The Living Death of Alt Lit

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“Alt Lit Is Dead,” wrote Gawker’s Allie Jones on October 3rd, after a string of allegations of rape and sexual abuse drove some of the Internet’s better-known male editors and writers — men who effectively served as Alt Lit’s gatekeepers — into hiding. Without question, it was clear that whatever Alt Lit was, it was in trouble. It seemed that the speed with which the allegations came, their range and corroborative power, would surely disperse a scene that seemed cloud-like and amorphous to begin with.

The proclamation of Alt Lit’s death coincided with the revelation that despite a veneer of difference, it bore a depressing resemblance to many literary movements that preceded it: it was maintained by a gaggle of male overlords who oversaw the publication of its writers — sometimes, it was alleged, on the basis of sexual coercion. But was Alt Lit anything more than these male overlords? And if so, does their downfall mean that the scene is dead?

The first allegations against an Alt Lit figurehead to achieve mainstream media coverage — it turned out there were prior allegations reported by smaller outlets — surfaced on September 27th, when author and artist Sophia Katz took to the publishing platform Medium to post a 3,100-word narrative titled “We Don’t Have to Do Anything.” As a piece of writing, a description of events, Katz’s story is direct and light on metaphor — a more thoughtful and measured version of much of Alt Lit prose. But the calm of her account betrayed a subject that is wholly upsetting.

As it unfolds, the story details the alleged sexual abuses that Katz experienced at the hands of a “self-obsessed” writer named “Stan” while she visited him in New York City, where she hoped to make literary connections. It seemed that “Stan” was a false name for a real person, because within two days, additional accusations of remarkable similarity were made against Stephen Tully Dierks, editor of Pop Serial, a well-known Alt Lit organ. Not long after, Dierks announced his intention to leave behind his “public writing life.”

Not long after the accusations about Dierks came to light, Alt Lit’s most prominent poet and writer of fiction, Tao Lin, was accused of statutory rape and emotional abuse by E.R. Kennedy, whom the author dated when he was 23 and Kennedy was 16. The details of the accusations were amplified — and perhaps, for many, verified — by Lin’s 2010 novel Richard Yates, which recounts experiences reminiscent of the real-life accusations between two characters named Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning.

Lin denied the accusations, hired an attorney, and issued a statement that acknowledged a sexual relationship with Kennedy, suggesting that Kennedy was 16 at the time and therefore within the legal boundary of sexual consent. From there, Lin stepped away from social media, a process that had already begun after the publication of Taipei, his third novel (and first with a major publishing house).

Tao Lin (via HTML Giant)
Tao Lin (via HTML Giant)

So for the moment, Tao Lin has receded from view. And, for the moment, Stephen Tully Dierks has retired from public life. When you consider, too, that a select few writers once associated with Alt Lit, like Blake Butler, now have books out with Big Five publishing houses — Butler’s Three Hundred Million was published in October by Harper Perennial — the question arises again: is Alt Lit finished?

It’s difficult to imagine writers like Lin or Butler, who’ve crossed over to mainstream success, carrying the Alt Lit mantle, Sisyphus-like, when they no longer need it. Even months before the recent scandals erupted, Butler relinquished his editorial role at the once-beloved site HTML GIANT, where several Alt Lit (and non-Alt Lit) writers got their start. Tellingly, too, when stories of abuse and rape surfaced on the Internet in October, HTML GIANT shut down in an apparent distancing maneuver, and then ceremoniously mocked those commentators who would ever have aligned it with the Alt Lit movement.

A palpable disgust has flared up against Alt Lit in the wake of the scandals, to the point where a simple Twitter search now reveals a widespread disaffection with the scene. The publication of Lin’s Taipei and Butler’s Three Hundred Million — two critically well-received novels — did little to reinvigorate interest in the scene; nor did it ever appear that either author wanted as much. But the mounting disapproval, the scene’s most famous authors’ current disinclination to support it, and the evidence that a few of its well-known male figureheads acted as abusive gatekeepers: all of this taken together shouldn’t suggest that Alt Lit is and/or was a valueless literary phenomenon.

Nor should critics and observers be so quick to assume that the scene itself was nothing more than the sum of its sorrows — or, indeed, the sum of the work of its most famous proponents. As a literary movement that emerged in unison with social media, low-cost web publishing, and other horizontalizing technologies, Alt Lit took not only its aesthetic, but also its ethos, from the Internet’s dream of inclusivity — even if it overestimated its exemption from digital technology’s material and patriarchal underbelly. My own knee-jerk assumption that Alt Lit was dead, in other words, relied on a sketchy notion of its origins and aesthetic. The more I thought about this problem as a critic, the less sure I was that I had a firm grasp on the scene’s identity. How can you pronounce something dead if you aren’t sure what gave it life?