CTRL+ALT+LIT30 April 2013
When alt lit darlings Tao Lin and Megan Boyle—writers and editors of niche publisher Muumuu House—married in a quickie Vegas ceremony, they filmed it and dropped the news via a live Q&A webstream. If anyone out there is confused about what alt lit is, that might be the best way of explaining it.
Anti-privacy, writers within the alt lit (alternative literature) genre not only utilise the internet and social media platforms to promote work, they treat online culture as sacrosanct. This allows their work to showcase what anyone born in the 80s already suspects: that those who say real life begins when you turn off the screen are just thinking small.
Often hailed (or derided) as the ‘prince’ of alt lit, Tao Lin, at age 29, has written three novels, a novella, two poetry collections and three e-books. His second novel, Richard Yates, features characters with celebrity child-star names like Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning talking about organic vegan funnel cakes and hanging out on Gchat. At 25, Megan Boyle has published a poetry book, titled selected unpublished blog posts of a mexican panda express employee, and writes regularly for Thought Catalog and Vice (but then, who within the alt lit genre doesn’t?). Fellow champion of the genre, Steve Roggenbuck—also 25—is the author of poetry collection Crunk Juice, two e-books, and a Tumblr page called Live my Lief, which hosts his video and image based poetry. On Live my Lief, he describes his goal as being “to use poetry and internet to boost the world”. Clicking on the hyperlink ‘boost the world’, takes the reader to an entire page about “boosting”, where Roggenbuck explains that “boost is vary mysterous you know. ‘boost’ is used in many ways.. when you are excited or performing well, you may say ‘im boosting!! ~ ~ BOOOOOST!!!’”
Even though many of us feel that societal conventions prohibit us from exposing things in public that we can hardly bear remembering in private, writers of alt lit happily pen reviews of their ex-husband’s apartment (Boyle), the Xanax/acid/whatever they’ve just dropped (Boyle, Jordan Castro, Brandon Scott Gorrell, and everyone else), and publish their Gchat conversations in the public sphere. One suspects they all had super chilled out parents, because in alt lit, nothing is off limits: accounts of graphic sex acts, mental illness, illegal activity and so on, all make their way into print. But with alt-lit committed to airing the trash, it’s hardly confounding that their community has become synonymous with just that. “Alt-lit is a badge some people use to just hastily publish absolute shit,” writes Frank Hinton—alt lit proponent and publisher of the Tumblr page alt lit gossip—in the comments section for a Vice article criticising the genre. Lurking in the comments of articles about themselves is tres alt lit (“Seems bleak, lol” writes Lin on Boyle’s article RE: his Manhattan apartment).
As Millenials, the alt lit cohort represent the first literary generation to grow up online. However, despite perceptions otherwise, alt lit is not simply produced by any slightly maladjusted youth with an internet connection. What distinguishes the genre from previous literary styles is an awareness of the world both onscreen and off, and the labour that goes into making their experimental writing look effortless. Alt lit synthesises youth’s technology culture with literature in order to both subvert traditional notions of highbrow art and reveal the creative potential of an Internet language.
That being said, criticism of the genre isn’t entirely unfounded: finding a gem in the alt lit canon is akin to finding a working fridge on your neighbour’s curb right after yours bites the dust. For one thing, text-speak dominates the writing. For another, publishing photos of your iPhone conversations could possibly be art, but also, and more likely, it probably isn’t. And while self-publication isn’t really anything new (Virginia Woolf would have my back on this one, I’m sure), the predilection towards self-publishing alt lit is often highlighted in arguments concerning its lack of ability to be published elsewhere.
The question as to whether alt lit is trash or treasure is impossible to answer. In truth, the treasure of the genre is that it’s inseparable from the trash. Without tweens and their iPhone screencaps, and the quarter-life crises of twenty-something hipsters, alt lit might not exist. And sure, a text-speak critical analysis of Neopets might not seem like art to some of us, but nobody really appreciated Thoreau or Kafka until after they were dead, so what do we know?