Register Sunday | June 17 | 2018
Alt Lit: A Eulogy

Alt Lit: A Eulogy

The demise of an online literary movement shows why it’s so important for creative communities to be able to discuss abuse.

The Alternative Literature (often stylized as “Alt Lit”) community was born of millennial writers connecting on the internet. Whether through social media or the comment sections of literary blogs such as the now defunct HTMLGiant, these writers came together and began publishing poetry, fiction, nonfiction, essays, e-books, videos, Gmail chats, tweets, image macros and a variety of internet-friendly content. They organized literary readings, which were often broadcast live online, and started homegrown publications like the web magazines Pop Serial and Shabby Doll House, or literary presses like Sorry House. The Alt Lit community has championed the work of writers like Gabby Bess, Megan Boyle, Marie Calloway, Mira Gonzalez, Tao Lin, Chelsea Martin, Scott McClanahan, Steve Roggenbuck and many more. 

Two of the central hubs of the Alt Lit community were the website and its corresponding Facebook Group, Alt Lit Gossip (Spread), which contained just over 2,900 members., owned and operated by Halifax resident Francesca Hinton, who uses the pen name Frank Hinton, collected and shared recent Alt Lit-related news, including book reviews, announcements, interviews, videos and more. The goal of the site was simple, to promote new writing and foster a community centered around literature and the internet. Somewhere along the way, however, this conversation became much, much more complicated.

The story of Alt Lit is the story of a literary community that was evolving in real time online. Like indie rock, properly defining “Alt Lit” is difficult, as the term’s true meaning kept changing as new writers appeared within the community, or as its contributors grew older, matured artistically and signed publishing deals with small or medium-sized presses. This is why, in appearance, the work of a writer like Ben Brooks bears little resemblance to the work of a writer like Marie Calloway, yet both have been described as “Alt Lit.” Though it was sometimes described as a “movement,” like Beat Poetry, Alt Lit was always more of a community to me, a volatile, shape-shifting organism whose trajectory seemed impossible to predict. 

Essentially, Alt Lit was a subculture of independent literature that was fascinated by the internet. The writer Spencer Madsen once described the Alt Lit community as “a generation of poets who don’t like poetry.” One nearly universal trait of members of the Alt Lit community was a compulsion to document their lives on social media in an attempt to entertain a hypothetical audience. These written records, as we’ll see later on in this essay, played an important part in exposing issues of abuse and sexual assault within the community.  

The demise of the Alt Lit community is a case study in why it’s so important for creative communities of all types to be able to discuss issues of abuse openly. Though Canadian literature and Alt Lit have very little in common, the Canadian literary community is, sadly, not at all above this type of scandal, as evidenced by this piece by the writer Emma Healey for the website The Hairpin, or the recent Jian Ghomeshi revelations. Here’s what can happen when we don’t (or can’t) speak up.

I live in Montreal, Quebec. In late 2010, I started adding writers on social media. I added Tao Lin, whose collection of poems I had read and enjoyed, and Steve Roggenbuck, who had I seen mentioned on Twitter. Flash-forward to August 2011 and I am meeting Roggenbuck, Spencer Madsen, Mike Bushnell, Jess Dutschmann and other internet writers for the first time at a reading in a loft in Brooklyn. It was my first outside of Canada and I was a little surprised that Roggenbuck would let me, someone who was essentially a complete stranger, perform at his thing. Right away, I understood that this event would be a little different from what I was accustomed to. There was no mic, no stage, so we had to shout. Roggenbuck read poems printed out in 80 points Helvetica, each about two sentences long. Madsen seemed nervous and was heckled a little by the crowd. He would read lines like, “I felt sarcastic again” and then someone in the audience would shout, “I hate when that happens, bro.” Bushnell, wearing elaborate facepaint, pulled an Andy Kauffman-esque stunt on the crowd, planting a friend in the audience and then staging a dramatic conflict mid-reading. Dutschmann read in tandem with someone who was introduced by Roggenbuck simply as “Michael Michael Motorpsychle,” a Facebook pseudonym that had apparently made its way into real life. 

Roggenbuck in 2012. 

