Tao Lin’s loyal cult following has grown beyond the fringes of the underground. When he pisses in a back alley at night his adoring fans cry, “Look! He’s streaming golden light into the darkness!” He may not be pushing art forward, but he’s giving it a good shake, and for this he deserves credit. However, much of his output resembles mad dross, yet critics (see here) call him existential and compare him to Hemingway and Camus. I’m not saying such pundits are stumpdumb, but Tao’s no existentialist, and he ain’t Camus. Perhaps these reviewers are confused because Tao cleverly peppers prose with “faux existential” messages. Example (from Shoplifting from American Apparel): “Sam questioned Hester existentially while lying nearly face down covered completely by the blanket.”

Deep, man.

The only thing Tao has in common with existentialists is a preponderance of uncertainty. Therefore, last year I pitted him against Camus: Tao Lin vs. Albert Camus. Camus’s victory was decisive, yet Tao’s not done, not by a “long shit.” This time, seeking a fair opponent, I’ve matched Richard Yates with the anonymous genius of the 2006 Dodge Caravan Owner’s Manual. Let’s see from where lyric mastery comes!

Tao Lin’s Richard Yates vs. 2006 Dodge Caravan Owner’s Manual


Richard Yates: He walked to the post office. He mailed packages. He walked over the steel bridge. He stood on the train tracks looking in both directions. He walked on a street parallel to the train tracks. He walked behind a grocery store to the train tracks. He stood on the train tracks. He walked on the street. He walked on the train tracks.

2006 Dodge Caravan Owner’s Manual: To the left of the instrument panel cup holder are two 12 volt power outlets. The upper outlet is controlled by the ignition switch and the lower outlet is connected directly to the battery. The upper outlet will also operate a conventional cigar lighter unit (if equipped with an optional Smoker’s Package).

RESULT: Tao Lin’s six repetitions of “he walked”  indicates competence in S-V, but could not overcome the lingering poetic resonance of “instrument panel cup owner.” Winner – 2006 Dodge Caravan Owner’s Manual.


Richard Yates: He thought about Dakota Fanning and other people. He orgasmed into toilet paper. He carried the toilet paper to the bathroom and put it in the toilet. He peed into the toilet. He flushed the toilet. He washed his hands. He washed his face. He went to his room and read a few sentences from different books. He ate dark chocolate.

2006 Dodge Caravan Owner’s Manual: Air comes from the floor, defrost and side window de-mist outlets. This mode works best in cold or snowy conditions. It allows you to stay comfortable while keeping the windshield clear.

RESULT: Tao Lin’s masturbatory scene no match for a relatively tame epiphany about de-mist outlets. Winner – Richard Yates.


Richard Yates: Around 5:30 a.m. they were in a booth again. Dakota Fanning was asleep with her head on the table. Haley Joel Osment held her and looked at things. He went to the opposite seat and lay and slept. He woke and saw Dakota Fanning’s head under the table with a shy facial expression asking if he was okay. It was around 6:45 a.m. They left Price Chopper. They walked over the field onto the parking lot of school buses.

2006 Dodge Caravan Owner’s Manual: Under certain conditions, the cellular phone being On in your vehicle can cause erratic or noisy performance from your radio. This condition may be lessened or eliminated by relocating the cellular phone antenna. This condition is not harmful to the radio. If your radio performance does not satisfactorily “clear” by the repositioning of the antenna, it is recommended that the radio volume be turned down or off during cellular phone operation.


RESULT: In a closely fought round, Tao Lin writes a genuine scene, tender, yet lacking in appropriate weight, as, with a stunning glimpse into the emotional ramifications of cellular technology, the Dodge Caravan Owner’s Manual squeaks out victory. Winner – 2006 Dodge Caravan Owner’s Manual.

Final Words: The 2006 Dodge Caravan Owner’s Manual defeats Tao Lin’s Richard Yates, much to the delight of the tens of thousands ofsatisfied Dodge owners. Yet Tao’s future shows more promise than that of any car manufacturer. Tao’s star, as cliché-lovers say, shines brighter every day.



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CALEB POWELL's argument with David Shields about art and life, I Think You're Totally Wrong, is forthcoming from Knopf in 2015. He blogs at Arguments Worth Having and Notes of a Sexist Stay-at-home Father.

26 responses to “Tao Lin’s Richard Yates vs. the 2006 Dodge Caravan Owner’s Manual”

  1. Caleb Powell says:

    The redirect is fixed!

    • dwoz says:

      what was the culprit? My money was on one of the picture links returning some malice.

      • Caleb Powell says:

        I italicized the book titles. That’s the only difference. Although I changed the links on the pictures from Tao’s blog to mine, but I did that initially and that didn’t do anything. Only when I took off the italics.

        • dwoz says:

          …and of course, that makes not the slightest sense whatsoever. Funny, eh? It could be that there’s something crazy stealth embedded in the css styles, like a background image url that loaded javascript instead of or along with an image. It was javascript SOMETHING though, because I was able to trap the redirect url midstream, and it was rewritten in a way that the browser doesn’t do.

  2. dwoz says:

    I know that it’s not popular to have this view.

    I cannot tolerate Tao Lin. I find it completely unreadable. Not because it is of a style that I just happen to not resonate with. But because no matter what I do, it just comes off as “schtick.”

    Pure, substanceless affectation, as far as the eye can see.

    Normally, when I don’t “get” something, and a lot of other people seem to be, I revisit it over and over again, and try to put aside my objections and “see” what they’re seeing.

    I’m also normally the FIRST in my camp to embrace the idea of an artist using shockingly incongruous techniques. So I would like to think that “it’s not just me.”

    But in this case, I just come up empty. Over and over, I think, “wait, let me check that we’re actually reading the same thing!”

    So my problem really isn’t with Tao Lin. He can go ahead and be whomever he wants to be, without my permission. Good on him. But his reviewers engage in such hyperbolic adjectivisation of his work…work that reads like a twelve year old lolcatz…

    Can someone else chime in here and help me? Am I really crazy and the rest of the world is sane?

    • Caleb Powell says:

      Dwoz, your view should be popular, and the norm. If not, the literary world is becoming as shallow as the world of Paris Hilton and her gawkers.

      There are lots of people who feel as you do, but it’s somewhat of an unwritten rule of writers not to constructively criticize/slam other writers. Writers should stick together, but that doesn’t mean we should unconditionally cheer one another. Tough love is more valuable than mushy, “supportive” praise…I could ramble about this, and may be veering off the topic, but trust me, your view is not an anomaly. Tao Lin is a poor novelist.

      Thing is, he’s interesting, at times wickedly so, and no dummy. I actually liked some of his shorter works, which is why I requested the novel from Melville House, but he has no concept of a novel.

    • Matt says:

      It’s not just you. Whenever I see those sycophantic reviews of his work I think of Will Ferrell’s character in Zoolander: “I feel like I’m on crazy pills here!” I find Lin’s stuff to be absolute shit, completely lacking in any interesting characters or any sort of evocative nuance. To me it reads like the work of an undergrad who thinks there’s some weighty subtext to his work while refusing to confront the sheer banality of it.

      If that’s the point he’s striving for, fine, but just because he accomplishes it doesn’t mean the work itself is any good, or worth praise. I can think of way better means of spending my free time than by reading 200 pages of dullness. And I’m not going to champion mediocrity – even deliberate mediocrity – by spending money on it.

  3. Becky Palapala says:

    Loved this, with or without the malign redirects.

    I’m sort of morbidly fascinated with what I can only describe as the prideful anti-literati. The who-could-care-lessers…There’s a whole diverse herd of literary subgenres that seem obsessed with this notion of being conventionally dull or quietly repulsive, like it’s the final frontier. But it’s not new at all. What they’re doing is not that super innovative. Flarf–the poetic movement–comes to mind in particular, but there are others. Flarf is like 15 years old.

    There’s some kind of spectral cultural connection between this and other items of current cultural zeitgeist, too. Like terrible 80s clothes. Unflattering eyeglasses, skeevy facial hair, and other items of self-consciously, intentionally bad taste. I mean it’s an ethos. There’s a “be gross or appalling or unattractive” ethos out there. A very deliberate one. It’s shock politics (and you know it’s political somehow because people get really fucking worked up about defending hipsterism or defending Tao Lin and such), but if it were actually conventionally shocking, then it would be like too many items before. Like death metal or like hippie nudity. So the only thing left is to be shockingly boring. Shockingly, self-consciously unbeautiful but not quite ugly either. Shockingly nothing. I don’t think Lin really, actually, seeks to make a conscious statement to that effect, I think it’s just an organic expression of a generation of people who are discovering the despair of the hell that is “nothing new under the sun,” but who are nevertheless convinced that their discovery of it IS WHAT’S NEW.


