‘Everywhere and Nowhere in Particular: Alt Lit in Australia’, by Connor Tomas O’Brien

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Photograph by Isriya Paireepairit. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic Licence.

Even if he was (maybe, probably) tripping on ‘shroom tea the entire time, the presence of Tao Lin at the 2013 Melbourne Writers Festival seemed to signify the legitimisation of Alt Lit by Australia’s literary gatekeepers. Lin’s sessions were well attended, though audience members seemed split — some walked out of his sessions, while others simply complained about the strange young Asian-American man who couldn’t seem to construct straightforward sentences. In one session, a moderator repeatedly grilled Lin over whether he considered himself the ‘voice of his generation’ — Lin said he didn’t understand the question.

Over the past year, Australian arts funding bodies and established publishers have twigged to the existence of Alternative Literature. Money is flowing—or, at least, trickling—from the government and private cultural funds to support Australian-based projects modelled on HTMLGiant, the publication of novellas from “fashion-real net kids”, live-streamed lit showcases, and full-length works of non-fiction from writers who style themselves on Steve Roggenbuck and Scott McClanahan.

Here’s a question, though: does Australia really need Alt Lit?

A moderator repeatedly grilled Lin over whether he considered himself the ‘voice of his generation’ – Lin said he didn’t understand the question.

In the New Yorker, Kenneth Goldsmith breathlessly defined the ‘scene’ as an “online writing community that… harnesses the casual affect and jagged stylistics of social media as the basis of their works [which are] marked by direct speech, expressions of aching desire, and wide-eyed sincerity”, but that’s not quite it. Really, the specifics of the Alt Lit form are relatively malleable; what is more important about Alt Lit seems to be who writes it and what perspectives are granted airtime.

Considering the makeup of the ‘Major Alt Lit Players’ list on Twitter, which is close to as definitive as you can get, Alt Lit can be fairly easily defined: it is the literature of the over-educated and under-employed (usually white) young person, attempting to reject their privilege. The Gchats and hamsters and vegan muffins, in other words, are ancillary. More specifically, Alt Lit writers tend to position themselves at the very centre of their universe, but employ a flattening of affect and deliberately naive outlook designed to deflect inevitable charges of narcissism by situating their work as akin to Outsider Art. Examples are not hard to come by: Lin may or may not be autistic; Roggenbuck may or may not be borderline-illiterate; Megan Boyle may or may not be “SO DEPRESSED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”, but, because we can never be sure, the ability of mainstream critics to engage critically with these writers is always blunted. The core mode of engagement with Alt Lit seems to be to either ‘get it’, in which case works are accepted wholeheartedly (and the reader is encouraged to engage in Roggenbuck’s “Symbiotic Boosting System” – essentially a circle-jerk of uncritical positivity in the hope of having your own work ‘boosted’), or to isolate yourself from the community completely.

This is all a bit complex, and, while it’s actually genuinely incredible to see these new modes of storytelling and kinds of literary communities emerging, there are also good reasons to believe Alt Lit could be kind of toxic. In the U.S., the Alt Lit scene appears to be imploding following a string of sexual abuse allegations, and there are questions to be raised as to whether Alt Lit as a form itself valorises some pretty messed-up ways of existing in the world.

The idea that it’s possible to distinguish the art from the artist collapses nearly entirely in the Alt Lit space: part of the point is that individual is what they share online, and in their chapbooks, but until recently the implications of this haven’t been seriously interrogated. Take, for example, the fact that one of the bestselling works in the Alt Lit canon is Lin’s Richard Yates, a thinly fictionalised account of an “illicit affair between a very young writer [Lin] and his even younger—in fact, under-aged—lover”, and now-defunct Alt Lit hub HTMLGiant has repeatedly offered a platform to mentally unstable writers celebrating the perpetrators of gun massacres (“murderous boys are the best because murder is truthful. so is violence”) and the abuse of female writers. Other literary scenes are not immune, of course, but Alt Lit seems unique in that a writer’s mental illness or anti-social behaviour is often reinterpreted as a kind of cute stylistic tic, which is then celebrated as making the writer’s written work more interesting (on Alt Lit Gossip, a writer posits whether Lin’s personality is simply an “art performance piece”).

In Australia, Alt Lit is nascent. Though it’s hard to get a handle on what writers are uploading to their barely trafficked Tumblrs, the most visible young authors still seem to gravitate toward conventional ‘twenty-something memoir’ (in which the onus is on the author to have done something genuinely interesting, which they can then parlay into potential mass-market success), to op-ed writing, or to forms of fiction that are either historical or socially engaged (see: every recent winner of the Vogel Prize). The emergence of Alt Lit as a viable mode of artistic production in Australia has been hamstrung, for better or worse, by the way Australian arts infrastructure operates: young writers tend to tailor their work for publications and prizes that are almost always at least partly government-funded, while in the U.S. a lack of funding places the onus on writers to create their own micro-publishing operations. Now that Lin has been picked up by Vintage, though, and has at least dipped a toe into the Australian festival circuit, it seems as though the Australian arts funding apparatus may now be recognising that Alternative Literature needs support in order to keep Australian writing globally competitive.

