The Living Death of Alt Lit

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Image via AltLitGossip.com

“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?

Ben Fama (via PoetryFoundation.org
Ben Fama (via PoetryFoundation.org)

When I began to question friends in the literary community about the scene, I was disappointed to hear pejoratives (“emo,” “G-Chat poetry,” “ironically sincere”) that I assumed Alt Lit practitioners would either embrace as positives or dismiss altogether. So I took to asking Alt Lit participants, and more astute observers on the fringe of the scene, to define it for me. (I should add that these people preferred to speak with me only via Google Documents and through email. Such is the hallmark of Alt Lit and its satellite observers, poets, and writers.)

“The Alt Lit explosion was, and still is, an online community of authors writing in a quick, confessional mode,” poet and writer Ben Fama told me over email. For Fama, the Alt Lit scene proved itself “more participatory than prestigious,” and he was forthright that this participatory momentum will continue despite the alleged abuses of Alt Lit’s gatekeepers. Fama was also candid about the ability of certain poets and publications to transcend the recent scandals. “Maybe the momentum that caused the initial surge has passed, or been eclipsed by scandal,” Fama said, “but the writers and excitement around them that emerged over the last few years will continue.” In particular, Fama cites Ana Carrete, Gabby Bess, and Steve Roggenbuck as writers who may well transcend the scene’s current malaise.

Alt Lit’s participatory energy, cited by Fama, might have been sparked by digital literature’s clash with traditional print literature’s old values. Frank Guan, an editor of Prelude (an impressive new poetry magazine) and author of perhaps the most substantial piece ever written on Tao Lin, suggested as much when he wrote “[Alt Lit] could be described as a digital, minimalist confessionalism, one drained of most of old-school confessionalism’s excess and ‘drama.’” In an email, Guan implied that this clash of traditions may have accentuated Alt Lit’s democratized spirit:

Alt Lit had the potential to, and often did, provide a platform from writers belonging to social strata that fell outside the purview and the audience of “literary fiction” — Asian males, Hispanic females, poor Appalachian whites, the Chicago underclass. I’d also add that it was the rare non-identity-politics-based literary grouping whose most prominent members (Tao Lin and Mira Gonzalez) were non-white.

Not only does Guan believe that Alt Lit’s identity lies outside of traditional literature, he also doesn’t believe — in an argument that perhaps goes against the grain — that Alt Lit is particularly given to poetry as we understand it. “Remember,” Guan says, “it used to be shameful and abnormal to be an ‘online writer’ ten years ago.” Moreover, Guan adds, the language of social networks actually trumps poetry when it comes to Alt Lit: “What’s more important than the poem is the tweet, I think, and a certain house style of tweet: self-deprecating and lower-case.”

This understanding of Alt Lit as a literature overdetermined and democratized by the Internet is given its fullest expression by curator and writer Brian Droitcour, who was one of the earliest writers to diagnose Alt Lit’s existential condition. Writing for Artforum in 2012, Droitcour observed that Alt Lit comprises a “pointedly botched poetry whose writers cultivate bad spelling, weird punctuation, sincere statements of the obvious.” Yet Droitcour, in an email, also explained that Alt Lit differentiated itself from the “detached gaze of the web surfer or the skilled coder that’s often found in net art.” He sees Alt Lit as, primarily, a collection of self-consciously juvenile activity that combines confessionalist or Romantic (read: emo) vibes with emerging “social” technologies:

Lately I’ve been thinking about how a lot of people write poetry or short fiction in high school and college, and most of [sic] abandon writing in adulthood, at least as a serious daily pursuit. Alt Lit made that habit of journaling more social and more visible, and if it fades away it could be because of shifting preferences for creative outlets as much as the scandals.

The story revealed by this commentary is far more complex than, if not totally at odds with, the prevailing argument of Alt Lit as an exclusive boys’ club. Although each of these writers is unsure whether Alt Lit will endure or die, none of the three believes the recent scandals will easily uproot its technological foundations. Nor do any of these writers suggest that Alt Lit’s democratic and technological attitude could ever have saved it from scandal, especially at the point where digital publication meets its IRL counterpart.

When online interactions clash against real-life meetups: this is where the recent Alt Lit scandals reveal themselves. And it confirms a disturbing trend: as much as the Internet and digital technologies can spur artistic output and democratic belongingness, they just as often rest on a material, patriarchal base. Sophie Katz’s upsetting account is precisely the story of an online relationship that turns abusive once an editorial avatar is exposed as a living person. Of course, it can and should be argued that such abuse is made all the more possible by the editorial positions held by men in the first place. It’s also possible that male editors used their online status and power as a prelude to abuse. In both cases, the recent scandals of Alt Lit differentiate themselves from traditional editorial abuses only by the juxtaposition of online vs. IRL life.

