The literary internet logs off
Back in the late aughts, as I entertained the writing life after a failed stint as a baseball player, I came across the fantastically titled Reader of Depressing Books, a blog manned by the then-unknown Tao Lin. I don’t remember how I found the blog, but I was quickly hooked, as I’d encountered a knowledgeable literary eccentric, which was the new role I wanted for myself now that I was no longer a jock. In the early day of Reader of Depressing Books, Lin’s posts consisted mostly of reading lists, links to his published short stories, and random observations on his diet and his craft; it didn’t seem like much, but the commentary, delivered in Lin’s trademark disaffected style, elevated the blog beyond the sum of its parts. Anyone who was around in those early days of alt-lit frequented the blog daily, as it became the hub for budding writers of a specifically alienated sensibility. Lin wasn’t quite the voice of a generation yet, but he was certainly on his way.
Alternative literature, commonly known as alt-lit, was born in the mid-aughts when a plethora of webzines – Hobart, Eyeshot, Pindeldyboz, among others – dedicated to short fiction, popped up at around the same time. There wasn’t any official coordination among the editors of these often rudimentary sites, but a collective post-9/11 malaise animated the sensibilities of millennial American writers drawn to the alt-lit aesthetic; the sites quickly grew, and by 2010 dozens of them were in existence. The literary internet was born.
The literary webzines of the early alt-lit era weren’t stylistically identical, but there’s no doubt that the Tao Lin aesthetic of flattened affect featuring atomized narrators preoccupied with internet-based relationships and their attendant minutiae dominated the scene. Early alt-lit writers, working under the shadow of Lin and his blog, jockeyed for position in the up-and-coming literary ecosystem by aping his style and thematic concerns, but the scene did succeed in producing other interesting writers, such as Ohio-born Noah Cicero.
Cicero, a friend and collaborator of Lin in those days, had a long-since-forgotten blog of his own, a place where he’d post stories and drunken guitar sessions in which he’d mumble folk songs. It was all very lo-fi and gritty in that great early internet fashion, and Cicero, if he never quite reached the literary heights of Lin, still had his loyal fanbase of readers and copycats.
Cicero doesn’t have much of an internet presence these days – he’s still writing though – but he was as ubiquitous as Lin during the rise of alt-lit. His stylistic innovation of short, clipped sentences, each one taking up its own paragraph, has been employed by literary luminaries like Sam Pink and Sean Thor Conroe of Fuccboi fame. Cicero’s first novel, The Human War, published in 2003, documents the struggles and rambles of a down-and-out dropout from Youngstown, Ohio, as the War on Terror is set to kick off.
A new literary style
Alt-lit, even though it mostly remained on the literary fringes – Lin being the exception – was of great importance, because through the nascent social media machinery of the time, it was able to connect two writers as different as Lin and Cicero. They shared similarities in terms of aesthetics and style, but when it came to their backgrounds – Cicero was a white working-class college dropout from Ohio and Lin an Asian-American college student at NYU – they couldn’t have been any more different. Still, they were bound by that great equalizer that gives birth to literary movements if the conditions are right – an American malaise induced by historical forces out of one’s control. The two came across each other on that great connector of the atomized: the internet.
The irony of alt-lit, and why it’s of great importance to our current moment in which the youthful intelligentsia is resisting technologically induced atomization through “return to the land” larping and contemporary Luddism, is that the movement’s members found connection among themselves, but the insularity only served to further distance them from society, which had harmful long-term effects. If most of your interactions are filtered through screens and messaging apps, are you even connecting at all?
Alt-lit writers weren’t merely responding to a societal-wide malaise, but to a staid American literary establishment that was ruled by an older generation epitomized by Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Jonathan Lethem.
In Lin’s early work, such as in Shoplifting from American Apparel (2009), in which an antisocial Lin-like narrator spends most of his time Gmail-chatting with a Noah Cicero stand-in and aimlessly walking around New York City, the detached camaraderie of alt-lit is perfectly narrativized in the most non-narrative fashion imaginable. Lin’s narrators, as well as Lin himself, have been labeled autistic, but it’s not some induced autism they’re suffering from, but a supreme alienation often exacerbated by drugs and alcohol.
This was a popular pose at the time among those resisting the post-9/11 patriotic euphoria that permeated much of the culture and continued throughout the years following the 2008 economic crash. In the ensuing years, as Lin’s books were picked up by major New York publishing houses and Giancarlo DiTrapano’s New York Tyrant – the most influential indie press of the scene – alt-lit gained relevance with hip Brooklyn kids and those poor saps littered across the country in nowhere towns. The prevailing sentiment was: “We can all be atomized and drugged out together on the internet!”
