Some comments on, and two reservations about, #AltLit

I’ve recently joined (found?) the massively distributed online (sub?)culture that calls itself (is called?) Alt.Lit. My journey of discovery is not so important, but it started on twitter, moved to Facebook and now I see it everywhere. And let’s be honest, it’s not really a literature movement anymore; it’s become a cultural juggernaut steamrolling everything in its path. Instead: ‘Welcome to the age of feelings’. In a different vein, but from the same cultural milieu; Welcome to the age of,

…I and most people published that I know of…honestly believe that there is no good or bad in art (for example I 100% believe a 10-year-old’s writing is not less good than James Joyce’s, or replace either with any people)

It’s almost impossible to take that statement seriously (do I even need to mention Freud’s ‘reversal into the opposite’?). No one has talked seriously about art/literature/whatever in explicitly good or bad terms since at least the 60s (good/bad relative to some ‘end’ or cultural/communal/artistic standard, sure, but that’s a far cry from a 10-year old being as good as Joyce).

If I wanted to get Nostradamic I’d be tempted to say that “Alt Lit is the current vision of young American’s cultural future”. On what grounds do I make this claim? On no grounds – and that’s the point, a little bit of a taste of ‘alt lit’ (Alt LITE?). A blog post I read proclaimed that ‘Postmodernism is dead; Long Live Alt Lit’ and I quite earnestly had no idea whether the détournement of that phrase was even intentionally aware of the irony or the effect of twisting the original. Did they mean to do that to the meaning of “The King is dead; Long live the King”? Yeah, there’s a long tradition of Pop Cultural mangling and repurposing of the phrase. What, after all, did the original mean? Is that “the point” or am I giving them too much credit? I don’t think they care. Certainly, no one else in Alt.Lit seems to. Which brings me to,

1) the first of my two reservations about Alt.Lit: How does Alt.Lit do criticism?

How do you criticise something that is (very often) intentionally bad? What would Alt.Lit criticism even look like? Is it all a mask, a shield to forestall criticism? “Hey guys, I know, we’ll never make anything bad if we turn bad into a virtue!” Which seems horribly defeatist to me, but then again perhaps I haven’t “been” defeated in the same way.

It must be pretty terrible to be a young American right now (how quickly things change – remember when everyone hated you guys? Remember Bush?). And I’m not even talking about the economic climate, per se, rather about the libidinal crushing that America faced when the promised “greatest country in the world” never eventuated. Instead you guys got George Dubya and “Don’t panic! Keep shopping!” I mean, fuck, you guys were promised that you were the best! I’d be mad. I’d be mad as fucking hell.

Either that, or be crushed.  So in that sense, the reflex to avoid criticism makes sense.

But to have a mature and developed form (if Alt Lit even aspires to such – and I have my doubts about that too) means to have “better” and “poorer” examples of the genre. So far all the criticism I’ve seen has been pretty polarised – “quickshit” as a meme (as if a meme even counts as criticism), or “BOOST” the best stuff.

Is Alt.Lit an experiment in excising negative criticism from the entire system? Forget about anything that isn’t worth “Boosting” and just “Live ur lief” instead? Maybe… but isn’t that almost worse? Neglect is the ultimate “fuck you”. I don’t even care enough to say I think this isn’t good.

What’s perhaps worse is the possibility that instead people just don’t say what they mean when someone isn’t ‘getting’ or doing good Alt Lit or something. When someone is just not doing it very well, does anyone actually say so or does the collective just pass over like the Angel of the Lord? Alt Lit can’t be “everything” – there must be better and worse examples and approaches and goodness knows what else. Leaving those things unarticulated and tacit brings certain political obligations (which I don’t think have been properly addressed… but we’ll come back to that at No.2).

I realised while writing this that I hadn’t actually read enough Beach Sloth to know for sure if he really does much ‘criticism’ or just doesn’t mention the not great stuff. Here’s what I found instead:

I don’t know even what is going on in these three songs. Ghostandthesong makes no sense. This may be one of the most baffling, incoherent journeys ever put into MP3 format. I mean that as the sincerest complement possible.

Which is genuinely funny, and a nice deconstruction of mainstream musical reviews…  but what would it mean truly for a medium to treat incomprehension in a work as a virtue? Not a kind of “anything goes” postmodern relativity – but instead an absolutely radical, nihilistic, all-encompassing rejection of attempts at comprehension? Probably something excitingly different to Alt Lit, to be honest, because I much suspect it doesn’t live up to such a stratospheric standard (maybe some of it does – which is what I find exciting).

And I’m not trying to step to Beach Sloth here – I have never met or have even interacted with the guy (I don’t think), and too many people I respect have spoken highly of him for me to think differently. Plus – mad pros to a fellow curator. I did the hard yards at Critical Distance for a few years so I know what it’s like being an often reluctant gatekeeper for a community. I also dealt with many of the same issues. I usually did just pass over the not-great stuff, but sometimes I did mention it. Sometimes you do need to editorialise, y’know? Anyway. Respect for the Beach Sloth.

And that’s the thing – I really, genuinely like all of the people I know and have met in and through the Alt Lit community. And I really value that. But I do worry that the relentless positivity covers up some (mostly) invisible community effects.

While researching for this piece I googled “Alt Lit criticism” and all I found was this one piece on the Bangolit blog, which echoed many of my own points:

I haven’t seen a single mildly critical, or even questioning, comment on a piece of flarf in a while. The review sites are often not much better—since boosting caught on, their fangs have been pulled. Tiptoe around things you don’t like, hem and haw. To openly dislike something can result in public evisceration (see: Hazel Cummings). Not that it comes up often. Everyone is positive about everything, to a fault.

Not making things any easier w/r/t Flarf is the fact that there is a real history of explicit ‘badness’ to the form, beyond just “crappy” badness a la Faceobok. This page (offline? Try a wayback archive) featuring comments and explanations by many of the pioneers of Flarf mentions several times that racial slurs were an important part of making the early Flarf poems. Gary Sullivan defined Flarf as: “A quality of intentional or unintentional “flarfiness.” A kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying, awfulness. Wrong. Un-P.C. Out of control. “Not okay.”

And here’s my take on this sort of thing: in your closed community you can pretty much say whatever you like. If you and your mates wanna use whatever horrible slur you like in private, go nuts! But as soon as you get out into the world-around-internet you aren’t in a private space anymore. Someone will stumble upon something you’ve written and find it genuinely offensive, horrible, and reinforcing priviledge/oppression/racism/sexism etc– and they wouldn’t be wrong just because they don’t have your community context. ‘Authorial intention’ (or lack thereof) doesn’t wash. Outsiders misunderstanding it, not getting the “irony” of your subversive/reflexive redeployment of the term “wetback” or “cock-boy” or whatever doesn’t make it any less of an example of real and actual oppression. Which brings me to my second reservation…

2) And that is that Alt.Lit, as far as I can tell, is so white, so middle class.

If you’re going to do “internet community” as the main exercise of your art scene/movement/etc, and you’re not going to do it in a private forum or whatever – if you couch it as art or literature – then you don’t get a free pass on issues of diversity and inclusiveness and politics. Whether you want to be or not, you are a part of the world, and the world is political. Don’t misunderstand me – it isn’t about being explicitly political, in fact it’s better if you aren’t, but get the political dimensions of what you do and say and who you hang with and BOOST and whatever else.

I’m not wrong, am I? Alt Lit has a diversity problem, in both race and class – it’s pretty great actually that there seems to be quite a bit of gender diversity (you’re beating videogames!), but it’s still a pretty huge whitewash. This is a weird position for me to be in because, as an Australian, I am surrounded by whiteness where I live and in where I grew up. The stereotypes are kinda true.

I’d love to be wrong about this point, and in fact about all of it, but they seems pretty important to me (admittedly, a bit of an outsider). The Alt Lit community and its irrepressible positivity is a bit of a problem, even if it is (or has been) such a strength. It’s a bit of a paradox. If Alt Lit is going to be influential outside of just “white kids making stuff for other white kids” can it keep its positivity and aversion to critique? Because, that’s kind of been a defining feature of it… and maybe that’s not always a great thing…

Anyway. I don’t have an answer for either of these reservations, but I’m keen to hear from anyone who has an opinion or suggestion on either of my reservations, or even if you just have a different take on them. Beach sloth! If you read this and want to tell me what you think, my email is on the sidebar to the right. The same goes to anyone else involved in the scene, basically.