    I don’t know how to describe it. But on the literary front, Lin is just the part of it that seems to stick up out of the water most. So he serves as kind of a whipping/poster boy for it, which I would normally say is unfair, but he seems to relish it. At the very least, it seems to suit his apparent goals. I just can’t feel sorry for any guy who makes more money than me by fucking around on the internet and experimenting with pharmaceuticals all day.

    • dwoz says:

      thank you.

      I mean, I can generally recognize when someone’s being clever by being un-clever. For example, I “got” John Cage’s “4:33” without explanation, the first time I “heard” it performed. I enjoyed the hell out of it.

      I listen to “music” that is from composers that would sooner rub feces into their hair than actually use “notes” or even “instruments.” And I get it.

      Writing that is “meta” in topic, context or construction, I get. Tao Lin strikes me as someone who was introduced to this “meta” concept but didn’t stay for the second half of the class. And believe you me, I would enjoy the hell out of it if it was a case of him “taking the piss” on the literati reviewers who gush orgasmically.

  4. SAA says:

    Well, I just shat myself. Who compares him to Hemingway? Are they high?

    Also, right after I read this I found out about William T. Vollman. The phrase “stuck her fork lovingly into a tomato” will haunt me for the rest of my days.

    • Caleb Powell says:

      The Taolicophant who compared Tao Lin to Hemingway either has never read Hemingway. Or he’s only read three books besides Richard Yates, one each of Camus, Hemingway, & Ellis, and he has nothing else for comparison. The main simlarities between these authors are that they wrote books.

      “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” or “The Killers” or EH’s entire body of work contrast, they don’t compare. And Bret Easton Ellis????????????

      But that’s how Taolicophants are.

      Vollman’s a sick man, in a somewhat good sense, not sure if I liked Butterfly Stories, but I read the whole thing.

  5. Greg Olear says:

    Re: the redirects, my guess is that Tao has sway with Anonymous.

    The car manual has its moments. I had to read it in graduate school; it was always big with the deconstructionists.

  6. Jen says:

    I have to admit; the 2006 Dodge Caravan Owner’s Manual makes me weep sometimes, especially the part about properly working the window defroster (am I the only person who doesn’t know how to properly defrost/defog a windshield)?

    I think maybe there’s is some star-f#cking/shtick in the indie community, but I also think that whatever light is shone on small-press authors and publishers as a result is valuable, because there are a lot of great writers out there who will never get the attention from big publishers busy looking for the next Stephanie Myers book. Of course, even if the indie press community got more attention, a lot of the work just isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, especially the general public’s, so my point might be a moot one.

  7. One of the things I marvel at with Tao Lin is how awful he makes it to listen to anyone weigh in on whatever he means (especially *me*). It’s a bit like the Sacha Baron Cohen-effect. Whether you’re in on it, above it, beneath it, can’t read it, savor absorbing it, secretly are Tao Lin maligning it, avoiding it, confronting it–it always makes me enjoy Tao Lin more for the one thing many people can agree he’s able to do: push a button on readers emotionally they hadn’t felt pushed before.

    • dwoz says:

      That’s sort of what I meant by my 4:33 comment above.

      The piece, “4:33” by John Cage (review for the frosh in the back) is four minutes, 33 seconds of “tacit.” Tacit meaning, of course, “don’t play.”

      The performer reads a score, keeps time, pushes the sostenuto pedals, turns pages in the score, with his/her hands poised over the keyboard.

      The actual performance of the piece is the audience reaction itself. The audience is quiet and subdued at first, then there’s little coughs…then some twittering and program shuffling. It escalates, sometimes even becoming violent and confrontational. The audience reaction is the actual piece.

      I considered that, for Richard Yates.

      Ultimately, I discarded that notion, if only because the single reason 4:33 works is because of the captivity of the audience.

      So again, I reiterate that my consternation is not with the author, it’s with the reviewers and those that salt their commentary with a blossoming riot of effusive gushing.