In the years that followed, I witnessed, or participated in, several memorable readings. In 2012, at a reading in New York that also featured Lin, Roggenbuck read a Walt Whitman poem from his MacBook while crowdsurfing (or at least he tried to, he was laughing the entire time). A year later, Megan Boyle, improvising  as the host of a reading celebrating the launch of Gabby Bess’ first book, introduced each performer by reading the Wikipedia entry of a professional athlete instead of the performer’s bio, resulting in strange mashups like, “Lucy K. Shaw is a Jamaican sprinter widely regarded as the fastest person ever.”

Bess and Shaw were just two of the many female writers who made positive contributions to the Alt Lit community. Bess put together Illuminati Girl Gang, a female only-magazine with tremendous potential. Through their web quarterly, Shabby Doll House, Lucy K. Shaw and Sarah Jean Alexander championed writers, both male and female, who ended up becoming more widely read as a result. Frank Hinton, mentioned earlier, owned and operated the website the community was named after and was an important “backstage” player, frequently holding everything together or acting as a voice of reason. In an essay for, Dianna Dragonetti writes that he saw Alt Lit as a “boy’s club,” an assessment that seems, to me, misleading and problematic. For one, I never perceived the scene as a purely male-dominated space, and in trying to argue that the Alt Lit community has failed women (which, actually, I would agree, it has), Dragonetti’s essay minimizes, or downright ignores, the impact of the women within the community. Though Dragonetti claims that he saw a boy’s club, I would argue that this is what he was looking for.

When reporting on Alt Lit, media outlets would often point to author Tao Lin as the “boy prince” of the community, which was only true to a degree. Lin was one of the first writers who really got the internet generation, and while it’s true that he has had considerable success as an author and that his work, especially his poetry collection, inspired many others to begin writing and sharing their work online, it would be inaccurate, I feel, to depict the Alt Lit community as simply a fellowship of blind Lin worshippers.

Within the community, Lin felt, at times, like a kind of ghost presence, someone whose work most writers were familiar with, but who rarely participated directly. Many writers started writing by imitating Lin’s voice, composing sad poems about being sad, or matter-of-fact short stories about alienation or relationships in the age of social media. Along the way, these writers would find their own voice, their works slowly maturing, slowly distancing themselves from Lin’s. This is pretty much exactly what happened to me. My first short stories, back in late 2009 or early 2010, resembled those from Lin’s collection, Bed, in tone and structure. In comparison, my novel New Tab, released this year, contains a few tropes that wouldn’t necessarily look out of place in a Tao Lin novel, such as casual drug use or scenes comprised of online chat conversations, but also, more importantly, a narrative voice that, I feel, doesn’t sound at all like Lin’s (it only sounds like me) and topics like male-female friendships or the brutal monotony of office work, which Lin would probably avoid, seeing as he rarely holds a job and views friendships as “means to girlfriends.” 

One big problem with Lin were his personal politics, which were never, as far as I can tell, particularly lauded or praised. In his book Richard Yates, Lin, under the guise of fiction, details his troubled real life relationship with a woman named E.R. Kennedy, who was only sixteen at the time (he was twenty-two). The book reveals a man who is controlling, egomaniacal and seems, within the relationship, “out-of-control,” to borrow an expression frequently used in the book. In Lin’s follow-up, last year’s Taipei, the relationship pattern from Richard Yates (temporary bliss followed by frustration and misery) seems to repeat itself. This is, by far, the aspect of Tao Lin’s novels I find the most disappointing. While Richard Yates often bribes the reader with witty dialog and amusing observations, there’s simply nothing funny about the real life E.R. Kennedy tweeting, “When I was 16, Tao Lin threatened to break up with me if I weighted [sic] over 125 pounds.”

Or, as Lin would put it, “~125 pounds.”

Another important writer in the community was Steve Roggenbuck, who really came into his own in 2012, when he started publishing videos on YouTube regularly, touring North America on a full-time basis and video broadcasting all his readings live on the internet. Roggenbuck’s style, inspired by flarf poetry, was social media-friendly and appealed to a younger audience. Roggenbuck single-handedly made literature look cool to a large number of teens and young adults, offering them a kind of gateway drug into writing. Roggenbuck was also, in many ways, the Yin to Lin’s Yang. His work focused on positivity and appreciation of the natural word, and featured quirks like creative misspellings, hashtags, potential catchphrases and more. His energy, creative vision and fearlessness proved contagious. As Roggenbuck rose through the Alt Lit community, a number of literary web journals with simple, youthful names like “Have U Seen My Whale?” began to appear.

