October 09, 2013
A few months ago, while my Twitter and Tumblr feeds were being entirely overwhelmed by the animated gif version of Tao Lin’s novel, Taipei, and it seemed that it was about to become 2013’s answer to Gangnam Style, I began exploring the Alt-Lit movement, and it struck me that this was a sort of update on the Beat Generation.
With the rise of Alt-Lit, we have seen a group of urban hipsters once again come to prominence and stamp their name on contemporary literature. Where Kerouac and Ginsberg brought spontaneous prose and jazz rhythm to their narratives, Alt-Lit writers have incorporated their own internet age-vernacular and challenged established literary convention.
As a scholar of the Beat Generation, the connections between the Beats and Alt-Lit seem obvious, and I recently wrote a short essay on the subject. In this essay I cited an old interview with Noah Cicero, author of The Human War and a central figure in the Alt-Lit movement, who, when asked to define Alt-Lit, referred immediately to “the literary life” lived by the Beats, their processors, and even “post-Beat” writers like Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson. Cicero was kind enough to speak with me about his views on the Beat Generation and Alt-Lit literary lineage.
I’ve read interviews with you wherein you mention being a fan of several Beat writers, including Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, as well as others more loosely associated with the Beat Generation. Given its importance and popularity, it’s surprising that people struggle to actually define the Beat Generation. I’m not just talking about random people, but rather scholars and other “experts” seem to fall flat when it comes to actually saying what these guys and girls were about, and who exactly should be listed as part of the Beats. I recently did a podcast where we talked for an hour about “What is Beat?” and “Who were the Beats?” and the only real consensus was that it’s a difficult question and that there are many interpretations. So what do you think? What and who were the Beats?
I’m going to focus on the five main Beats, who to me are Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Gregory Corso. We must look at them in terms of the times they lived in. The first two things that instantly surprise me are that none of them fought in WWII and people from their generation didn’t read them. All of my grandparents and their friends were born in the 1920s and what I notice from personal experience is that none of them cared about the Beats at all, and WWII was very important in defining their mental attitudes about life. The war always seemed to define them — like their lives were pre- and post-war. You couldn’t talk about my neighbor without mentioning that he had shrapnel in him from WWII. Other writers from their generation all had famous war books: Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Joseph Heller, James Jones, Richard Yates, and even Kurt Vonnegut. Even John Rawls, who was the most influential philosopher of their generation, had fought in the war. But the Beats had not gone to war and they had not even considered it worth mentioning in their writing.
The Beats weren’t about the past; they wanted to define the future. To them the war was this dumb foolish thing humans had done to one another, and it had no real reason; maybe just some grumbling out of the darkness of our souls. But the future had come, the war was over, and it was time to look ahead. How do we make a world that doesn’t have giant wars and holocausts? That was their concern, making a new world.
They believed in the experiment that was America. The Latin American countries weren’t about freedom, they were about finding gold and making Indians Catholic. Canada was just some place French people went to trap fur. But America was supposed to be an experiment in freedom. It was a place for pioneers, pioneers of the landscape, pioneers of thoughts and ideas. It was a place where the old ideas were supposed to be destroyed and new ideas were going to be built.
But the Beat movement should also be compared and contrasted with the French Existentialists — Sartre, De Beauvoir, Camus, Jean Genet, and even Samuel Beckett (he isn’t French but pretty close). Those writers had all lived through occupation by the Germans. They had been through real hell. They had personally seen the worst of humanity, which left them pretty fucking bleak. And at the same time, besides Genet and Camus, they were all upper class kids who had gone to the best schools and were obsessed with intellectualism. They were all very stuffy people who sat and wrote and studied all the time, and had nice rooms to work in. But the Beats were the type of people that read an hour or two a day, and then did something crazy like rob a store, spend time in prison, go to South America to look for a drug, get in a car and drive to the Colorado Rockies, live at a fire tower in the mountains alone for three months, etc. The Beats were about a life of exploration; they were about experience not intellectualism.
Kerouac inspired a lot of young people to get in a car and explore the American highway. He gave us a language to understand what we looking at. On the Road was a book of philosophy, and it gave us a gateway to have our own thrilling experiences.
Burroughs was this rich kid drug addict who went around the world endlessly looking for “something.” He never found it, which is how a lot of us feel. His experimental books showed us how insane our culture is, or maybe how insane every culture is.
Ginsberg, damn everyone loves Ginsberg. A little Jewish man screaming about the strange sufferings of his friends. “Howl” gives us a language to understand our friends, to make heroes of ourselves, to make legends of our memories. He also exposed the veneer of bullshit that everyone in nice polite formal society hides behind — that the TV hyperreality isn’t real, it is all a facade, we are a facade, and that we should let the facades go.
Gregory Corso’s “Marriage” is insane for its time, and considering the fact that Corso’s parents were immigrants from Italy. Corso would have been conscious that marriage in Italy usually meant an arranged marriage. When I was in Korea I often heard from younger people that their parents had an arranged marriage. Corso would have been conscious of this, which makes the poem even more powerful. He prophesied the future of marriage — that people would decide to not get married.
And then you have Gary Snyder, who is a hero to nature nuts in America. As a nature nut myself, I’ve been to ten National Parks and a bunch of state parks, and have lived at the Grand Canyon twice. His love of nature still inspires.
What people must understand about the Beats is that it isn’t just about the writing; it is about a complete life, a literary life, an artful life, a life of creation.
With the Beats, of course, you had the Columbia circle first, which then migrated across the country to San Francisco, dissipating and blending into other movements, and ultimately splintering into the hippies and so forth of the sixties, with Kerouac, Burroughs, and others rejecting the Beat label. This sort of came about after Herb Caen introduced the term “Beatnik” and the group’s literary credentials flew out the window (for the time being) as hordes of young hipsters took to coffee shops with their bongos, berets, and finger-snapping. There’s a quote in Tao Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel when he seems to connect the Alt-Lit and Beat movements by suggesting that in the near future, the media will refer to people like him as “blogniks.” Do you think that the same story will play out this time?
I have never thought about “literary credentials.” I don’t even know what that is. I don’t think Alt-Lit will be subject to something called “blogniks.” Alt-Lit will never become famous to that level. I mean if it does, that would be cool, but I highly doubt it. David Foster Wallace said
I think the truth is that it’s a very exciting period but it’s one that probably people in other countries won’t have as much access to. Because 30 or 40 years ago American literature mainly existed in ten or a dozen giant literary figures, and there are now probably more like 100 or 200 literary figures, all of whom are quite good and quite interesting, but none really of the stature and international reputation of, say, a Saul Bellow or a William Faulkner or an Ernest Hemingway.
He basically said that the future of American literature would not have any major figures, and one can easily see this at AWP. There are 500 people who have books published but not one writer. A writer is a person who pays his bills completely from writing. Every month I get an email from SPD on their best sellers. I don’t even know who those writers are. There are like 100 books getting published a month, and to me that is way too many. Thirty years ago there were five major presses and they were very controlled by editors, and there was a belief in the American culture that books which “felt important” should be published and distributed to the masses. Those days are gone. We live in a world now where there are a million small presses publishing their friends and MFA profs trying to get tenure and grants. The literary world is in a state of chaos — there is no control and it seems impossible to even attempt to sort through all the shit that gets published in a year. There might be five great books published a year and no one would even know, because they are drowned in a sea of shitty books. Another thing is that small presses do not have great editors. I think my book, The Insurgent, needed a couple chapters added and maybe a few taken away, but I didn’t have an editor. I had a kid who for whatever reason had the money to print my books. Most of the presses are “book printers” and not presses. A press has a professional editor helping you with a book and a publicity department.
I think Tao Lin is the only writer that will arise from the Alt-Lit internet world. And since he is the only one, it will just be Tao Lin. I think if major publishers gave Scott McClanahan or Sam Pink $100,000, a nice house to work in without distractions, time to do research, and Franzen-level editors, I think they could produce 300-page awesome novels. But they won’t do it, so instead those guys are wearing themselves out, using their best writing on short books with not-Franzen-level editors. Ana Carrete’s poetry book Baby Babe is genius. If she was promoted at a high level college kids would worship her like a god. But instead, no one cares. She drowns in a sea of bad books. I have always liked the Mailer/Thompson/Wolfe books where they go to a major event and report on it. I’ve asked agents about getting me to Occupy Wall Street or other events — maybe the Mayweather-Canelo fight — but no. No one cares. A huge amount of things aren’t being reported on like they used to be. In the past, when there were huge events in society, the major presses would send a novelist to the event to write a book or long article on it. But those days are gone.