  8. Caleb Powell says:

    To me, it’s like trying to ignore Paris Hilton, who’s easy to dismiss, except she’s just fake, as opposed to being a pseudo-artist. It’s the same whether it’s Warhol, or John Cage, or Tao Lin, or Pollock (I see Pollock’s influence often, and here’s my response at Yankee at Yankee Pot Roast: If Jackson Pollock Wrote Poetry).

    My reaction is not toward their art, but to the sycophant/Taolicophant/imitator gush. I’m not really communicating with Tao, but rather with his backers, and to tell the truth, I was hoping one or two of them would pop up and try defending him. Not that I mind “preaching to the choir”, but a little debate might be fun.

  9. It boils down to this for me: I like narrative, I like full sentences, I like details, I like sensory atmosphere and I like to feel transported by language, so when I encounter writing that reads like a summary list of foreshortened actions, I assume I’m reading a sketch for a story line that could be developed. Like rumors and untruths, once set loose, as the saying goes, these metafacts acquire long legs, metaopinions no different. The danger is that in paying attention to them one risks sending them further. Scott Driscoll

    • Caleb Powell says:

      Yeah, agreed. But I don’t mind Tao’s popularity, shit, I wrote this schlock piece because I figured there’d be a reaction. And, partly, because I don’t see enough negative reaction to bad prose. Writers and editors I’ve read and respect, Stephen Elliott, Michael Schaub, Giancarlo DiTrapano, Amy Fusselman, etc. praised Tao on my galley of RY, and I just think it’s incestual. I understand there’s a writer’s code, but part of me opposes it. Fuck it, why mince words…it can be pure bullshit.

      Why bother with Tao? I see horrible writing by “Johnny Myass Iscrap” all the time, but I don’t write about it because no one else is saying how great Iscrap’s crap is.

      Dwoz said up there: “I know that it’s not popular to have this view.” Why does he think that? A lot of writers may feel like Dwoz and think they are alone. Trust me, they’re not.

      In a way, Lin’s prose pushes literature forward, unintentionally, by being so bad…because he gets people talking.

      • When you say Tao’s prose is “so bad” it kinda makes me think about how much of writing is peddled to the public like broccoli: “C’mon, support the arts! Support writers! We’re really good for you! Literature enriches the soul!” etc…

        What percentage of the population reads short stories anymore beyond those that are either working on them, teaching, or studying them?

        So Tao goes after people where they really live with language: gchat stuff. Yet we criticize *him* for his shitty prose, when all he seems to be doing is reflecting most of us.

        It’s hard for art to take its cue from life when most of our lives are virtual. No wonder it feels dead. Empty. But doesn’t that take guts to admit, let alone render?

        I feel as if Tao has enormous fidelity with that. I think he’s brave to take it head on and risk his stuff being called “so bad”. I think the admiration of a lot of writers for his stuff finds its basis in this neighborhood. I don’t know many writers who can come near the quality of prose Charles D’Ambrosio commands in his prose, yet I also seldom see him use it for anything more pressing than hiding he doesn’t have much to say in fiction. Then he gets great blurbs like, “If you care about top shelf literature and prose, you’ve arrived…”

        Also, unlike Cage or Warhol, I get more from Tao emotionally along the lines of DH Lawrence in the sense of human beings stinking in each other’s nostrils due to the sentimental heart being broken. I don’t get that other places. I think most writers are too busy looking to be patted on the back for exploring their own wounds than looking deeply at anyone elses.

        My rant is done.

        • dwoz says:

          but is chat necessarily banal and/or vapid? Or ALWAYS so?

          in and of itself, I don’t really believe so. Yes, the medium pushes you to minimize prose. Additionally, if it IS about the medium, why? Is it a scathing condemnation of it? Is it a statement about how chat-speak cannot carry information?

          What, do you suppose, was the purpose behind the full formal declaration of the character names and eschewing of pronoun, if you’re adopting the brevity of the medium as a style?

          For example (not an excerpt) “….(to the effect:) Haley Joel Osment looked at buildings. Then Haley Joel Osment thought about stuff. Dakota Fanning said something. Haley Joel Osment looked at Dakota Fanning…”

          each full-name-declaration becomes a full stop bumper in the flow. Why do that? It would appear to be deliberate. Generally, one considers phrasing and rhythm and cadence in prose, but “Richard Yates” is most decidedly anti-cadence.

