The Effect of Staring at Screens: an essay on Alt Lit, Tao Lin, and Marie Calloway

English: Tao Lin in 2010

Tao Lin in 2010 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve spent a good amount of time over the past few months really trying to understand this whole new Alt Lit approach to fiction. There are some links at the end of this essay if you want to explore this movement too. Basically, there’s a bunch of Millennial writers, mostly centered in Brooklyn and the surrounding area, working to be poetic and lyrical in new ways with text and art using everything from Tumblr and Twitter to retro-digital graphic technologies in the attempt to do something new to Literature (note I say to, not with…).

The main reason I want to understand Alt Lit is because over the past 2-3 years it has become all too apparent to me that the electrification and digitization of books and stories is the biggest game changer the literary world has seen since Gutenberg (good God, can someone please stop me from ever writing that again!).

And yet, for the most part, the whole Amazon Indie Revolution (that Smashwords, Kobo, Apple, etc are a part of) is still just limping along trying to replicate the old paper-based publishing conceit in the virtual media world. Why we do this so willingly every time a new digital frontier opens up I do not know. 

So, I’ve been kind of desperately looking for people with any kind of vision or understanding that the ball game for literature is now able to warp at new speeds and spin into a different dimension. I’ve touched on that issue in this blog on and off over the past year. I’ve also touched on it in some of my columns for Talking Writing and Kotori Magazine. But it’s been hard to get at the depth of the potential for a digitification of literature because I hadn’t found much work by others that proved my point. Then I got tipped off about Alt Lit.

Now, before you go sit on the toilet to catch up on your life in Tweeter Land, forgetting about this blog post, I want you to bear with me. I’m not going to defend the movement. Nor am I going to pummel it. I may in some future post. What I do want you to do is read the thoughts (below) that came to me after finding a recent de-pantsing of Alt Lit’s Prince Valiant, Tao Lin, whose new novel Taipei is freaking a lot of people out. The de-pantsing in question is a review written by Lydia Kiesling and published at The Millions. The review is called “Modern Life is Rubbish: Tao Lin’s Taipei.”

If you know what Alt Lit is, you’ll hopefully get the full impact of my little essay below. But even if you don’t know Alt Lit or what Tao Lin is all about, you may get the gist of what I’m up to. Also, keep reading because I’m going to tie at least some of the meaning of digital pornography into this whole kettle of fish. 

One last thing you need to know is that Marie Calloway right now is the Princess Valiant of Alt Lit.

The Effect of Staring at Screens

Lydia Kiesling, along with hundreds of other critics and readers, seems truly stunned into literary hatred by Tao Lin’s new acclaimed novel Taipei. Her June essay at The Millions is must-read for anyone who cares about books and writing, although I caution you, she rather sprays personal opinions on the reader’s face and barely apologizes.

First of all, much of what Kiesling says about Taipei, and Tao Lin’s writing in general, rings true (to a certain extent). It’s got a weird vibe. It’s kind of like reading a perma-pressed version of Proust after he’s taken acid (LSD-25) for two weeks straight and can’t get to sleep.

Some people say Tao Lin’s work and most Alt Lit in general is a sort of Asperger’s Syndrome narrative with the occasional pictogram thrown in to keep people happy. Emotional distance is certainly not far enough away. For the uninitiated, there’s an endless set of odd flat descriptions of rooms; every little act performed in those rooms or out walking on the street is described; and there’s lots of matter-of-fact drug consumption with little insight or intellectual mystery attached. There is so little lyricism to the narrative that it is a kind of robotic poetry. Maybe the way Régine Chassagne of Arcade Fire would write when she’s performing on stage — a confused robot trying to be human.

Another thing that Tao Lin does in his fiction, and that a lot of Alt Litters do, is inject discussion about technology and computers and communications systems. The Internet isn’t yet a true character or creature from the black lagoon, but it’s a part of everything that happens in the story somehow…though, of course, vaguely and blandly and rather unemotionally. A lot of folks have been sitting around waiting for some new zeitgeisty juggling of technology with the meaning of modern life in fiction. That’s what’s going on in Taipei.

Personally, I find it all interesting and rather humorous and a good start. If we’re going to record these times here in the drunken 21st century teens, we need the technology piece to fumigate the fictional air. Right?

But Kiesling’s main complaint about Taipei is that it’s affectless and numbingly soporific, and uses all sorts of weird conceits that leave the reader feeling vaguer and vaguer and vaguer. Here’s Kiesling getting pretty personal about that issue:

I wondered, Why does he [Tao Lin] hate me?, the way people wonder about playground bullies, or terrorists. Why does he inflict upon me his “framework-y somethingness,” his “soil-y area,” “the salad-y remains of his burrito”? Why does he take away my joy?

I, personally, “don’t know” exactly, but maybe it’s because Tao Lin is showing what can happen to the mind when it has received half its waking experience from screens? If half your world is virtual, it must (“should”) be nearly impossible to define anything real. Life in the real meat world is not HD and does not explode every nanosecond in wondrous crystalline display. Only on-screen are things clear and sharp and glowing and sexy. I mean, really sexy!

