Report from the Field: The End of “Alt Lit”: Changing the Face of Grassroots Literature

The “Alt Lit” (“alternative literature”) community—described by Gawker’s Allie Jones as a net-based literary genre that is “hip, youthful, awkward, and uncomfortably self-aware”—was fragmented by controversy over the past few months. This was namely due to the fact that a number of influential gatekeepers and figures—including Janey Smith/Steven Trull, Stephen Tully Dierks, Stephen Michael McDowell/Buttercup McGillicudy, and Tao Lin—were outed as alleged rapists. But, while the outings themselves were shocking, arriving in swift succession, the association of “Alt Lit” to rape culture is nothing new. I interviewed four long-time participants in the scene—Manuel Arturo Abreu, Alexandra Naughton, Diane Marie, and Lizzy Yizzil—to demonstrate the arc of their experiences with “Alt Lit,” inevitably realizing its ethical lapse.

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MANUEL ARTURO ABREU

-How did you become affiliated with “alt lit”?

In 2012 during rehab I started drinking Mad Dog 20/20 and typing poems on a brown Smith-Corona Coronet Automatic 12 typewriter. That was right before I saw Steve Roggenbuck read at Backspace, which is sadly closed now. I was familiar with “alt lit”—Tao Lin was a reference point at my Portland college because he read there in 2008 I think—and seeing Steve read was inspiring. I continued my besotted typewriter thing, scanned my favorite pages, and edited them into the resulting ebook “everything is everything is everything.” It was my first and it was dedicated to Steve.

I met “alt lit people” by watching and participating in Spreecasts. I love chatrooms and the immediacy of that aspect of the scene—roughly, “chatroom as communal poetic practice”—really stuck with me. I got into it: Steve Roggy sent me a free copy of “Crunk Juice” because I drank apple cider vinegar on cam on one of his Spreecasts. I remember reading stuff on like two SPACEDADS Spreecasts, and Lizzy Yzzil (UNFIT) also had me read on a Spreecast she did with James Ganas (it’s funny how things go full circle actually: recently I read IRL in Seattle alongside James Ganas, D. Dragonetti, and others). That was back when I had just made my ~new~ Facebook, because I was sick of my old, “normie” one. I’d intended this new one to be for promoting my music under the moniker “Tabor Dark,” but I quickly started posting written and visual work on Facebook and Twitter. My first publication was in Ian Aleksander Adams’ “CLEARLY STATED” (issue 006). Over time I’ve continued to meet lots of amazing people on the periphery of the “alt lit” scene.

-Has the nature of your affiliation changed? Does it mean something different to you now than when you initially “discovered” it?

I was never “affiliated” with it. Maybe it was naive, but when I was in the Spreecast chats I didn’t consider myself “alt lit.” My initial skepticism about the scene remains. In November 2012 I wrote a short ebook called “post-alt lit haikus,” which was a way of reconciling this skepticism/distance with the fact that I was using the scene and its tropes—performing and trading memeable literary encounters/objects—to start gaining an audience for my own work. “Alt Lit” definitely means something else to me now, having seen so many shitstorms happen. Examples: the recent and gross Plain Wrap fiasco, or the recent flak D. Dragonetti received over his “alt lit” crit of “sad girl misogyny,” or the outraged white tears when Safy-Hallan Farah called out racism in “alt lit”(December 2013 I believe). These kinds of examples—men publishing fantasies attached to legal names without consent, or marginalized people being attacked for voicing their opinions—underlies the fundamental conservatism and normative regulation of this tiny self- and indie-publishing microcosm. Finally, the I AM ALT LIT twitter account unfollowed me last month. Does this mean nothing was the same?

-What, if anything, do you feel distinguishes it as “alt”?

