Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Alt Lit: The Invisible Genre

Alt lit is the writing of the digital age. So why is it almost entirely absent from coverage of the digital publishing revolution?

I submitted the material that forms the bulk of this piece to Futurebook, the digital publishing wing of The Bookseller, on September 15th. I had an acknowledgement on October 3rd. Since then, nothing. As this week has seen Futurebook 2012, the huge, eponymously-run digital publishing conference held in London, I have decided that whilst there is still some topicality I will run the piece myself.

One author defined it simply as “writer plus internet.” It is the only form of writing that not only uses the internet but is about the internet. Everything it does is self-published and digital. Its works include descendants of both modernism and postmodernism, questioning, reflecting, interrupting and contributing to the endless shopping mall of off the peg ideas and memes and collective-speak that is the Web. Its hall of fame includes the likes of Tao Lin and Sam Pink, among the most important writers of our age.

Alt lit should be the poster-genre of the digital publishing revolution. And yet wherever self-publishing and digital publishing are mentioned, alt lit is absent. Thirty seconds with the search bar here reveals the terms “Tao Lin”, “Sam Pink”, “Steve Roggenbuck”, and “alt lit” produce a combined total of zero hits. Why? This silence is particularly curious when the high priest of Alt Lit, Tao Lin, has not only had his breakout novel Shoplifting from American Apparel filmed but will have his new novel, Taipei, published by Vintage.

When Taipei is published, I’m fairly sure Alt Lit will suddenly be everywhere in the industry press. I want to run this piece in part to state loud and clear that when this happens that press will be announcing itself (despite the fact it will undoubtedly claim to be unearthing the new) as utterly reactionary, following and not making the trends, reporting yesterday’s news and not pointing industry figures towards tomorrow’s.

Some of the reasons for the silence I think provide some important questions that the publishing industry could do with asking itself if it is to emerge fully into the digital age many readers are already part of.

Much alt lit uses the internet to engage with the ways in which the internet affects our lives. It is both medium and message and the ebooks arising out of it combine reflection with a playful use of cutting, pasting, remixing and reusing that is more akin to conceptual art and hip hop music than much contemporary literature. Words and pictures are fused into image macros that are rapidly cycled and circulated through the community through likes and reblogs accreting misspelled comments and boosts along the way.

The alt lit community’s (if such a disparate stream of voices can be called a community) introspection and ambitions provide one reason for their low profile. One writer recently posted in a forum “curious to know what ppl's 'end-goals' are re writing and 'alt lit'” and responses such as “by success i mean pride in myself” and “everything I’ve written since I was 14 is oti [on the internet] and searchable” show that goals tend not to be financial. And ebooks, though often produced with immense care and craft, tend to be found on tumblr rather than as .mobi files.

And now we are reaching the two key points. Almost all alt lit is free. And whilst most of it is heavily redacted, very little of it is edited in a way that publishers or readers or media pundits would recognise. Reflecting the open source lives of writers and readers, alt lit starts and ends with the internet, and as such is produced online from an open source ethos and consumed online in an open source way. And it faithfully renders text in which spelling is often an irrelevance and syntax is little other than an excuse for bondage puns.

These are clearly big problems for publishing. The former because when writers aren’t interested in being paid, how do you come up with a sustainable business model based on their work? The latter, because readers, reviewers, even ereading hardware manufacturers still have a clear picture of what a book is and what its content is like.

The question of free is one that the publishing industry is already asking itself quite seriously, though it remains deeply problematic. Not that Alt Lit is the preserve of tumblr sites and Facebook “share”s. A brief trawl trhough Alt Lit Library, a fairly comprehensive list of the movement’s leading titles, reveals some fabulous small presses doing exactly the kind of customer-led ultra-niche publishing that has made the likes of And Other Stories and Melville house so successful in the literary mainstream. Granddaddy of them all is Tao Lin’s own Muumuu House  but there’s a whole plethora publishing excellent work by leading members of the scene. Frank Hinton (who runs the hub site Alt Lit Gossip) has just had first novel Action, Figure published by Tiny Hardcore Press, while Civil Coping Mechanisms publish Noah Cicero, Socrates Adams and will have leading Alt Lit poet Gabby Gabby’s Alone With Other People on their list.

But it is the question of what literature “is” that is most difficult for the publishing industry. It remains something the industry skirts embarrassedly round the edges of. Everywhere digital self-publishing is mentioned you will find people clamouring to justify their work, claiming that it is edited to professional standards. Spelling, formatting, and editing in general are the almost unquestioned touchstone of respectability. Which is why the online phenomenon of fanfiction has been embraced whilst alt lit has been all but ignored.

And when the future is mentioned, and the subject of the new is broached, publishers find themselves limited to talking of apps as the next step beyond ebooks, and commercial interest focuses on the software and hardware that enables content production rather than on curating and distributing content as an art form.

Yet every day we communicate more and more online. Many of us text, message, status, tweet, pin and like more than we talk yet the shelves remain full of spoken dialogue. Our primary means of communication, increasingly shaping the way we think about ourselves and our relationships, are developing their own rules and their own formal priorities yet whilst we are told there is a digital revolution in publishing, epublishing remains recalcitrantly wedded to the old priorities. This is something the industry has to address if it is to avoid missing out altogether on one of the most important and exciting forms of literature around today. As it stands, Alt Lit and everything happening in its incredibly broad penumbra, remains a community of users generating content and distributing it to users. Where there is curation it arises organically from within the community.

I have to say I like this model very much, but it amazes me industry figures from the outside aren’t more interested (to the extent it seems that they won’t even post about it on their websites). I guess the closed system means that to the outside visibility is low because that surface membrane is rarely broken – Alt Lit is somewhat the stealth bomber of literary movements – a hive of high octane high tech activity on the inside, all but invisible on the outside. I wonder if Taipei will breach the surface. Whether Random Penguin suits will come pouring in looking for the next hot thing and trying agitatedly to get their heads round boosting. Quite possibly. What amazes me is that none of them has thought to send out an advance party.


  1. I think mainstream considers all work on the net part of a slush pile. When something rises to view, they note it and claim it for themselves.

    The reason no one takes a chance on Alt Lit was summed up brilliantly by John Lloyd.

    "...Lloyd has a sadness and an anger that the television system now doesn’t allow for the things he values, for creative chaos, for taking a chance. Nobody would make Spitting Image now, he says.

    “I have very strong views on TV. There’s no diversity, there’s no choice. Things are decided by committee.”


  2. :) "When something rises to view, they note it and claim it for themselves."
    yes, that's exactly it, and when that happens they will deny all knowledge of everyone who was telling them for years. Absolutely no point getting bitter about it (nor would I like to see people within Alt Lit positioning themselves in readiness - that would ruin what makes it so exciting) but it does leave me scratching my head sometimes.

  3. Why is Alt Lit no where? Because Most of it sucks. Because Most of it is a Tao Lin knock off. Meanwhile, and I'll admit, I'm Biased, the Altiest of them All goes unAcknowledged, in your Essay too : Andrea Coates