Alt-lit writers weren’t merely responding to a societal-wide malaise, but to a staid American literary establishment ruled by an older generation epitomized by Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Jonathan Lethem. The literary Jonathans, as they’ve come to be known, catered to an upper elite audience, the antithesis of the downwardly mobile alt-lit crowd. In 2008, in response to the growth of alt-lit and the staidness of the mainstream literary scene, the blog HTMLGIANT, a waystation and incubator for budding writers cutting their teeth in the webzine ecosystem, was launched.
HTMLGIANT, founded by Blake Butler, quickly established itself as the premier literary space for those disaffected indie writers disillusioned by the mainstream scene; the blog, part literary gossip column and de facto promotion arm for a plethora of independent presses trying to scrape by, was bursting with unknown-at-the-time literary talent. Writers such as Roxane Gay, Elizabeth Ellen, Sam Pink, Scott McClanahan, Jordan Castro, Nick Antosca, and many others who’ve gone on to mainstream literary success frequented HTMLGIANT at one time or another. Before Twitter truly became the curatorial meeting space of the literary internet, HTMLGIANT was the spot, its comment section often providing some of the best commentary and criticism outside of the elite glossy publications.
As a newbie writer at the time, disconnected from the elite credentialing institutions that molded the next generation of American authors, I found a home at HTMLGIANT. I remained anonymous, sucking up the knowledge and the reading lists provided free of charge by some of America’s finest literary eccentrics, which laid the foundation of my literary education.
I have no doubt that if it wasn’t for HTMLGIANT, I would’ve never become a writer, such was the site’s influence on outsiders like me. As major alt-lit writers have grown up and pivoted away from what remains of the scene, HTMLGIANT has been largely forgotten – the archives do remain online – but its diaspora remain power players in the constantly evolving literary ecosystem.
Alt-lit, much derided and maligned since its inception due to the cliquey politicking and backbiting that afflicts all literary movements, has outlasted its haters. Tao Lin, after all, the scene’s godfather, is still around, still writing and publishing consistently, and to the chagrin of the “serious” literary intelligentsia housed in decaying institutions, he’s certainly one of the most important writers of the past twenty years – he is the voice of a hyper-self-conscious online generation and has been for years. The alt-lit crowd and the HTMLGIANT crew are geriatric millennials now, but Lin, and a handful of his acolytes, are still documenting the generation’s disaffection, even as it’s taken a new tenor.
The end of an era
As the aughts came to a close and the alt-lit scene found itself fracturing due to allegations of abuse and other scandals, the term alt-lit took on a pejorative quality even among its great practitioners. Still, the movement’s unofficial dissolution had as much to do with the shifting inclinations and interests of its prominent writers, especially Lin, whose 2013 novel, Taipei, his first published by a big five publisher, signaled a prominent shift in his artistic concerns.
Taipei, an autofictional account of a drugged-out Lin stand-in hopping back and forth between New York, Taipei, and random American cities, while working on and off on a novel and attending literary parties, isn’t quite an indictment of the internet-saturated alt-lit lifestyle, but it lays bare the futility of such an information-addled existence. Lin, whose work has always been autobiographical in nature, was clearly at a personal crossroads that would affect not only his life, but the content and style of his writing.
The former alt-lit kids, who certainly would’ve been on TikTok if it were around fifteen years ago, are now dabbling in trad-cath larping; this newfound obsession with traditional lifestyles is perhaps just the natural endpoint for thirty-somethings who overdosed on the nihilistic early internet, but the alternative, a mindless, affectless clicking of the cursor in the hope of inducing a psychological dislocation, is far more detrimental.
The alt-lit scene gave rise to an influential movement documenting the rise of internet-based relationships and their effects on the culture and psyche, but as the deleterious side effects of a life lived online became undeniable, Lin and others – such as his protégé and close friend Jordan Castro – started committing to holistic, “return to the land” type lifestyles. Noah Cicero, as well, long ago having abandoned any affiliation with the alt-lit crowd, began publishing books with trad-infused themes and titles, such as Blood-Soaked Buddha/Hard Earth Pascal (2017) and Las Vegas Bootlegger: Empire of Self-Importance (2020.)
Cicero, who’s apparently living a quiet, offline life in Las Vegas, isn’t reviewed anymore or even brought up as a major alt-lit influence, but his reclusiveness and the increasingly naturalistic turn his writing has taken, signals that he reached the same conclusion as Lin: a life lived through screens did not ameliorate the atomization inherent to contemporary American life, but only exacerbated it.
