In his series titled “Removed,” the photographer Eric Pickersgill presents images of people looking at their smartphones, with the devices themselves taken out of the pictures. They are images of close intimacy. In one, a man and woman lie back to back in bed and stare into their empty hands. Their gazes are concentrated on digital worlds that are no longer there, and thus there is something grotesque, disturbing, and sorrowful about the scenes.
This special issue of Metamorphosen contains texts that the people in Pickersgill’s photographs might have been reading on their phones. They are poems, short stories, and journal entries that (for the most part) were published on websites and blogging platforms and can still be read there today in their original form. Most of their authors have been associated with the so-called “Alt-Lit” movement. The term, which seems first to have appeared in 2011, is an abbreviation of “alternative literature.” At their heart, Alt-Lit texts are autobiographical. They typically steer clear of fiction; they are often highly private; and they tend to be concerned with everyday life, relationships, drug use, reading, and sexual experiences. Most of them were created on the computer or on smartphones and then posted on blogging platforms such as Tumblr or WordPress, if not simply published on social networks such as Twitter or Facebook. Their digital composition influences their textual form in an essential manner. Posts, tweets, poems, or comments are occasionally just two or three letters long and consist of technical abbreviations, emoticons, or URLs. Even the prose tends to be short and is characterized by clear and simple sentences that are reminiscent of the writing practices common in online chatting. The language is reduced to a minimum (the texts can even take the form of lists) and this extreme minimalism causes certain passages to resemble copying errors:
“Thank you for the awkward situation,” Andrew says. “What?” Matt says. “Thank you for the awkward situation,” Andrew says. “What?” Matt says. “Thank you for the awkward situation,” Andrew says.
This dialog is quoted from Tao Lin’s first novel, Eeeee Eee Eeee. Lin is regarded as a pioneer of Alt Lit whose early volumes of poetry, collections of short stories, and first two novels (published between 2006 and 2010) did much to define the genre both thematically and formally. He has also gained some renown as a small publisher, film maker, and spectacular self-promoter. On his website Muumuu House, moreover, he has collected stories, poems, or selected tweets by writers working in the same vein. With their drastically blunt and distant style, many of the texts call to mind William Burroughs’s semi-autobiographical heroin novel Junk, a classic work of the beat generation, or the “angel-headed hipsters” evoked in Alan Ginsberg’s Howl, a work alluded to by the Alt-Lit poet Luna Miguel:
I have also seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by the emoticon. I have seen their inexpensive faces. I have read their photocopied poems. I do not know their violence but I sense a new howl.
In 2011, the New York literary scene was abuzz over Marie Calloway’s short story “Adrien Brody,” an autobiographical work published on Muumuu House that documents the authors relationship with a forty-year-old editor. “Adrien Brody” is a provocative meditation on sexual dependency, emancipation, and political awareness with pornographic elements. Its style was strongly influenced by that of Lin, who also features in the story under his own name. The text belongs to the tradition of confessional literature, as is familiar from other radically autobiographical writers such as Chris Kraus (I Love Dick) or Karl-Ove Knausgård (My Struggle). Often without seeking permission from the people involved, such authors treat their complete environment as the object of their literature. In response to her scandalous story, Calloway was castigated online and even received death threats.
Although many of the authors associated with Alt Lit live in New York, and although the city often appears as a setting or reference point in their work, Alt Lit is in fact an international phenomenon. The authors communicate online and depend on the internet for the distribution of their work. The literary magazine Shabby Doll House, which is devoted to Alt Lit and which appears monthly as a PDF, is edited by three authors on three different continents, Lucy K. Shaw (Europe), Sarah Jean Alexander (North America), and Stacey Teague (Australia). Many of the authors in this volume have created their own platforms and operate publication venues such as small presses (Elizabeth Ellen’s SF/LD Books and Spencer Madsen’s Sorry House) or web magazines (such as Beach Sloth) to showcase their own work and that of others. Here, too, there are points of reference to older autobiographical authors who, like Kraus (Semiotext(e)) and Knausgård (Pelikanen), run their own small publishing houses. The desire to put life on display in literature is clearly not restricted to one’s own texts; it involves publishing the work of other authors as well.
