your 13-year-old cousin posts to Facebook when the boy she likes doesn't text her back. Artforum describes it as, "a kind of pointedly botched poetry whose writers cultivate bad spelling, weird punctuation, sincere statements of the obvious and a spontaneous expressivity evocative of erratic pubescent passions", which is a very kind way to put it.
A quick caveat: I was once called out on the popular Alt-Lit Gossip blog for a Twitter conversation about finding good alt-lit writers to interview, so while there are some excellent writers coming out of this world, there are also a lot of people dubbing themselves as alt-lit because it's an easy way to mask how terrible they are at writing.
A Willis Plummer poem.
WHAT DO YOU KNOW?
When you start writing, you’re told to "write what you know". This is solid, sensible advice, because writing about something totally new is difficult and reads like nonsense to anyone who does have a knowledge of what you're writing about. That's why reading creative writing by university students might make you think the future of fiction lies in stories about failed fresher’s week relationships, holidays in Ireland and women who cut their hair off so their boyfriends can’t ejaculate in it any more.
However, sometimes what you know doesn't translate into very good fiction. But in the world of alt-lit, that's totally fine. Is what you "know" sitting alone in your room, reading Twitter for hours and feeling sad that the American girl who likes trap didn't DM you back? Well, try your hand at alt-lit, friend, because – inexplicably – there seems to be an insatiable, undying hunger for self-reflective prose about nothingness of that exact ilk.
That isn’t to say that fiction as self- or societal-reportage is a bad thing (it isn’t). Or that incorporating contemporary trends into stories should be avoided (it shouldn’t be). Or that every story should be a blockbuster thriller with 100 interwoven plots and 30-page bank heists, but every daily mundane experience really isn't worth fictionalising. David Foster Wallace could get away with it because he was David Foster Wallace. Tao Lin can do it because he is Tao Lin; his writing has the understated clarity and precision of Raymond Carver, the happysadness of Lorrie Moore, the punch and power of Richard Ford. It's hard to say why Lin's writing – being as superficially similar to a lot of alt-lit – rises above the tag he's credited with inventing, but there's something in the sincerity of it all that makes you want to keep reading accounts of sad boys spending their day in the library. He nails the kind of weightlessness/aimlessness that people in their twenties feel without overstating it.
A Tao Lin poem, proving that alt-lit doesn't have to suck.
THE GRAMMAR OF INDIFFERENCE
One of the main alt-lit textual trends is wrapping up pretty much anything that might have some kind of emotional resonance in quotation marks. I imagine they're there as a stylistic device to imbue the writing with a sense of abstraction and a confliction of emotions and blah, blah, blah, but they always just end up reading as a writer who's too afraid to commit to the task at hand. Mind you, sincerity totally sucks anyway, right?
There’s also this weird obsession with the tilde character (‘~’), which again seems to be there to inject completely normal, quantifiable things with a mystery, i.e: "Today Ethan drank ~500mls of Irn Bru and ate ~22 Smarties." What's that supposed to achieve besides making the text read like an awkward attempt at Lydia Davis-style ultra-scrutiny? I don't want to spend more than approximately a quarter of a second – sorry, "~a quarter of a second" – being forced to work out if it matters how much Irn Bru somebody drank, because it clearly doesn't matter to anyone anywhere whatsoever.
THE INTERNET AS A LIFESTYLE
As much as it’s a tool of self-desertion, the internet can also make us take ourselves far too seriously, because it helps us forget that no one cares. Which is kind of an obvious thing to say, but it's never a bad idea to remind ourselves that thriving on the validation that a wall post or an RT can bring is a terrible way to measure a life. Even at its most powerful and insidious, social networking is still no more than the pre-pool footbath you’ve got to gingerly tread through before hitting the slides of reality. So the pride the alt-lit community take in abdicating from an IRL existence as some kind of "comment" on what it means to be young in the age of web 2.0 results in nothing more than a literature of absolute nothingness.
It's writing that is written to be "Liked" on Facebook and reblogged on Tumblr. Writing that’s about nothing more than endless days spent bleary-eyed in front of PDF ebook poetry collections called If you were nicer IRL, I’d never log in or Transcripts from MSN Group Conversations: 2003-2006 that consist of @dril tweets interspersed with comments from Bon Jovi YouTube videos and meditations on being positive.
Who the fuck wants to read that, really?
There’s something genuinely inspiring about the way the alt-lit community spreads and disseminates work – anyone with aspirations of writing fiction, or who enjoys seeing the emergence of good new writers, can’t fail to be impressed with the way the alt-lit hype machine’s given virtual unknowns a platform to present their take on the world to the world. However, the blind promotion of other people’s chapbooks/ebooks to other people who’ve got their own hastily assembled chapbook to promote is less appealing.
It’s like those guys you knew at uni who share invites to their UK bass night in a former scout hut on Facebook and only receive comments from the other dudes they know who also run UK bass nights. A browser-clogging collection of reblogs ruins the finished product in the same way that a book covered in 20 different quotes tells you it's going to be terrible before you've even read the first page.
THE CULT OF THE AUTHOR
This, of course, is nothing new. We’ve always wanted our authors to be more than just people who spend their days sitting in their study typing, deleting and retyping commas all day. We want them to be debauched hedonists and stoic men’s-men. We want them to live a life that’d be worth reading about. Alt-lit lives aren't even worth writing about, because they are the exact lives that you – the reader – live every day, only apparently lacking any kind of self-awareness at how banal they sound.
Here are some people on Twitter doing just that:
Mira Gonzalez states that: ‘I would eat a deep fried human hand right now, can anyone deliver me amphetamines or a small dog, everything is my fault, who wants to fuck’ (via @miragonz) – Cannibalism! Drugs! Self-hate! Sex! The Great Privileged American Girl Novel!
John Brnlv Rogers was, ‘Going to write a poem tonight about how shower gel makes me think about death, could be great or terrible’ (via @brainlove) – Hope it worked out well for you, John!
All of this – the narcissism, the solipsism, the glorification of online communication, the brattiness, the backslapping, the fucking image macros – could be overlooked if the writing was any good. If it elevated the subject matter, if it being alt-lit wasn’t the only reason anyone read it, if things happened in the stories, if the dialogue went further than trying to replicate the stuttering and haltering of inchoate early-twenties relationships, if it didn’t contribute sentences like, "I’m interested in the effects of a combination of amphetamine salts and oxycodone upon my productivity at work," if it wasn’t so content with thinking about drugs and itself and itself on drugs.
If it wasn’t fucking alt-lit, basically.
Follow Josh on Twitter: @bain3z
Some more stuff about literature: