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Alt Lit: Scribing the Millennial Voice

Arts & Culture | November 12, 2013

In July 2013, Thought Catalog published a crowd-sourced interview with the controversial Alt Lit (Alternative Literature) poet Steve Roggenbuck. Answering questions from Twitter and Facebook, he wrote about life, the moon, couch-surfing for a year, fear of death, and his appreciation of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The interview was short, scattered, and explicit, demonstrating a playful eclecticism found only on the Internet.

The interviewee, Steve Roggenbuck, is a writer who makes traditional editors cringe. His website, livemylief.com, is filled with “selfies,” profound tweets pasted onto image gifs, and intentional misspellings (“peopel” for people, “vidoe” for video, “mor” for more). In his bio, he refers to himself as a 25 year-old “Internet poet” and writes things like, “dont get me wrong IRL is beatiful, but its not quite the Internet.” In other words, you won’t find his work in The New Yorker.

Considered an influential member of the Alt Lit community, Roggenbuck has become representative of the Millennial Generation, a mainstay of the vintage-clad, PBR-sipping hipster. With a knack for social media, Alt Lit writers like Roggenbuck have spent the past decade posting their work to Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and Google Plus . Pop Serial, one of the better-known Alt Lit magazines, has posted excerpts from Twitter and Gchat, including this exchange between Spencer Madsen and Elaine Sun:

spencer: i havent kissed anyone since ~december

shit

elaine: :(

kiss the next girl u see

Of course, there are other Alt Lit writers who experiment in longer forms and receive praise for their efforts. Tao Lin, for example, has been compared favorably to Ernest Hemingway and Robert Musil by the New York Observer. Praised for accurately depicting the digital ennui of today’s youth, most of his novels begin with a Gchat log and contain characters with names like Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning. Some describe his writing as banal and artless, but others claim it captures the apathy unique to 20-somethings living in the Internet age.

Tao Lin is associated with the Alt Lit movement, but somehow avoids its harshest critics. In early 2013, Vice published an article entitled “Alt-Lit is for Boring, Infantile Narcissists.” While defending Tao Lin as having the “understated clarity and precision of Raymond Carver,” Vice criticized most other Alt Lit writers for depending on their movement to make up for “terrible” writing. Quirky references to the Internet, it seems, don’t make up for a lack of voice. Still, despite Tao Lin’s mixed reception , the overall reaction to Alt Lit as a movement has been characterized by its animosity. For every Guardian reviewer extolling the sincerity of Tao Lin’s prose, there are several who argue that Alt Lit is the cultural equivalent of an Internet meme.

When publications are not complimenting or insulting Alt Lit, they’re trying to figure out how to define it. During an interview with Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Noah Cicero offered a different perspective on the movement, arguing that it is the resurgence of a “writerly” way of life. Much like the Ginsbergs and Rimbauds of the past, Alt Lit authors are all about “doing drugs, partying, standing on street corners in cities and thinking crazy thoughts.” Writers like Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, and David Foster Wallace, once seen as edgy, are now professor-like and decidedly uncool. Even if Dave Eggers has never taught a class in his life, he still wears loose-fitting collared shirts and is a founder of McSweeney’s. He is clearly not the disenfranchised type.

So, maybe that’s it. Alt Lit is a community defined by and created for hip, young, supposedly disenfranchised, Internet-savvy kids and their similarly hip friends. Shared over Twitter and Tumblr, their short-form poems about veganism and Internet porn attract an insular audience. They share their writing online and aspire for Internet fame above validation from well-established literary magazines. These stereotyped Millennials may appreciate the work of more conventional authors, but perhaps it doesn’t work both ways. Older readers are taken aback by the whimsicality of Steve Roggenbuck’s video poems or the elevation of Twitter to an art form. From their point of view, Alt Lit is foreign, written in the fractured dialect of a new generation.

Whenever a young writer pushes the boundaries of contemporary writing, there is bound to be some backlash. Think of Harold Bloom’s comments about David Foster Wallace and his novel Infinite Jest in a 2011 article by Lorna Koski (“Just awful,” “He can’t think he can’t write,” “No discernible talent,” etc.) Imagine how harsh he would be in response to Steven Roggenbuck’s selfies or Tao Lin’s infamous poetry reading during which he repeated the phrase “the next night we ate whale” for over three minutes.

Yet this explanation doesn’t account for the universality of the movement’s themes. Tao Lin describes his work as dealing with “the arbitrary nature of the universe…confusion, [and] existential despair” amongst other topics, a claim backed by his devoted fan base and growing acceptance within the literary community. Steve Roggenbuck wants to “boost” the world, using his poetry to inspire others through the sincerity of his words. These are the few segments of the community that seem to transcend this traditional classification of Alt Lit as “egotistical” and “petty.”

Some would also say that Alt Lit encourages selfish writers who use social media solely for publicity. However, I like to think they have an extensive online presence because much of their own lives exist online. They understand what it means to develop friendships solely through emails and Facebook messages. The increasing relevance of social media has created a divide between older and younger generations demonstrated by the heated debates surrounding Alt Lit. Tao Lin and his fans understand how personal online conversations can get. They know that even a Gchat can be heartbreaking.

Alt Lit writers have been called the voices of our generation. Whether you agree completely,  feel insulted, love their truncated prose, or hate it, they at least bring up interesting questions about the conflicted identity of Generation Y. We are as self-deprecating and surprisingly optimistic as Steve Roggenbuck when he covered the back of his poetry collection with reviews ranging from “An internet bard at last” to “The worst thing to happen to art.” Much like Tao Lin, we have difficulties adapting to the world and find solace in browsing the Internet. Despite numerous criticisms, there is still something relatable about Alt Lit and its protagonists—something charming in a bunch of characters who complain listlessly about their lives. On the other hand, is it really acceptable for a writer’s most comprehensive biography to be on Knowyourmeme.com?