Alt Lit is a product of globalization. What binds it together are globalized experiences (shopping malls, fast food chains, franchised stores) and the English language, which is even used as a literary medium by the Dutch author and publisher Nadia de Vries instead of her mother tongue. Not limited to writing alone, the literary activity of the scene also revolves around networking opportunities and experiments with alternative forms of distribution and organization. The authors gather at the Mellow Pages Library in New York, which contains more than 4,500 titles from small and independent publishers; they organize readings; they run literary societies, such as Stacey Teague’s “subbed in,” which is based in Sydney; or, like Guillaume Morissette, they are engaged in the small publishing house Metatron, which was founded by young poets in Montreal and which awards a yearly book prize. These communal activities are often more important to the authors’ interaction than the formal communalities of their texts. Beyond this, they make use of chat and comment functions to keep in direct contact with readers.
The title of Tao Lin’s second novel is Richard Yates. According to the German literary critic Rainer Moritz, who has written a book about Yates, “it is impossible to say, after reading [Lin’s novel], exactly why this is the case.” “Yate’s books,” Moritz goes on, “appear only sporadically in Tao Lin’s work; one of them is used as a mousepad.” Lin’s reference, however, is about something deeper – a foundational attitude that underlies his novel: It is a reference to Yate’s insistence on authorial sincerity, an insistence that Blake Bailey underscored in the very title of his 2003 biography of Yates: A Tragic Honesty.
Lin’s approach also has roots in so-called New Sincerity, an interdisciplinary artistic trend whose works are distinguished by their earnestness and by their hyper-sensitive realism, which often contains romantic, utopian, or surreal elements. The broad genre includes films by Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry, music by Devandra Banhart and The Moldy Peaches, comics by Gabrielle Bell and Lisa Hanawalt, and the movies and other pieces by Miranda July. Alt Lit is an offshoot of this trend, written by a younger generation whose literature is produced on digital devices and whose attitude is more skeptical, ironic, and distanced. David Foster Wallace is regarded as a founding father of New Sincerity, and Spencer Madsen’s first self-published volume of poetry has a blurb on the back cover that is taken from the New York Times’s review of Wallace’s Infinite Jest. In a YouTube clip, Megan Boyle similarly transformed a television interview with Wallace into a three-minute montage of awkward stuttering, shrugging, and repeated utterances.
As with Yates, this engagement is not simply restricted to literary matters but also refers, in a subtle manner, to the reception and tragic circumstances of the author: posthumous literary success and alcoholism in Yate’s case, depression and suicide in Wallace’s.
Like many radically autobiographical writers, the authors involved with the Alt-Lit movement are extreme documentarians of time. With her “Liveblog” project on Tumblr, which was begun in March of 2013, Megan Boyle initiated what Juliet Escoria has called a “painfully honest and raw record of a person’s life.” Digital recording techniques have led to new opportunities for documenting time, and Alt Lit has expanded the concept of the text to include tweets, videos, selfies, and screen shots in the production of literature. Boyle’s obsession with documentation calls to mind Georges Perec’s “Attempt at an Inventory,” in which he endeavored to record everything that he ate or drank over the course of the year 1974. It also shares similarities with Kenneth Goldsmith’s philosophy of “uncreative writing.” His book Day, for instance, is an 863-page faithful reproduction of a single issue of the New York Times (from September 1, 2000). In 2015, Goldsmith taught a course at the University of Pennsylvania called “Wasting Time on the Internet,” and in his book of the same title he praised such activity as a source of artistic inspiration.
Influential avant-garde groups, such as Dada artists or the Beats, have often consisted of closely knit acquaintances who got to know one another at an early age. In this regard, Alt Lit is no exception, though it differs from previous groups to the extent that its formation, on account of online communication, did not depend as heavily on geographical proximity. The stylistic variety within Alt Lit is enormous. Its representative authors include high school graduates, college drop-outs, and autodidacts, and their approach to writing ranges from the amateurish to the academic. Because online publication can happen impulsively and often lacks intermediary authorities such as editors or reviewers, the texts are frequently preserved in a wild and seemingly dilettantish form. The grammar is off, the verb tenses are mixed up, and some pieces are full of spelling errors. At the same time, however, this unfiltered spontaneity can lead to a great amount of experimentation, thematic radicality, and honesty – and these are precisely the aims that the authors hope to achieve in their writing:
I talked to him about my writing, and how I was afraid to publish it. “I feel like they would edit my writing so it would be technically better, but less honest and expressive.” “Yeah, but I think you can find a balance between those things.” “But I’m not interested in a balance.” (Marie Calloway, “Adrien Brody”)
In his fourth, semi-autobiographical novel Taipei, Tao Lin goes to the movies with three friends – all of whom are writers – and the four of them tweet together while on heroin about the X-Men film First Class. Lin quotes from the tweets and, under the hashtag #xmenlivetweet, it is possible to read the entire exchange among the four people. The action of the novel is thus perpetuated outside of the book in the timelines of the four authors. In addition to the temporalities of the novel and of Twitter, moreover, there is also the time of the movie itself, which can be aligned on a scene-by-scene basis with the content of the tweets. Moments such as these reveal the intriguing ways in which multi-media and trans-media writing can influence our perception of time and the extent to which Alt-Lit authors have succeeded in doing so.
