Somewhere near the end of the last decade, an acutely self-aware, Adderall-ridden wind blew through the depths of the Internet. The trees stirred in the tumblr forest as slowly, a new vanguard of writers, led by alt-lit pioneer Tao Lin, started to come into prominence.
This new brand of writing was tied to the Internet in a way that hadn’t previously been possible. Distributed primarily through blogs, eZines, Twitter accounts, and journals, it was characterized by intense self-reflection. Alt-lit expresses contemporary life, examined. The works come off as both juvenile and profound — adult topics addressed with a child-like directness, punctuated by home-cooked image macros, gifs, and collaged jpegs, yet with undertones of validation, existential angst, and self-medication.
We connected with Heiko Julien, one of alt-lit’s most coveted authors, to talk about his art.
The Varsity: Mark Leyner described your book, I Am Ready to Die a Violent Death, as “[p]rose that actually feels like the 21st century.” What do you think that means?
Heiko Julien: I think a lot of people have weird ideas about what “writing” is — that it has to be reflective of a specific kind of intellect or cultural values. Like, you have to sound like someone’s idea of a “smart” person. But when we break down a lot of these supposed signs of wisdom, we’ll probably find that they’re just a lot of fashion and politics, like so much else.
Writing to me is about communication. And communication is strange in that the same set of symbols can be interpreted so many different ways by so many people. Mark appears to be saying that I’m communicating using a common language and that this is somewhat rare. Lots of people can read and would like to, but no one is speaking with them the way they want to be spoken to.
A lot of literary-minded types would prefer to lecture. They come from an environment where they were lectured, and they’re modelling that behavior, which is fine if their audience likes that, but I don’t think that most people want to be lectured. I think most of us would rather have a conversation.
TV: Is that what alt-lit’s all about, really? Is that what literature is going to look like — or even what it should look like — for the Internet generation? Do you think this could be the new poetic tradition? Like maybe, just maybe, you’re contributing to the formation of a very important canon?
HJ: Well, it already is a tradition. I’ve been influenced by writers I thought were fun, that spoke to me, and now I’m working from that tradition in my own way. That’s how it works. Important? I don’t know. It’s important to the people who enjoy [it]. But everyone has their own idea of what alt-lit is and what it means. To me, it’s just a thing that’s happening in a specific place at a specific time. There are consistent patterns in the work of writers influenced by each other, but what I think it’s really about is the digital medium. It’s more about positing your writing online and associating it with alt-lit than it is about the content having alt-lit properties. Which to me seems fine. I like the idea that writing could be common and popular. I like common and popular things.
TV: We’re wondering if you’re on the alt-lit team? Is it something you self-select into? Did you ever wake up one morning from a great melatonin-induced sleep and think, “Hey, I’m just gonna go 100 per cent alt-lit,” or something?
HJ: I probably am. It’s nice to be a part of something, to some extent.
TV: Could there be alt-lit without the Internet? Where do you think all of these people, like you, Noah Cicero, and Ben Brooks, would have ended up without the Internet?
HJ: Ben and Noah don’t seem to be as attached to the Internet as I am. My work is inseparable from it. It’s about using a computer and being online, not entirely, but in part and definitely inextricably. That just kind of happened, and maybe it will be less about that in the future. But apparently my relationship with my computer and the avatars on its screen is an important one to me and one I’ve been consistently fascinated with exploring. I think Ben and Noah are more traditional writers in the sense that I’m guessing they were sitting down with blank Word documents and filling them up first, then came to the Internet to share what they’d done. I’m different in the sense that I became a writer on accident. This was just something I started doing while trying to promote my music and ended up having a lot more success getting people to pay attention to me this way, so I just kept doing it. But it’s grown into a lot more than that. I’ve turned on and developed a different part of my mind, and it’s a lot of fun. It’ll be cool to see where it ends up going. I think it’s going to be around for a while. People aren’t going to stop posting their writing online anytime soon. Yes, it’s a bull market for alt-lit; I say buy, buy, buy. Notes and likes will be up 40 per cent by year’s end. That’s my prediction, and you can take it to the bank.