Australian publications like Scum, The Suburban Review, Tincture and Spook nod toward Alt Lit (also see: Emmie Rae’s poetry, Emilia Batchelor’s fiction, Patrick Lenton’s micro-fiction, and Oscar Schwartz’s peddling of soft drugs), and most established Australian literary magazines publish smatterings of affectless prose, but until recently there have been no full-length, locally-produced Alt works available in Australian bookstores. In April 2014, Holly Childs’ novella No Limit was published by Hologram, a publishing imprint supported by the Australia Council, the Australian government’s core arts funding body. Childs has emerged from a loose collective of contemporary artists—including Kat Botten and Ry David Bradley—creating cross-disciplinary works examining the intersection between digital and analogue spaces. No Limit continues in that direction, moving between apocalyptic Auckland raves and browser tabs, No-Doz tabs and No Logo analyses.

At some point, in her Twitter bio, Childs referred to herself as “the alt lit princess of Australia”, but she tells me she actually doesn’t identify with the Alt Lit tag. “All in all,” Childs says, “I have about as much interest in Alt Lit as I have in alt rock: I might sing along to a few bars of the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s ‘Rollercoaster of Love’ if it comes on the radio, but I’m never hanging out to do that, and I do not own a radio.” She tells me that she sees her work at least in part as a response to Alt Lit and the culture it has both created and reflects.

Childs’ desire not to align herself with Alt Lit is not especially surprising. Childs herself seems to owe a greater debt to the conceptual artists she moves around, and who in Australia seem to have much readier access to funding for ‘Alternative’-style projects than literature has. At the same time, ‘Alt Lit’, like ‘hipster’, is a term so bound up with thinly veiled ideas of privilege that identifying with the term carries a huge amount of baggage. This is perhaps especially true in Australia, where our cultural identity tends toward a pretense of egalitarianism that Alt Lit denies (‘alternative’ can read as ‘superiority complex’).

Is Alt Lit what you write, or who you drink with?

Following the sexual abuse allegations, too, there are questions to be asked about whether it is possible to distinguish an ‘Alt Lit’ style from the set of (generally US-based) cliques that have helped push certain writers and editors to prominence. Really, is Alt Lit what you write, or who you drink with? In a recent piece for this website, Sydney-based Emmie Rae establishes the existence of feminist microcultures within Alt Lit, which are blossoming even if Alt Lit itself is “certainly dead”. But what is perhaps even more interesting is that Rae doesn’t recognise the existence of geographic cliques at all: “The internet,” she writes, “is the true location, muse and the heart of it all.” Rae’s poetry itself reflects this: even as she writes about specific locations (Sydney, New York, Berlin, Osaka), there is a sense that the intimate vignettes she sketches could really take place anywhere, because our cultural markers (weather apps, organic strawberries, topless selfies, drinking too much vodka at a new lover’s house) are assumed to be shared. In some sense, Alt Lit represents the emergence of a homogenous (though still English-speaking, and predominantly white) global voice. If that’s true, of course, there can never be any such thing as ‘Australian Alt Lit’ because Alt Lit doesn’t allow for any real geographic variation — every Alt Lit writer seems to hail from both everywhere and nowhere in particular.

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Nearly none of the writers and editors I speak to in Australia identify with ‘Alt Lit’, even those I consider most sympathetic to Alternative Literature. Justin Wolfers, editor of Sydney-based AltTxt, an online project looking for “excellent, incisive, internet-infused content [like the] intricate, boring, heartbreaking prose of people like Tao Lin”, doesn’t believe that Alt Lit has “any cultural weight in Australia”. According to Wolfers, there’s a tendency to mistakenly believe that “if you’re young and you’re writing about the internet then you’re necessarily writing ‘Alt Lit’. But the internet is everybody and it’s ubiquitous”. Like Childs, Wolfers sees himself responding to Alt Lit, but finds the term itself problematic, both overused and tricky to untangle.

Having a single blanket term to describe the work many young writers are producing online is perhaps not particularly helpful, then, except perhaps for publishers or authors looking to tap a potentially receptive audience. Sydney-based Oliver Mol is one of the few Australian writers who seems to be benefitting from consciously affiliating himself with Alt Lit: at the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2014, he seemed to inherit Lin’s slot as token Alt writer, and Mol recently had his debut full-length work—Lion Attack!, a semi-fictionalised memoir distinguished by a super-naïve narrative voice—picked up by serious independent publisher Scribe.