Alexandra Naughton (via Tumblr)
Alexandra Naughton (via Tumblr)

The decline of Alt Lit’s gatekeepers is now being met by a promising commotion of new writing, events, publications, and camaraderie that extends far beyond the reach of any one male figurehead. Fama in particular cites writers like Jenny Zhang, Andrew Durbin, and Monica McClure — poets and essayists “who are in the middle of things and use it all” — as proof that the scene is evolving healthily in new directions. And Guan, whose magazine Prelude mixes excellent Alt Lit or post-Alt Lit poets like Mira Gonzalez and Cecilia Corrigan with established figures like John Ashbery and Eileen Myles, is paving the way for digital and print sensibilities to collide. As Guan explains, “Alt Lit as a ‘brand’ is probably not going to survive, but aside from Stephen Tully Dierks pretty much all the writers once associated with it will continue to write and promote one another.” Unlike Alt Lit proper, these developments bring online sensibilities together with literary tradition and even the real/unreal savvy of performance art: the implications for poetry in particular are vast and fascinating.

But there are also those poets and writers who, perhaps more closely tied to the inner workings of the online scene, believe that Alt Lit’s days are numbered. In particular, I asked Alexandra Naughton — whose allegations of emotional abuse and sexual assault against Janey Smith/Steven Trull surfaced on September 2nd (later written about here) — and D. Dragonetti, two survivors and the editors of a new journal called Empath — an online space “curated for and by survivors” — whether Alt Lit might outlive its current scandal. Both answered, emphatically, that “Alt Lit Is Dead.”

“We started Empath to fill what we saw as a void in the literary community,” Naughton wrote. “We didn’t like what we saw happening in our online scene, publishers giving preference to tired misogynistic tropes, catering to the white male gaze, and so we sought to do something different.” And, for the editors of Empath, the online lit scene is historically “an amalgam of scenes which never felt especially welcoming or friendly or interested in promoting new voices.” They intend for their journal to be the “antithesis” to this indifference.

Dragonetti more directly ties this antithetical online movement to the recent allegations: “The onslaught of allegations (many of which weren’t even really ‘new’) did, however, seem to bring this to a hub, in that people were decisively and continually confronted with the reality of the scene.” And Dragonetti, too, is pellucidly clear that this scene comprises “a (white) ‘boy’s club,’ regardless of how people have tried to obfuscate that.”

There is an unmistakable sense, reading Dragonetti and Naughton, that Alt Lit’s foundation online, its reliance on technologies like social media and blogging, never guaranteed a democratic outcome. Was Alt Lit, at the end of the day, more inclusive than any other historical scene or movement? “No it wasn’t,” Dragonetti writes. “If it seemed inclusive, that was just a veneer, as opposed to the reality. It’s the same with the meaningless invocation of the ‘alternative’”:

I think the fact that it was largely internet-based just enabled this more, not that these aren’t pervasive cultural issues unto themselves. I think people tend to regard the internet as less “real” or something, i.e. problems in net-based communities become less “real” or immediate to them. But, again, these issues are unfortunately commonplace, it was more or less just as bad as any “movement” IRL–another fairly straightforward reproduction of canon and its affiliated oppressions, but with flarf and macros. I don’t think Alt Lit is worth talking about at all, beyond understanding it as a textbook example of said oppressions in action.

For Naughton’s part, Alt Lit was more like a temporary space or technology, one that could be instrumentalized for better or worse: “I used Alt Lit to forge my own community,” she writes, echoing Brian Droitcour’s observation about teenage journaling: “As in high-school, I got together with all the awesome weirdos and outcasts and we started our own merry crew.”

Yet there is no inclination on either editor’s part to drop the online ethos. If Alt Lit was a scene located at the node between technological and confessional nowness, it could be replaced by what Empath calls its “antithesis,” or what Dragonetti describes as “a rejection of what Alt Lit was and what the dominant culture of literature is, a manifestation of what both have failed to be, a future.”

So is Alt Lit dead or alive? I think the answer lies in Dragonetti’s objection: Alt Lit and traditional literature, once aligned, can now be damned together. There is, I think, a new politics in this objection, one opposed to the platitudes of “inclusion,” “democracy,” and “pluralism” that once defined digital culture. Against this, members of the Alt Lit community called bullshit. They refused to be counted out. The disappearance of Alt Lit’s gatekeepers wasn’t a magic trick; they didn’t vanish. They were removed when Sophia Katz told her story. If new poets and writers now have room to flourish, it’s because they created that room. Alt Lit or not, they can call their flourishing what they will.

Update: This piece has been changed to reflect new information concerning Alexandra Naughton’s allegations of emotional abuse and sexual assault against Janey Smith/Steven Trull, which date back to September 2nd, prior to the allegations listed above.