In Defense of Alt Lit: Literary Criticism and the DIY Revolution
Over the past couple of days, the “alt lit” community has been buzzing over an unapologetically trolling post by Josh Baines on VICE.UK: “Alt-Lit is for Boring, Infantile Narcissists.” In a nutshell, Baines’s argument is that most of what is self-identified as “alt lit” is not good writing, and that the poor writing is not redeemed by the circumstances of its creation.
There’s not much that can be done with Baines’s aesthetic criticism of alt lit, since he doesn’t even try to hide his bias against the form and content of alt lit: online writing, often self-referential, featuring multimedia content. He notes, accurately, that “it’s writing that is written to be ‘Liked’ on Facebook and reblogged on Tumblr”—and he doesn’t say that like it’s a good thing. So, though Baines and I differ as to whether or not Mira Gonzalez is a good writer, I wouldn’t try to convince him otherwise—no person who does what she does is likely to please Baines.
Baines does concede that Tao Lin—a major inspiration for the alt lit community—is a good writer. “He nails the kind of weightlessness/aimlessness that people in their twenties feel without overstating it.” I agree, but it seems plausible that Baines’s assessment of Lin has been colored by the fact that Lin is by far the most established writer working in the alt lit mode: he has a publishing company and multiple books, one of which has now been adapted into a motion picture. He’s been the subject of an approving Wall Street Journal feature. Presumably Baines would say that Lin’s success has come about because he’s a good writer; that seems correct, but it’s also true that Lin no longer needs the support of the alt lit community, so he can afford to be above the fray. He’s established.
That’s not true for most alt lit writers, only a couple of whom have garnered notice outside the alt lit world. I was recently talking with a publishing insider; she told me that she’s not a fan of alt lit, but she had also never even heard of Steve Roggenbuck, an itinerant poet who’s a celebrity by alt lit standards and who has co-headlined readings with Lin as well as been featured in the New York Times style magazine. If even Roggenbuck is still below the book-world radar, then so are the likes of Gonzalez, Frank Hinton, Crispin Best (a contributor to The Tangential’s book Future Cities), Stephen Tully Dierks, and other alt lit luminaries. Can you blame them, then, for self-promoting?
Yes, apparently. In fact, that’s precisely what Baines is blaming them for. While he concedes that “there’s something genuinely inspiring about the way the alt-lit community spreads and disseminates work,” he thinks the alt lit community goes too far. “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.”
So, if I’m following Baines’s logic: (a) peer promotion is good, but (b) uncritical peer promotion is bad, and since (c) alt lit sucks, (d) all promotion of alt lit must therefore be uncritical and, thus, bad. Conclusion: promotion of alt lit is bad, and the more there is, the worse it is.
This brings us to the whole question of what “critical” means in this context. Baines is coming in like an old-school critic, who sets out to tell you objectively what’s good writing and what’s bad writing. In his judgment, most alt lit writers are bad writers. That’s his call, but it should be observed that he’s making that call from a different standpoint than that of the genuinely old-school critic.
Back when writing required traditional publishers, the only writing that earned the attention of critics was traditionally published writing. When you criticized a piece of traditionally published writing, you were also criticizing its editor, its publisher, and even the booksellers who stocked it. Since publishing resources were limited, the publication of Author A meant the rejection of Author B, and so the critic was judging whether Author A was genuinely more deserving of publication than all the rejected authors B, C, D, and so on.
Today, alt lit publishes itself. It’s on Tumblr, it’s on Facebook, it’s on Twitter. Writers format, post, and market their own free PDF chapbooks. It’s written and read by people with relatively little money, so payment comes, yes, in the form of follows, likes, and reblogs. Alt lit writers know they’re writing for that world, and their work is tailored for those circumstances. It’s concise, it’s visual, it’s allusive and witty. It’s also self-referential, both because that’s always been a popular mode of writing and because there’s so little distance between the author and the publisher (they’re often the same person) that taking on an “objective” distance starts to seem absurd.
No one likes to be told their writing is bad, so of course there’s been plenty of indignation in alt lit writers’ reaction to Baines’s post; the fact that alt lit writing is so openly personal also means that being criticized as an alt lit writer is much closer to being criticized as a person than if you were criticized as a published novelist. That said, alt lit uses so few resources, and demands so little of its readers, that when you criticize it, you risk looking like a fool. Roggenbuck, for example, is like poetic Teflon: you might not like what he does, but you can’t criticize it the way you criticize conventional poetry because it’s so knowingly executed and self-contained. It’s not like some other poet is starving because Roggenbuck posted ten image macros today, and it’s not like it’s hard to avoid him if you want to.
For a genre that contains so much implicit critique of conventional literature—screw you, Scribners, I’ve got a Tumblr—alt lit features very little explicit critique of that world. Alt lit writers know they exist in a different world from that populated by conventional writers, and vice versa. Alt lit has branched off the mainstream literary tree, but now that it’s branched off, it’s largely content to leave the rest of the tree to itself, trying to keep the conventional publishing industry from dying. Alt lit exists in a post-publishing world, where a lack of money, retail space, and media attention is taken for granted. It’s self-sustaining, self-criticizing, and self-policing. Looking at alt lit from the outside and saying it’s bad is almost meaningless; it’s exactly what it wants to be.
Alt lit writers still identify as writers, but alt lit is also a world where genre and medium are becoming less meaningful as signifiers. Consider the GIFs that Roggenbuck and his fans make from his online readings. Are they poems? Are they photos? Are they movies? Does it matter? Only insofar as you need to choose whether to post them as images or text posts on Tumblr.
Baines doesn’t like the content of alt lit, and he doesn’t much like its form, either. He’s entitled to his opinion, and he and like-minded critics can continue to disdain and avoid alt lit. They have their work cut out for them: the kind of writing, and art, now classified as “alt lit” are only going to get harder and harder to avoid.