Nothing. But let’s consider this. Either the work is “alt” or the people are. As for the work: the main novelty is it exists primarily on digital architecture as opposed to on dead trees. Stylistically, novelty is kind of relative—the current wide swath of alt-related people all come from different literary and critical backgrounds, and what they or journalists about “alt lit” consider new is based on their exposure. Idk.  As far as I can tell, a fair amount of people involved in or associated with “alt lit” aren’t actually big readers (I’m actually becoming more like that these days— life and the internet interest me more than books). The story goes: books generally lack the immediacy of chat, macros, videos, status updates. So in drawing from these more visceral digital communication forms, “alt lit” writers, whether they like it or not, are positioned as palliatives.

-How do the recent events (e.g. controversy surrounding the “Fuck List”) bear on your understanding of alt lit/its community? Do you recognize any major faults (e.g. apologism, enabling/gatekeeping)?

I’m a bit nonplussed that “alt lit” people can micro-canonize a book like [Tao Lin’s] Richard Yates (which details a young man’s statutory abuse of a young woman in a detached tone) and then pretend that fiascos like the Fuck List are “alt lit” scene exceptions. This kind of violent gatekeeping is the norm. What’s notable and inspiring is seeing survivor stories like Alexandra Naughton’s and Meghan Lamb’s in the face of considerable pressure to silence sexual harassment/assault survivor stories. Consider the peripheral effects of such gatekeeping: in a video posted in the Alt Lit Gossip (Spread) facebook group on September 16, 2014, Stephen Michael McDowell, among a number of points, attempts to situate claiming victim status within the “alt lit” scene with respect to the scene’s main appeal: its attention-based micro-economy.

If examples like Naughton coming forth regarding her experience with Trull, or D. Dragonetti writing about him being misgendered in Plain Wrap’s now-rescinded text, are gambits for power within this micro-economy, where is that power? I see no evidence of it. Indeed, Naughton commented on the video, “Coming out about being abused didn’t give me any kind of surge in popularity. If anything, I feel very shunned by this community. I really think I’m over ‘alt lit.’”

-How does this connect to the greater context of rape culture?

At the heart of confessional as well as conceptual writing styles is a voyeurism that renders consent of body and image secondary to “aesthetics.” The short-lived “alt lit” movement is one case in which this domineering voyeurism, inflected by the internet, can reify the very normativity in relation to which it positions itself as an alternative. As ever, it’s time to say loud and clear that we’re hella bored by boys who harass women both on and offline, and call bragging about their sexual conquests art or literature.

 

ALEXANDRA NAUGHTON

-How did you become affiliated with “alt lit”?

I became affiliated with “alt lit” with my induction into the Facebook group Alt Lit Gossip. I didn’t even know what “alt lit” meant when I joined the group. Something about the internet, on the surface it seemed to be a community of young writers who shared a similar self-promoting self-consciousness. It still seems that way. It’s cliquey and exclusive, like any small scene.

-Has the nature of your affiliation changed? Does it mean something different to you now than when you initially “discovered” it?

My affiliation hasn’t changed much, though I am more interested in defining my own brand than trying to latch onto whatever “alt lit” means to other people. I get what I can out of the community by participating in discussions and posting links to my writing and links to writing by writers I admire or writers published on my small press, Be About It. I think there are a lot of cool writers who fall under the “alt lit” umbrella, because they are young and using the internet, and I want to associate myself with them. And, as with any group, there are also a lot of people who don’t seem to write or do anything creative, who use the group to further their selfish or trolling agendas. As if disruption and derailing were unique ideas or art.

-What, if anything, do you feel distinguishes it as “alt”?

“Alt” to me just means using internet things to make poetry, though it should stand for some sort of alternative to the norm, as in a safe, productive place for people who already feel marginalized within the literary tradition. The internet is our salon. It is where we meet to share work and talk shop. There are some common attitudes in “alt lit” I don’t particularly care for. Edgy cruelty masked as “something to say.” Open approaches met with aloofness and exclusivity unless you seem like you can somehow benefit the powers, the gatekeepers. A lot of gatekeepers abuse their power (soliciting young women for nude photos seems to be a particularly awful trend), further marginalizing already marginalized people. These are general divides that exist in any group, so I try to focus on the people who I think make good art and aren’t dickheads.