Roggenbuck was also straight edge (he didn’t drink alcohol or consume drugs), and he disliked Lin’s legacy of apathy-based literature and casual drug use as a frequent subject material. As Roggenbuck grew in popularity, he also became more conscious of his younger audience and his responsibilities as a role model. This crisis reached its tipping point in December 2012, when Pop Serial organized a big end-of-the-year reading featuring Roggenbuck, myself and many more writers. After the reading, which lasted about an hour, people began drinking, ingesting drugs and “having fun.” It seems obvious, in retrospect, that if you take a group of hormone-crazed twenty-somethings who have all already lurked one another online, then lock them in a room with drugs and alcohol, you’re likely to get generic partying, a medium amount of mayhem, unplanned romantic entanglements and more. Roggenbuck, after the Pop Serial party, decided to distance himself a little from the Alt Lit community in order to avoid promoting partying and casual drug use to his audience. This incident could have been the perfect opportunity for the community to review and discuss which types of behaviors are acceptable and which aren’t, maybe lay some ground rules, but this conversation, sadly, never took place.

Pop Serial was a web magazine edited and curated by Stephen Tully Dierks. Published once a year, Pop Serial served, at first, as a collection of writing by emerging new voices within the Alt Lit community and internet literary circles. As similar publications grew more established, Pop Serial became less important. In late September 2014, Dierks was hit with accusations of rape and sexual assault. In an essay titled “We Don’t Have To Do Anything,” Toronto-based writer Sophia Katz writes, “He had sex with my body while I stared up at the ceiling. I imagined what it would be like to be raped violently. I tried to feel grateful that he wasn’t hitting, punching, stabbing, or suffocating me.” 

I met Dierks in person twice. First in December 2012, when he had just moved to New York and seemed to get along with everyone, then again in May 2014, three weeks after Katz’s encounter with Dierks, before she made her experience public. When I returned to New York, I was told that people “didn’t like Tully,” and it quickly became obvious that Dierks’ roommates were in the process of ostracizing him. Dierks didn’t seem to understand that his former friends didn’t like him anymore, and I wasn’t sure what had caused the rift. At one point, Dierks told me that Katz had recently visited him and that they had “hooked up” because he “just thought that she was really cute.” I felt like he was going out of his way to brag to me about having had sex with an attractive woman, but I just thought, “Well, good for you, I guess.” Later, someone else mentioned that Dierks had also “hooked up” with Tiffany Wines, a member of the Alt Lit community, which seemed insane, as she was 18 and he was 28. After Katz’s piece hit the internet, Wines found the courage to detail her own experience, revealing that “hooking up” was actually a code word for “rape.”

Katz and Wines’ accounts produced a strong reaction of disgust not only within the Alt Lit community, but within the writing world at large. The story was picked up by Gawker, which, gleefully, it seemed, proceeded to condemn the Alt Lit community as a whole. Dierks received an instant trial-by-Facebook, annihilating his public reputation to a point where some people were half-joking that he would have to “legally change his name” and “move to a place where they don’t read Gawker” if he ever wanted to be able to find work again. When Katz’s essay was published, Pop Serial was still trying to complete its latest issue, number 5, whose rollout had been less than smooth. The scandal, it seemed, simply put the magazine out of its misery.

For some, these revelations came as a total surprise. In a piece for the website Electric Cereal, Spanish poet Luna Miguel expressed the sense of betrayal she felt after reading an article detailing the rape allegations against a “hip Alt Lit editor.” Dierks had been one of the first to promote her poetry online in English, they had collaborated on small projects together and she thought of him as a friend. When Katz’s piece went live, Dierks tried to do damage control by “apologizing,” but ended up mostly incriminating himself (If you want to know how sincere Dierks’ apology was, I can confirm that he never reached out in private to Katz to apologize or ask her for forgiveness). Dierks’ Twitter account was raided, revealing a disturbing tendency to tweet about his dick or fucking. He thought he was being funny and ironic, but now all of this just seemed creepy and ominous. Was this information there all along? Had we just failed to pay attention to it?

From there, things quickly went from bad to worse. Dierks’ case brought back to the forefront equally disturbing (and equally important) accusations against a writer named Steven Trull, also known as Janey Smith, who organized readings in the Bay Area and was also active within internet literary circles. In a post on her Tumblr page, the writer Alexandra Naughton described her experiences with Trull as, “Months of emotional abuse and gas-lighting. Sexual assault. Hundreds of dollars owed to me of which I will likely never see a dime.” A few days later, writer and artist Stephen Michael McDowell, for the sole purpose, it seemed, of getting attention, decided to out himself as a sexual abuser. Then Tao Lin was accused on Twitter by E.R. Kennedy of statutory rape, plagiarism and emotional abuse. In other words, this wasn’t an isolated incident, but an epidemic.