TV: Marry, fuck, kill — Mira Gonzalez, Melissa Broder, Marie Calloway?
HJ: I would marry Ms. Broder but she is already married. I wouldn’t feel comfortable fucking or killing anyone except myself.
TV: In n+1, your “Status Update” piece was published under fiction, but a lot of your pieces, including that one, feel autobiographical. How would you classify them? Is it real? Is it not real? Does it even matter?
HJ: It doesn’t matter. The product is the point, not who I am or how the reader may perceive me. It’s about the implication of a person doing/saying/thinking these things on the planet Earth and what meaning you make of it with relation to your own worldview.
I recently posted a status “revealing” that my account was actually run by four interns from an MFA program, and while most people seemed to “get” it, some were confused. Someone else posted a screencap on Twitter and expressed outrage that this was on her timeline. I think it’s funny, and if you put too much stock in a writer rather than their writing, you deserve to be upset when that human being doesn’t live up to your expectations.
TV: Would you tell us your real name if we asked for it? We’re asking for it.
TV: There have been a lot of scathing words directed towards the alt-lit scene, like in Josh Baine’s “Alt lit is for boring, infantile narcissists” on Vice, for example, where he calls it “nothing more than a literature of absolute nothingness,” and then continues:
“All of this — the narcissism, the solipsism, the glorification of online communication, the brattiness, the backslapping, the fucking image macros — could be overlooked if the writing was any good… if things happened in the stories, […] if it wasn’t so content with thinking about drugs and itself and itself on drugs. If it wasn’t fucking alt lit, basically.”
Do you have anything to say in defence of alt-lit? Why’s it worth its salt? Why are people so mad about it?
HJ: People are mad about it because they were mad already. Alt-lit is just a thing you can do on your computer. It’s a creative outlet with infinite possibility because it allows people to communicate with each other in a way that will allow the message to be received in a certain way. What way? I don’t know. It seems like something. There are problems with everything. It’s easy to rip on stuff. It seems especially easy to rip on young people posting poetry online.
Really, it’s what you make of it. If you’re using this thing as a way to escape, to avoid growth and hide in a comfortable nook of the web, then it’s probably not healthy. If you’re using it as a way to get in touch with parts of yourself you can’t express in other arenas of your life, then, hey, you might be doing it right. Who’s to say? Let your conscience be your guide. I like the way I’m doing it.
TV: What do you listen to when you’re writing? Jon Hopkins and Born Gold have been great backdrops for me as I’ve been reading your work. Are either of those the right vibes?
HJ: I like Jon Hopkins a lot. Sometimes I listen to my own music, which seems appropriately bratty and narcissistic, if you are taking the hater’s view. Or it could be a different way, if you can imagine that. Uh. I’ve been listening to Tim Hecker[’s] Virgins a lot. This Mssingno mix Brad Troemel posted is tight. This band Narrator played at a reading I did, and they were really good.
TV: Will alt-lit always be hiding in the shadows somewhere behind Tao Lin? When someone hears “alt-lit” and immediately thinks “Tao Lin,” does that hurt the genre?
HJ: I can’t see why it would hurt. Tao is an innovator. A bunch of people liked what he did and wanted to go in the direction he was leading. That seems fine with me if everyone else is okay with it. Sometimes people have good ideas; it’s all right to admit that you were inspired by them. As to what’s going to happen with alt-lit, who knows? It’s happening right now.
TV: Does Lin’s legacy hold it back? Can we grow past it? Will some sort of Richard Yates/Shoplifting from American Apparel cross remain burning on our horizon forever?
HJ: I think you’re underestimating my creative potential.
TV: Tell me something I haven’t asked about.
HJ: Burger King was originally founded under the name “Insta-Burger King” in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1953.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can find more of Heiko Julien’s work here.