'Alt (C)lit: What Remains Of A Literary Subculture', by Emmie Rae

On September 27, Medium published ‘We Don’t Have to Do Anything’, a testimony by Sophia Katz. Katz, a twenty-year-old Canadian writer, travels to Brooklyn, the physical centre of the Alternative Literature universe, because she wants to make connections in the writing community. Then ‘We Don’t Have to Do Anything’ turns into a contemporary horror story.

‘We Don’t Have to Do Anything’ is chilling. It’s chilling because we like to think our creative communities are free of outdated bullshit like sexism and racism, when we know they are not. It’s chilling because her story is so relatable. Katz writes about how her trip became a losing battle against the sexual advances of her host. How she switched to survival mode. ‘I accepted the fact that sleep was not an option during this trip’ and how ‘I realized there was no way for me to win. I lay back and closed my eyes. I did the things I thought would make him finish faster.’ In ‘We Don’t Have to Do Anything’, she hides her abuser behind a fake name. Shortly after the piece was published, a respected female voice in the alt lit community, Sarah Jean Alexander outed Stephen Tully Dierks, the founder and editor of the weirdly exclusive Alt Lit magazine, Pop Serial, as the man in the Sophia Katz story. People were hardly shocked.

The Alt Lit community was struggling to breathe.

At the very core of Alt Lit is the internet. The internet is the true location, muse and the heart of it all. The story spread rapidly, with additional accounts of Dierks’ toxic behaviour quickly surfacing. Several names of influential writers in the community appeared in reports of emotional and sexual manipulation. E. R. Kennedy (formerly female-identified Ellen Kennedy) tweeted about his relationship with Tao Lin, the golden boy of the Alt Lit golden age. By the end of the week, accounts of abuse, support for its victims and general disenchantment flooded the community. And so it seemed, the Alt Lit community was struggling to breathe.

Emily Swanson writes on her Tumblr ‘As women, we are in many ways conditioned to feel that the worst thing we can possibly do is to offend, or hurt another person, even if this means allowing ourselves to be hurt immensely in the process’ in response to the article ‘It Doesn’t Have to Be Rape to Suck’ by Kat Stoeffel. Reading this reminded me of Joan Didion’s essay, ‘On Self-Respect’ and how ‘We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gist for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give.’ I thought of countless discussions with friends and writers. Regardless of how raw or confessional my female friends’ writing was perceived to be, they always had a line. They had a point of anxiety. A fear of sharing work when it might really hurt someone. I recalled how male friends pushed the reality of their writing so far as to hurt even themselves. They welcomed the marketability of honesty. The marketability of writing themselves the bad guy. Writing themselves human.

And then came Elizabeth Ellen’s ‘An Open Letter To The Internet’. Ellen’s piece is a different kind of unsettling. Ellen’s piece opens with a confession of how fearful she was to post it. But the fear is quickly forgotten. She asserts her position through a description of her mother’s undeniable feminism and the Virgina Woolf books on their shelves. Ellen’s piece is anger with spaces and full stops and commas, yet, as most things eventually do, it makes a few thoughtful points, and one in particular hit hard.

‘Up until last week, almost every person making negative comments on the Internet with regard to Tao Lin had all the knowledge (or most of it) we have today and still (I am betting) would have been or was ‘stoked’ if given the opportunity to hang out with Tao or be retweeted by Tao or go to a reading by Tao.

So don’t be so fake.’

I felt nauseous.

Reading E. R Kennedy’s tweets I was reminded of how I felt when I finished reading Richard Yates. I felt nauseous. I felt bugs underneath my skin. Immediately after finishing the book, in one sitting, on a bus between Osaka and Tokyo, I wrote a short story attempting to mimic Lin’s style in every way. After reading Richard Yates, and even having a physical, bodily rejection to the content, I didn’t stop looking up to Tao Lin. I didn’t stop thinking he was cool. I thought Richard Yates was heart-shattering, destructive and extremely difficult to read. I also thought it was brilliant.

Are we, only now, calling Tao Lin an emotionally manipulative, sexually abusive asshole, because the character in his novel now has a voice and an active Twitter account? Will we stop reading Lin? Will we stop reading Hemingway and Bukowski? Kennedy asks us to ‘wake the fuck up’ and I can only hope, that one day, we will know how. Kia Alice Groom talks about this the sacred narrative of the male writer, a characterising feature of Richard Yates, in Quaint Magazine, using recent Paul Auster quotes describing his self-defined genre ‘Boy Literature’ as a depressing example of how the Alternative Lit scene mirrors, to a tee, the mainstream. A mainstream where people openly accept that without boy writers ‘there is no literature’. I cannot accept the female voices in this community as ‘token.’ I cannot accept the bloody death of this community when so many intelligent, supportive people, and most importantly, intelligent and supportive women are creating, editing and publishing some of the most exciting new writing in existence. These women are what keep it alive.

If you want to read and publish with girls exclusively, there’s space for that too.

Shabby Doll House, run by two women, Sarah Jean Alexander and LK Shaw is a constantly evolving online publication. In March this year Shabby Doll House released a surprise video issue inspired by Beyoncé’s recent visual album. Doll Revolution is a collection of seven videos about loneliness, distance and longing. Yes it’s an online, video poetry issue inspired by a mainstream pop/R&B queen, and the result is understated, ghostly and incredibly beautiful. Shabby Doll House continues to create change in the community, challenges the expectations of the genre and supports Shabby Doll Alumni online, creating a microculture in itself. If you want to read and publish with girls exclusively, there’s space for that too. Illuminati Girl Gang is an online and print publication founded by Gabby Bess for female-only perspectives in art and literature. IGG combines the new work of writers, artists and bloggers from diverse backgrounds, who find common ground in the broad themes and methods of Alt Lit. IGG women are fierce, and each publication is somehow, stronger than the last. There are countless places online to experience the work of Alt Lit women and feminist perspectives, like Bunny Collective, Tender Journal and Girls Get Busy Zine.

The mutual support and the innovation of their work and publications mean that women have a very firm grip on this community, no matter what you want to call it Alt Lit is certainly a dirty word. According to most it is certainly dead, but it is a space where these women digitally met and started creating from. It is a space that continues to exist. It’s difficult to stop people from being assholes, but it’s easy to support the ones who aren’t. It’s easy to support the people who need it. If you want to change your perception of contemporary writing and the Alternative Literature community in general, I ask you to start with the female-dominated publications and spaces. You may need not go any further.

Emmie Rae is a Sydney-based writer, editor of thinwallspress and half of a squashed mochi.