Within Alt Lit, these revelations created a shitstorm of unprecedented size and scope (A shitstorm level “S5”, which can lift strong internet presences off their foundations and carry them considerable distances). Facebook groups were in flames. Various media outlets published opinion pieces trashing Alt Lit by branding Dierks, Lin and Trull as “figureheads” of the movement (though never bothering to email Frank Hinton, who owned and operated the website the community was named after, to ask her for a quote). For the most part, these pieces, I felt, misunderstood or painted an incomplete picture of Alt Lit. These men became emblems of a movement of which they had been a part, but not the whole. In presenting the community in this manner, the pieces disenfranchised the women who had helped build Alt Lit. For example, a writer for Quaint magazine, Kia Alice Groom, who had written a piece called “Alt Lit Is Dead,” used the hashtag #AltLitIsDead in a tweet asking her followers to support her Kickstarter to fund a literary quarterly dedicated to contemporary writing by women. Though, in doing so, she was clearly taking a stance “against” Alt Lit (or, more likely, against Dierks, Lin and Trull, which is understandable), I would argue that the Alt Lit community, in itself, would probably have been very receptive to her project, seeing as it had supported a women-only magazine like Illuminati Girl Gang in the past.

Before these disturbing, but necessary stories were brought to light, you could have made a case that 2014 was actually a strong year for Alt Lit. Writers who had been involved for years in Alt Lit circles like Melissa Broder, Mike Bushnell, Juliet Escoria, Spencer Madsen, Timothy Willis Sanders, Stacey Teague and Andrew Duncan Worthington had all released good to great novels or collections of poems. It seemed (to me, at least) like the Alt Lit kids were “growing up” and maturing as artists, and that their best work was still to come.

While the shitstorm was unfolding online, I was in the middle of a book tour, travelling from city to city and reading at book festivals and various events. I had booked several readings in the United States by asking internet friends for help. These friends, almost all of whom were strangers I had never met in person but knew online from the Alt Lit community, were incredibly kind to me, lending me a couch to sleep on, giving me a ride to the airport or helping me put together readings in bookstores and other venues. It was jarring to look at my computer and read about various individuals within the Alt Lit community’s capacity for evil while at the same time experiencing, in my day-to-day life, the community’s capacity for kindness and goodwill. While it’s true that travelling is much different for a woman than it is for a man, I am realizing now that I stayed primarily with women during my tour. Had I specifically requested a safe space, I feel confident that someone in the community would have me helped me find one.

Morissette and Sophia Katz in September 2014. 

In the aftermath of Katz’s essay, a lot of people have told me, in private, the same thing: I wish I had spoken up earlier. In a post on her Tumblr page, the writer Sarah Jean Alexander said, of Dierks, “I lived with this person for a year. I listened to the way he spoke about his ex-girlfriend after she broke up with him. I listened when he told me he ‘didn’t see the point of hanging out with any of his female friends’ because at the end of the day he doesn’t get to fuck them.” Instead of confronting Dierks directly about his “casual misogyny,” Dierks’ roommates decided to ostracize him, which generated some of the circumstances documented in Katz’s essay. It’s what can happen when we don’t (or can’t) speak up.

Whether a new community “replaces” Alt Lit or not doesn’t matter. I want to believe, I think, that the writers who put time and energy into their craft and whose work has artistic merit will find new homes, new platforms to promote their work, while others will fade away like a bad dream. More importantly, the discussion of abuse within creative communities seems to be spreading far beyond Alt Lit. I would imagine that Emma Healey’s piece, which I mentioned earlier, was inspired by Sophia Katz’s original essay, or at least the discussion around it. Healey’s piece, in turn, inspired Canadian writer Stacey May Fowles to produce an essay for the Globe & Mail titled, “The danger of being a woman in the Canadian literary world,” bringing the discussion to a new audience.

On my end, I want to remember Alt Lit, I think, for the writing, books, opportunities and real life friendships it brought into my life. No one is writing sad poems about being sad anymore, which is okay. Maybe we have bigger problems now.