-How do the recent events (e.g. controversy surrounding the “Fuck List”) bear on your understanding of alt lit/its community? Do you recognize any major faults (e.g. apologism, enabling/gatekeeping)?

Yeah. I think in any group like this—and it isn’t even a huge group when you consider the size and number of scenes happening in real life—I think in any group of people there are going to be those who assume a leadership role, or at least assume a part in an imaginary hierarchy, and people new to the scene, or aren’t feeling as established or whatever, and don’t want to upset the order. They’re afraid to speak out. Maybe they don’t want calling out some bullshit to negatively affect their careers. Maybe they’re afraid no one will publish them if they go against the grain. I don’t know. Some predators use this fake gatekeeper status to act on their predatory fantasies. It’s fucked up especially because “alt lit” is a kind of level playing field. Anyone can participate. Anyone can publish. Anyone can prey or be preyed on.

How does this connect to the greater context of rape culture?

People not speaking up, people accepting the status quo, not wanting to upset the order, if someone is popular they can’t be wrong, this is all a part of rape culture, and these elements have been exhibited in our online writing community. I’ve been called a fascist for telling my side of the story, an attention whore for calling attention to the abuse of a semi-prominent alt lit figure. Other semi-prominent figures in the scene, including women, have tried to discredit me, calling me crazy or making fun of my writing. How is this not rape culture? If you don’t recognize it, you are complicit.

 

DIANE MARIE

-How did you become affiliated with “alt lit”?

I became affiliated with “alt lit” sometime in 2012 after meeting Crispin Best.

-Has the nature of your affiliation changed? Does it mean something different to you now than when you initially “discovered” it?

When I first discovered it I felt really very excited. Finally a place to put my writing; the writing I had been writing for years finally made sense, you know? Anyway, well, soon after some things that happened between Crispin Best and I were no longer happening for various reasons I backed off from the community a little because I was angry and felt ashamed and some other feelings. I stayed on the periphery, I guess, after being quite heavily involved for a year or so. But for the past year or so I have had little to no voice in the “community” at all.

-What, if anything, do you feel distinguishes it as “alt”?

Nothing, actually. For a while I believed that it was something different and new and exciting, but on reflecting I see that it is just the same old literary circle jerk bullshit. There are some really amazing writers affiliated with the “community” (whether they themselves identify that way or not) who I respect hugely as writers and humans, but like, nah. it’s not alt. It’s barely even lit.

I stood up for “alt lit” for a long time and I feel a lot of shame and disappointment now.

-How do the recent events (e.g. the “Fuck List” controversy) bear on your understanding of alt lit/its community? Do you recognize any major faults (e.g. apologism, enabling/gatekeeping)?

Apologism and enabling are definitely two of the worst parts of “alt lit.” It is very easy to recognise them even while “within” the community, but very difficult to allow yourself to challenge or discuss. I thought that 2012 was the “peak” of “alt lit” for like inclusivity and excitement, but actually it was just the time when people were the most unlikely to call out unsavoury behaviour for fear of being rejected from the community. I admit I was fully trapped by that sense of “warmth,” but I was also incredibly weak at the time after a very bad breakup and felt like “alt lit” was “there” for me as I came out of it. But it wasn’t. And it didn’t stay around long after I started to question it. The “Fuck List” and like literally everything else that has happened recently doesn’t surprise me one bit.

How does this connect to the greater context of rape culture?

As I said before, “alt lit” reproduced the same old literary circle jerk bullshit. That is the context of literature, publishing, and it’s all informed by rape culture. Apologism and enabling are as much a part of normative behaviour as they have been a part of “alt lit.” It’s the same cycle perpetuating itself.

 

LIZZY YIZZIL

-How did you become affiliated with “alt lit”?

An acquaintance invited me to a reading associated with “alt lit,” which I attended and enjoyed; to be honest, I wasn’t so much interested in the content but the energy in the room. Until then, I thought that my own poetry would always remain a private activity. “Alt lit” seemed like a space where I could find readership without pursuing an MFA or traditional publishing.

-Has the nature of your affiliation changed? Does it mean something different to you now than when you initially “discovered” it?