In recent years, as millennials age out of the youthful hipness and contrarianism that animates countercultural movements, zoomers, who spend most of their time online, are directing internet trends. The former alt-lit kids, who certainly would’ve been on TikTok if it were around fifteen years ago, are now dabbling in trad-cath larping; this newfound obsession with traditional lifestyles is perhaps just the natural endpoint for thirty-somethings who overdosed on the nihilistic early internet, but the alternative, a mindless, affectless clicking of the cursor in the hope of inducing a psychological dislocation, is far more detrimental.
The alt-lit generation, which was obsessed for so long with feeling nothing, or with affected feeling, is now learning to feel. Their younger versions would certainly call these maturing iterations cringe, but a big part of growing up is accepting – and embracing – that the inherent cringeness of life can be a great positive. Romance can be cringe. Healthy living can be cringe. Family can be cringe. Ironic distance and disconnected affectation, in turn, might not be “cringe,” but indulging in such poses will make you the worst of all cretins – a poseur.
Tao Lin entered the life of the living in 2018 with the publication of Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation, and Change, a nonfiction book that chronicles his experiences with psychedelics and how they altered his perceptions and worldview. To someone not familiar with Lin’s work, the dabbling in psychedelics and high-grade marijuana might be considered cliché, and yes, cringe, but replacing the psychotropic pills that numbed him out with natural drugs was transformational not only in terms of his personality but writing style. The Lin of Trip had very little in common with the Lin who operated Reader of Depressing Books, but it wasn’t until the publication of 2021’s Leave Society, a novel of life-affirming renunciation, that he’d come full circle.
Leave Society, yet another autofictional novel fronted by a Lin stand-in, takes place in New York and Taiwan, as the narrator visits his parents while working on a book; it’s prototypical Lin, and yet it isn’t. Unlike the globetrotting drugged-out narrator of Taipei, this version of Lin – who goes by Li – drinks tea, exercises, and actively engages with his parents to build up a relationship that had been decaying for years. Leave Society, dare I say it, is cringe at times, but in the most life-affirming way possible.
The society Li is leaving behind in Leave Society is one in which screen time takes the place of human time; to leave the society of the screens and pills is to enter the realm of the plants and people. Throughout Leave Society, Lin employs his flattened affect, but unlike his previous work, which is almost utterly devoid of loving emotion, the novel has moments of genuine heartfelt feeling. What’s most incredible is that Twitter and other social media platforms, which feature heavily in Lin’s early books, are hardly mentioned in Leave Society.
What remains of the alt-lit diaspora, and the young writers coming up today influenced by Lin and company have reconstituted into a new movement: the Dimes Square scene of lower Manhattan. This new scene, which popped up during the pandemic and features many writers affiliated with the now defunct New York Tyrant, such as Honor Levy, isn’t quite derivative of alt-lit, but there’s no doubt that it evolved from its aesthetic and sensibilities.
Gone are HTMLGIANT and Reader of Depressing Books, having been refashioned for a new era in the guise of the Wet Brain podcast and literary magazines such as Forever Mag. The scene traffics in new age internet hipsterism, but unlike alt-lit, it’s not merely concerned with forging a community via mediated devices and medicated interactions. These new kids party in meatspace – even during a pandemic! – and are seemingly interested in the stuff of life.
The writer linking the original alt-lit movement and this new iteration tinged with trad-cath contrarianism and working-class larping is Tao Lin protégé Jordan Castro, whose excellent debut novel, The Novelist, was recently released. Castro, who was a teenager in the early days of alt-lit, released two poetry collections during the heyday of the movement. In The Novelist, Castro, through his unnamed auto-fictional stand-in, chronicles his struggles with the Twitter obsession that distracts him from working on a novel and living a more authentic life.
Like Lin’s Leave Society, The Novelist showcases a writer rebuild- ing a life after years of self-imposed atomization via devices and pharmaceutical drug abuse. The pills have been replaced with maca and the ruminations are no longer self-referential and narcissistic, but existential. The Novelist’s narrator is concerned not with petty, insider-lit-world drama like alt-lit writers of old, but with God, philosophy, and life.
The alt-lit writers who survived the internet and have stood the test of time remind us that no matter how atomizing modernity can be, one must not give oneself over to the screens. One must leave the society of the screens, even if the result is cringe. Alt-lit was a cautionary tale, but more important, Lin and Castro took control of their respective narratives and have come out the other side producing the best work of their careers – they defeated the screens and the atomization.
Alex Perez is a writer from Miami. Follow him on Twitter @ Perez_Writes.