          So then it becomes basically a vernacular. As we all know, writing in vernacular is a pernicious swamp…it requires a singular mastery of writing AND the authenticity of voice. One slip, one ill-considered syllable and you deconstruct the suspension of disbelief.

          Could it be there, that we declare Tao Lin’s experiment to have gone awry?

          Perhaps, as you say, Tao Lin is intentionally disclaiming the value of prose itself in favor of the underlying story/emotion. But I rebut that we THINK and FEEL in semantic ways. Baby–bathwater.

        • Maybe he’s trying to throw out the baby and keep the bathwater.

          Or something…

        • Caleb Powell says:

          B-J “Taolicophant” B:

          Most Taolicophants seem to have a common modus operandi: 1. limited scope of the greater context of literature, 2. trouble with semantics, and 3. an affinity for simple logic.

          1. Welcome, you have exhibited all three with your comments. Not really sure what you consider great literature, but perhaps My Booky Wook and Goodnight Moon. Whether Tao’s prose and aesthetic of stripping all pretention to write as simple as possible is intentional or accidental, it remains bad. The punctuation is poor in the prose, not just in the replications of Gmail chat. His references to other writers are name dropping, absence of thought is not thought, and thought is the hallmark of a good writer. He’s a smart person and promoter, but realizes that he doesn’t have to write well. Andy Warhol, when he made the dull films Sleep, Sunset, or Empire, knew that he would be accused of artistic pilfery, but he did so knowing he could count on sycophants to marvel at superficial “meaning.”

          2. You wrote: “I think he’s brave to take it head on…”

          Brave: having or showing courage, especially when facing danger, difficulty, or pain

          You either have no concept or “brave,” or you really think writing Richard Yates is an example of bravery in the same grounds, as say…a Chinese or Syrian citizen writing a work criticizing their government (Ai Weiwei was arrested in April for his art, he hasn’t been heard from since), running into a burning building, or choosing to donate a kidney.

          You wrote: “I get more from Tao emotionally…”

          Barf. ’nuff said.

          You wrote: “My rant is done.”

          You call that a rant? Please. Gee, you left it all out there. Did your sweater unravel as you wrote? Here’s a rant: Tao’s fucking dumb I can’t believe anybody thinks his shit’s anything but shit don’t fuck with me mothafucka sure I get a little pissed but that home-slice doesn’t bug me nearly as much as the goofballs that admire him I even give the bro a high-five that he’s figured out a way to rile the world good for him but c’mon Tao’s a drug-using greedy selfish wanker, had a contest and entered it, won it, pocketed the money, and when this came out defended his action and I’d be interested to see if those supporters who gave $2,000 are going to ever see their money which is probably now supporting his habit…yeah, drug using, did you see the promo where for 20 bucks you can watch a short video of Tao using drugs and there are rumors he’s a heroin addict the dude is a moral vegan yet ain’t so concerned to stop using meth and heroine and cocaine and supporting drug lords in Afghanistan and cartels in Mexico but once it’s out that he’s on drugs he’ll probably get sympathy for being an “addict” I’m veering on my rant but Tao wants money and love, like we all do, but he’ll take it from you ass kissing Taolicophants…done. Now that’s a fucking rant.

          3. Some examples, please, besides A. Tao wrote this therefore B. He’s brave.

          You wrote: “I think most writers are too busy looking to be patted on the back for exploring their own wounds than looking deeply at anyone elses.”

          Who? What? Huh? (This also fits criteria 1, cluelessness on the greater context of literature)

          At least you don’t imitate his style with the fucking lower-case “i.”

        • dwoz says:


          You lost me at “Goodnight Moon.”

          Margaret Wise-Brown’s “…goodnight nobody.” is one of the standout sheer genius lines of all western literature.

  10. Sadly I haven’t been able to bring myself to write in his lower-case “i” since obviously I exclusively type with one hand while I masturbate to the idea of venomous tears streaming down your cheeks as you hate-fuck Tao while exhaustively inventorying every move he’s ever made professionally since you’re so bored by it.

  11. £6.94 for “Eeeee Eee Eeee” on Kindle is about.. £4.95 too much.

    I’ll buy a copy tonight, just to spite myself – then try to hate it on purpose for being the spineless lump of Tepid Hipster W4nk it probably is.

    So at least I’ll have that going for me now, too.

    Full to bursting w/ fear & loafing, Henry Swanson

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