My relationship to “alt lit” has absolutely changed. In the beginning, I was not “here to make friends.” I wanted my poetry to speak for itself, which I see now as a naive sort of fantasy. Nowhere does your work speak for itself.

The friendships I’ve made through “alt lit” have been life-changing, and at times, life-saving. It is these friends who read my work and buy my book. It is these friends who appreciate and inform my politics. It is these friends with whom I share mutual support and trust. It seems like no coincidence that the “alt lit” writing I have most enjoyed has come from the same people who actively push back against oppression.

-What, if anything, do you feel distinguishes it as “alt”?

There’s nothing particularly “alternative” about the “alt lit” community in general. The writers who are most elevated in the community are those who would be elevated in most other literary communities. Occasionally editors are called out for a lack of inclusion—then they come out with a slightly more inclusive publication and all is seemingly forgiven and forgotten until the next time. The most common themes of the prominent “alt lit” writers are drugs, ennui, and awkward heterosexual coupling. None of that is new.

I am guessing that “alt lit” was so named because it was ostensibly reactionary to popular forms of writing and processes of publishing. Perhaps it had the potential to break from these norms at its onset, but what I see is mostly just a reproduction of the norm.

-How do the recent events (e.g. the “Fuck List” controversy) bear on your understanding of alt lit/its community? Do you recognize any major faults (e.g. apologism, enabling/gatekeeping)?

The problems in “alt lit” are no more pronounced or offensive than the problems in the larger human population. The existing “alt lit” network is a tool that can be used for harm; lately, many members have come forward and identified “alt lit” as a tool for rape. I think it is important to see any network of people as a potential tool to be exploited by rapists. What has happened in “alt lit” with regards to rape is simply “normal,” placed under a microscope of scrutiny.

The general response to disclosures of rape in the community has troubled me. I am troubled by outright rape apologism because it is harmful to those who have made the difficult decision to disclose. I am, at the same time, less interested in those responses because the sentiment is, at least, overt and clear. We each know exactly where we stand. I appreciate transparency in someone who is diametrically opposed to my existence as a survivor.

What upsets me is that the same gendered, racial, sexual violence is being replicated within the “concerned” responses to these disclosures. What upsets me is that intellectual groundwork laid by survivor-activists and feminists (particularly women of color) is being ignored as the “alt lit” community seeks to determine, as if for the first time, what “we” must do about rape in “our” community. This conversation is, not surprisingly, being led by white men; in some areas, also not surprisingly, white women have appointed themselves leaders instead. Neither camp interests me as long as retention of power, and obfuscation of narratives that challenge that power, persist.

-How does this connect to the greater context of rape culture?

As long as people with power derived from oppression, people like myself—a white, able-bodied, middle class cis-woman—continue to pick-and-choose the rape stories that most frighten them, ignoring the gravity of others; as long as we continue to crowd out voices that speak to non-white experience, to non-binary experience; as long as we make excuses for predatory behaviors and then pat ourselves on the back for screaming “rape” when predation becomes outright violence; as long as we demand respectability from survivors of violence, and police the volume of their (our) outrage we are simply taking steps backward, on the backs of others. This is also violence.

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As I recently wrote about in a piece for Salon, “alt lit” has ostensibly failed in its presumption of the “alternative,” generally reproducing the canonical voice and its affiliated oppressions. “Alt lit” itself was not particularly remarkable, just one pop-up community among countless others, but its usage of the “alt” veneer—as enabling, qualifying, justifying—is troubling. What, then, is the future of “alternative” literature? For me, this lies in the prioritization of the marginalized: writers who are not afforded positions of privilege or comfort in popular publishing; writers who are survivors (as Naughton and I have emphasized in our newest curation, Empath Lit); writers who do not fit the white/cis/middle-class/heterosexual/male standard of canon. If the death of “Alt Lit” is any indication, we cannot seek to invent by perpetuating more of the same.

 

10816081_10205571100981094_477488459_nD. Dragonetti is a Catholic artist, poet, and media critic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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