As is typical of culture on the internet, the structures of Alt Lit are under-funded, and thus it is not surprising that the texts abound with references to the banalities of daily life. Alt Lit may have brought about a renaissance of poetry, but short forms have a tough time on the book market, which has never been kind to collections of poems or short stories. The works were written above all for the authors’ own enjoyment or enrichment. The interest of the reader is a close second, while the interest of book sellers does not seem to have been much of a priority. Like other radically autobiographical literary movements, Alt Lit has not produced any notable works for the theater. What is striking, however, is that it has only given rise to a few novels – the traditional narrative form for autobiographical writing. In addition to the works by Tao Lin and Ben Brooks, there is also Guillaume Morrisette’s novel New Tab, which was published in 2014. That same year saw the publication of two significant Alt-Lit anthologies: The Yolo Pages and 40 Likely to Die Before 40.
That no subsequent anthologies have appeared since then is in large part due to a debate that broke out in September of 2014, when Sophia Katz’s text “We Don’t Have Anything to Do” was published on Medium.com. Like Calloway’s “Adrien Brody,” Katz’s piece provides an account of visiting New York and getting together with an older man. An author and editor for an Alt-Lit magazine, “Stan” (as Katz calls him) is accused of forcing her to have sex with him three times over the course of her week-long stay. In the wake of this publication, other women authors began to raise further accusations about male authors and editors associated with the Alt-Lit scene. Around the same time, E. R. Kennedy, a former girlfriend of Tao Lin who features as the main female character in Lin’s novel Richard Yates, entered the discussion (Kennedy now identifies as a man). In a series of tweets, Kennedy, who had been sixteen years old at the time of their relationship, accused Lin of emotional and artistic exploitation and sexual assault. The ensuing discussion was vehement, with many authors voicing controversial opinions for which they were chastised just as severely as the alleged perpetrators and victims. This was a disaster for everyone involved, and nearly everyone seemed to be involved.
Within a few weeks, the once hip label was transformed into a derogatory term, and previous critiques of Alt-Lit were revived and intensified. Its style and methods were lambasted as shallow and crude; the texts were denounced for being trivial and dull; and their authors were ridiculed for their narcissism. Others interpreted Alt Lit as a form of digital whining and as an indication that its predominantly white and middle-class authors were out of touch. Criticism also came from within, such as Gabby Bess’s rejoinder to Megan Boyle’s documentarianism. Many were thus relieved when, in December of 2014, members of the community declared the “end” of Alt Lit and suggested that the label should be retired (and not replaced). Few authors identify with the term any more, and those who use it tend to do so in an ironic manner. Yet even if label has been put to rest, the literature and achievements associated with it are still with us.
This edition of Metamorphosen hopes to capture the stylistic and thematic variety of Alt Lit while concentrating above all on its (semi-)autobiographical elements. The trouble with creating a printed anthology of texts that were, for the most part, composed on the internet is that some of their aspects cannot be reproduced in this form. We have had to do away with such things as links, photographs, and comment sections. For this reason, readers are wholeheartedly encouraged to visit the original texts online as well. The texts collected here range from poems taken from Tao Lin’s first collection of verse – you are a little bit happier than i am (2006) – to short stories, poems, and journal entries by Sofia Banzhaf, Memeoji, and Adeline S. Manson. Although not all of the authors represented here have been closely associated with the Alt-Lit movement, their texts and style have all been influenced by it in a decisive way.
The title of this volume was inspired by two key Alt-Lit texts, both of which are printed here: Megan Boyle’s “Everyone I’ve Had Sex With” and Jordan Castro’s “All My Ex-Drug Dealers.” The title is meant to suggest the end of a relationship and to allude to the interpretation of autobiographical texts as confessional literature. It can also, however, be understood as a bleak prophecy about the threats facing a globalized form of literature whose texts are based on intellectual freedom and whose structures and networks depend on the freedom to travel and communicate – all of which is currently and acutely endangered by nationalism and populism. May our friends not become ex-friends!
Finally, I would like to express my gratitude to all of the authors and translators and to the editors of Metamorphosen, who are dispersed around the globe. Special thanks also are due to Alexandra Gerstner and Valentine A. Pakis.