If I’m right, Tao Lin’s aesthetic is very “real” and legitimate for our times — this golden age of … something. It is sad, but it is real (and “true-y).

Marie Calloway (Source: Esquire, Rachel R. White)

Now, my personal instinct, for what it’s worth, is to combat Tao Lin’s “true-y” “goo-y” aesthetic in my own work, but I don’t want to fight off Alt Lit or Tao Lin or even Marie Calloway that perfect new Lolita for us all (you really need to read Calloway’s what purpose did i serve in your life). They’re great young writers, and if they feel this aesthetic defines the reality they see and feel all around them, then we need to pay attention and try to understand. Esquire’s Stephen Marche thinks Marie Calloway kicks Tao Lin’s ass. That’s pretty weird, too. I gotta say, the “new-y” school of criticism is feeling its oats these days.

Back to Kiesling’s essay, though. She points out a lot of little odd poetic conceits that Tao Lin uses — quotes; adding “-y” to the end of words; the repetitive use of the words “giddy” and “grinning;” defining people solely by providing their age (I think Ms. Kiesling is 29); and lots of discussion of organic food. What does this organic food mean? (That’s actually my interest more than hers, but it it is her’s, too). Kiesling:

The novel opens and we follow a writer named Paul as he drifts around Brooklyn waiting for his book tour to start. We are with him as he sort of goes through a breakup, sort of goes to parties, sort of “works on things” (sometimes in quotation marks, sometimes not), definitely purchases little lots of groceries contrived as though to generate maximum annoyance (“organic beef patty, two kombuchas, five bananas, alfalfa sprouts, arugula, hempseed oil, a red onion, ginger”), definitely wiles away the hours in awkward communing with pseudo friends (“[he was] peripherally aware of a self-conscious Matt slowly creating guacamole”), and definitely upsets his mother.

Tao Lin certainly plays around with the organic food lexicon. It makes me think about the green wave cultural cycles that we’ve been going through for over 40 years. The last one, which I think officially came to an end around the time I stopped writing at Blue Olives, was huge. But in the end all we got out of that particular wave was organic local food, Priuses, and eco-fashion.

The wave before that, from the 1990s, gave us recycling and eco-websites. The one before that, in the mid-80s, gave us rich environmental groups and LIHEAP. There was a blip time in the late 70s that gave us the vision of solar architecture and sustainable urban planning, what George McRobie wrote: Small is Possible. And then there was the first one of the modern era, beginning with Earth Day 1970, where we got lots of festivals and books and ideas and college professors, maybe a whole new paradigm of living jump-started by Soft Paths and Small is Beautiful and The Closing Circle (which was more culture critique than vision).

I generalize, of course. It’s all a broad spectrum of change and growth — vision on top of vision on top of technology change and historic events. Natural disasters and environmental catastrophes at the right moment in history can jump-start mass media and cultural angst; geo-political emergencies also stop culture swings and value changes in their tracks. 9/11 incinerated a growing willingness for environmental investment and mainstreaming of eco-consciousness.

9/11 also destroyed all sorts of bold and aggressive economic progress, including a last solid blow to the dot com industry, and an understanding of what global society really means. We turned inward, became regressive, cautious, risk averse, and violent all at once. Why we became our own version of our enemies should be impossible to understand (but we do, don’t we?).

We’re still locked into being our own worst nightmare, still unable to see the power of our creative and visionary capacity (which is who we really want to be). Reason and logic, science and ethics are all now secondary in this new world.

Maybe the Alt Lit ethic, and maybe the whole Alt Arts ethic, streams forward out of that failure of vision and hope. The only place people don’t feel mortally challenged is in the virtual world. Tao Lin has said in interviews that everything in the universe is trying to coalesce into one single computer. I honestly don’t know what to make of that as far as my nature-boy upbringing is concerned, but it fits in quite well with the whole ethic the Millennial Generation is having to live.

Of course, no intelligent person can escape the activity of staring at their navel and contemplating the meaning of life from time to time. It is the human condition to do that.

“What the fuck is this all about? Who am I? Is this really what I want to be doing? Why is everything so hard?” 

You do it everyday. You ask those questions. I know you do! And if you don’t, it’s only because you take too many drugs or drink a lot, or both — and stare at screens in your house.

The thing is, once your world is half electronic and pixelated it becomes impossible to tell whether you are staring at your own navel or a virtual navel that may or may not be yours. There can actually be a lot more meaning in that virtual navel, and that’s a scary thought.

English: Belly Button Piercing

Maybe that’s what digital porn is all about in actuality (remember? I promised to bring porn into the mix in this essay). It’s not the tits and pussy and cock and love noises, it’s not the limbic joy of watching people reveling in each others bodies and helping each other feel that goodness of moving towards ecstasy. Its actually about that one thing no one talks about when they talk about porn. You can love it. You can hate it (although the people who hate porn clearly haven’t watched it very much). But one thing for sure is that navels are usually not part of your direct attention. Even navels with rings or diamonds attached to them are not recognized explicitly (the jewelry is, perhaps, but not that little nub of umbilical connection). Is this me or is it someone else? Do I feel happy being turned on by this stuff? Is being turned on sexually the same as a computer being turned on — or any media machine for that matter?