Mol isn’t shy about branding himself as Australia’s answer to Steve Roggenbuck, uploading video poetry to YouTube that is unashamedly derivative of similar works from the Maine-based Alt web poet, and listing Lin, Zachary German and Mira Gonzalez as influences. In having his work published by Scribe, though, Mol may be in for a rude shock, as his work is marketed to a mass-market of Australian readers who will lack any real means of critically engaging with his work. This is the problem with transplanting literary traditions, even in a globalised world — even if Australia has the writers, it’s unclear whether a critical mass of readers will understand how to respond to Alternative Literature. There is no room for a publisher to target the ‘alternative’ audience in Australia, because the entire literary market as a whole is so tiny — it’s the mainstream, or it’s nothing.

Even if Australia has the writers, it’s unclear whether a critical mass of readers will understand how to respond to Alternative Literature.

This is where things may get tricky, though, because Alt Lit is an acquired taste, and it’s not very clear how many regular readers in Australia are particularly interested in acquiring it. The channels for pushing Mol’s voice to Australia’s reading public are limited, and it’s unclear whether they’re biting. After Mol recently wrote a travel piece for a relatively serious Australian newspaper in his flat, laconic Alt Lit tone, he received an aggravated letter to the editor the following week. “It’s impossible to remain silent after reading Oliver Mol’s ignorant piece regaling us with his pointless trip north from Adelaide,” the reader railed. “As he passed through the land of the Adnyamathanha, the Arabunna, the Aranda and others, he connected with no one… One hopes his experience of dead silence… eventually lead[s] him to some minimal respect for our country, its peoples and its ancient tradition.”

The newspaper piece, ‘Stuck in the middle’, is interesting, because in it Mol subjects the Australian outback to the gaze of the Alt Lit writer. This is something Mol seems fascinated by: repurposing the homogenous global voice of Alt Lit to interrogate ideas of ‘Australianness’. Ultimately, it’s this preoccupation that what will probably elevate him above other Alt writers whose concerns are more exclusively inward-focussed. Unfortunately, though, considering the Alt Lit gaze is more suited to examining the view of a glowing MacBook screen from an apartment in gentrifying Bed-Stuy than it is to scrutinising the regional/urban Australia divide, Mol can sometimes veer into problematic territory. “Driving towards Alice Springs I remembered how leaving Coober Pedy we met a group of Aboriginal people,” Mol writes, and you can tell things are already on the verge of getting thorny. “We asked if we could take their photo… They asked if we could buy them a case of beer in exchange. They said they couldn’t buy the case of beer because of the alcohol laws. And we did. We did because people are people. And maybe the police would tell us we did the wrong thing. But I also don’t think it’s for us or the police to say.”

Roggenbuck’s model of naïve optimism, employed by Mol, breaks down when it smacks up against the reality of rural Australia. Because Alt Lit operates as a mechanism for over-educated and under-employed white people to reject their privilege (by drawing attention to ways in which they are ‘alternative’, Alt Lit writers can present themselves as ‘Other’), when that privilege is impossible to draw attention away from, the entire structure upon which Alt Lit rests simply collapses. There are certain things too serious to present mock-naïvely, and a group of white Australians purchasing alcohol for a group of Aboriginal Australians to binge drink is one of them. Either Mol is not aware that the average age of death from alcohol-related causes in Aboriginal communities is 35, or he is aware and decides to pretend otherwise. In any case, his desire to erase history and racial difference (“people are people”) fails, because the entire interaction turns on an impossibly great power imbalance. These kinds of scenarios recur in Mol’s work (another of Mol’s fascinations is how Australians act abroad), and it sometimes feels as though he is reaching too far, trying to make Alt Lit do the work it’s just not built for.

Sometimes it feels as though much Australian literature involves Australians speaking to themselves.

At other points in his work, however, Mol’s preoccupations lead to genuinely interesting insights. In the same newspaper piece, for example, he manages to explain the experience of moving through central Australia the way an inner-city kid would actually understand. “I kept checking my iPhone for reception because I wanted to message my girlfriend,” he writes. “I wanted to tell her about the openness and the nothing and the air. I wanted to tell her I loved her. That I wished we were together. Here. With nothing around.”

In general, Australian literature lacks these kinds of accounts of Australia as it is experienced (at least, by over-educated, under-employed city kids), and perhaps the trade-off for this are moments of naffness, bordering on the un-PC. Maybe it’s worth it. Sometimes it seems as though much Australian literature exists to aid in the construction of a hermetic cultural environment in which the rest of the world is presented as not existing at all, perhaps in order to stem the force of U.S. cultural imperialism. Sometimes it feels as though much Australian literature involves Australians speaking to themselves. Alt Lit, for better or worse, does not allow for this: the community may be insular, but not geographically so, and trading one form of insularity for another might at least be one way for Australians to reach some kind of (still tiny) global readership. The employment of a flat and naïve voice seems to enable a way of looking at Australia, and everywhere, through the eyes of a person from nowhere — but, actually, probably, somewhere close to Crown Heights.

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Connor Tomas O’Brien is Director of the Digital Writers’ Festival, designer of Voiceworks magazine, and tweets as @mrconnorobrien.

This piece originally appeared in The Lifted Brow: Digital, Volume 14, Issue 2: The Worried Ramen Edition. Download the free app and get your copy now.