The reasons for this confusion partly have to do with our fascination with the bigger, wetter, wider, redder, needier, lustier parts, but I think it may also be because its hard to know if you stare into a navel on screen for even a short time whether that navel is kind of like yours or someone else’s. Not because they all look the same, but because, in the end, the belly button is our blind spot and it is our center, it is halfway between our lust and our loss…our life and the peculiar ability we have to be dead in a world that we have created…dead with fear; dead with anger; dead with false grace and myths of a simple-minded God … and the ubiquity of screens. Because when you’re in the virtual world, you’re dead in the meat world. The meat world just becomes one big, weird, vague(-y) sensory depravation tank.

So, if you’ve followed me, and you are at least wondering why Tao Lin and Marie Calloway and so many other young writers who have learned to express themselves as much through texting, tweeting, and chat room party banter as they have in MFA programs and creative writing classes, maybe its related to where we all are now and where it looks like we’re headed unless we find a way into another universe.

If you’re young and honest, why would you not write like you’re  wondering what’s real and whether your emotions make sense? All “fiction” has ever been is the words that come from writers staring for hours at their navels, and the feelings they get when they’re doing that, and the stories they make up to break the boredom.

Tao Lin is known for telling us in many different ways, “We’re fucked.” Us Boomers came out of another era of being fucked. We had nuclear armageddon drills in school, race riots in the streets, women treated as inferior beings, and our government  forcing its young men into a war that made no sense. Thank God the Millennials and end-of-alphabet generations have not had to grow up in that world. What they get, though, is the aftermath psychosis of 9/11, college educations that require an investment of a quarter of a million dollars, shitty health insurance that costs an arm and a leg, and a governmental system that can’t do a thing because half the politicians are hostile and angry human beings and the other half are pussy moralists.

A Florida navel orange.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The worst thing about not being an artist is that you have to wait for artists to really fuck things up before you see what they see. Sometimes what they see is pretty important. I like to believe that none of us would be here in this particular moment had not Kerouac and Ginsberg and Snyder pointed our eyes right into the sun. You could make the same case for The Ex-Patriot artists in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century, perhaps. Modernism was a heavy-duty thing when it first got going.

The question is whether the door is opening now for literature and the other arts where young independent thinking artists goose new understandings out of the rest of us, or if this is just a flashy, funny little poetic moment with a new generation coming of age and then moving on to raising kids, making money, and playing with their ever more “screen-y” toys.

How does that question make you feel? Big-time moment on the horizon? Or twerky eye-candy and sugar for the evacuated soul as it downs pills and drinks until the sunrise of true adulthood?

I don’t know how I feel about it, actually. But I’m willing to pay attention and study what they’re doing a little bit longer. I’m also very interested in seeing if I can steal any of what they’re doing for my own work.

I used to say, life is long, no need to rush. Now I know better. Life is short (I’m 55). If I’ve got anything important to say, I better get to work. All I’ve ever wanted to do was create Alternative Literature. It’s nice that it’s finally something others are doing. That’s my schtick and I’m sticking to it.

 

About davidbiddle

David Biddle is the author of the psychedelic novel, "Beyond the Will of God," and two collections of short stories, "Implosions of America" & "Trying to Care." He has been writing professionally for over 30 years and is a columnist with both TalkingWriting.com and KotoriMagazine.com.

He is currently at work on the a new novel, "Beautiful Morning Blues," the first in a connected series of three books about sex, love, and family in the fringe suburbs of a large eastern city called Philadelphia.

Comments

  1. geTaylor says:

    ” . . . Why we do this so willingly every time a new digital frontier opens up I do not know. . . . ”

    Didn’t McLuhan take a stab at this problem – “Extending the argument for understanding the medium as the message itself, he proposed that the “content of any medium is always another medium”[5] – thus, the content of writing is speech, print is that of writing and print itself is the content of the telegraph.”?

    • You are so right geTaylor. All art in one way or another is at play with what we now call virtual reality. But when the medium is so malleable and inviting of creativity, it is a shame that it takes time for major shifts to occur. In many ways film and music (light and sound) show how the new medium of virtual reality can enhance creativity and explode participation and audience engagement.

      This is not so with text. We’re still just kind of plodding along…and shedding audience and participation as we go. Is that shedding a function of limited thinking and a tension in a medium that has the potential to change but still somehow hesitates to really let go? Do we need to be more conscious of this potential for change first? Or is it up to new creatives with open minds and a kind of fearless ignorance of past practices to shred expectations and move things forward?

      Only time will tell. I wonder what McLuhan would have thought of Internet Radio, YouTube, Ebooks, Blogs, and iTune Music.

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