So we talked about what Beat means and who the Beat writers are, but what exactly is Alt-Lit and who is part of that particular “movement?” You’ve already mentioned Tao Lin, Sam Pink, and Scott McClanahan…
I think Alt-Lit started off as a rejection and then evolved into its own thing. In 2003 there were two main forms of literature dominating the scene. There was Paris Review style literature, which was to me totally forgettable and just middle-class people writing polite stories for other middle-class people. It just seemed old to me, something from a bygone era that should be forgotten. Then there was experimental literature, which seemed like a long game of telephone between John Ashbery and Kathy Acker. The Elimae site has been publishing these types of poems for years. Basically Ashbery and Acker had something to say, some comment on the human condition, but as time passed untalented middle-class kids took to writing nonsense as a way to redirect people from noticing, kids who didn’t have any talent. In 2003 I was faced with these two ways of writing, but the problem was I couldn’t write in those forms because I was a blue collar kid from Ohio who grew up shooting guns and riding dirt bikes. To even attempt that style of writing would, for me, be grossly inauthentic.
Other avenues had to be pursued. We came upon the internet, and the internet excited us. It was like horses entering the lives of plains Indians, or potatoes and tomatoes entering in the lives of Europeans. Like the first Italians getting a shipload of tomatoes, holding them in their hands, and thinking, “Seriously, I can do so many cool things with this.” We just got pumped over the internet, realizing we could get our writing out there, thinking about ways of doing exciting stuff for people to see, then hearing about POD presses, and how we could make our own writing websites. “The possibilities seemed endless.” That we could write novels on Microsoft Word without having to type them out on typewriters. I wrote my first novels on a typewriter in high school. Writing a novel on a typewriter is incredibly time-consuming. I think if we still had to type out novels with typewriters 75 percent of the novels currently being published would disappear because people would find it too daunting to write novels and most lives don’t provide the required time to sit that much and write.
But what is Alt-Lit? It is writing from the perspective of the direct encounter with reality. Major books and other books do not really reflect what it means to be human. Being means feeling gassy, awkward, lonely, depressed over not having organic sandwich bread, looking at an awesome tree, then touching the tree with your hand and feeling it, your dad yelling at you to shake the toilet handle when you go to visit for two days, or having an oil leak in your car and being worried about it. Our lives are in general boring. For a lot of young people, Mac products are the most exciting things in their lives. They are shiny, have pretty designs, they connect you to the world of the internet. The iPad and iPhone are these tiny machines that allow you to talk to people face-to-face when they live thousands of miles away. You can play any song or movie at any time, you can read endless amounts of information on any stupid thing you want, you can pull up a map and get to your location like magic. These machines are magic to humans. It took years, with thousands of people working on them, to make them possible, it takes parts from all over the world to make them. The machines are magic to humans, especially bored middle-class kids who have no meaning in their lives. Meaninglessness is a theme of Alt-Lit: what it means to live a meaningless life. Meaning is given by outside forces. The meaning of a cup is that it can contain liquid that I may drink. The meaning of a car is that we use it for transportation. For a rattlesnake mice mean nourishment to survive. Meaning for humans often comes from religion or clan relations. Religion tells you that gods want you alive for some reason or another, and your clan relation shames you into behaving a certain way to keep the clan alive. But for most American middle-class kids, these relations don’t exist. And without concrete relations you have no value as a human. We are supposed to do everything for ourselves or something, or maybe to impress other people. None of it is real, all chimera, impressing other humans with our objects and accomplishments is not viable for maintaining long-term meaning, which has led to us suffocating these terrible feelings of meaninglessness with alcohol and drugs. Drugs have come into the movement because the meaninglessness is too much for most of us to stand. We just don’t know why we wake up every day to work for silly corporations. We go from city to city in America, and instead of finding a place that grew up organically from the soil, we find another strip mall city stocked full of McDonalds and Wal-Marts. In the last month I’ve gone to the Tusayan Ruins that are thousands of years old and the 3000-year-old petroglyphs in Valley of Fire State Park, just to get a glimpse of meaning. Just for a few moments there seems something real about America. Or the Mary Coulter buildings of the southwest. She demanded that all the supplies to create her buildings came from the local area, basically rocks and pinyon trees. It was organic. She didn’t believe in importing materials; she believed in building structures that would stand the test of time. That is the kind of writing I like, organic writing. The writers, I think, who are doing this would be Scott McClanahan, Ana Carrete, Gabby Gabby, Sam Pink, Walter Mackey, Jordan Castro, Feng Chen, etc.
From what I’ve seen of the Alt-Lit movement, there are some similar themes to those explored in Beat literature. For one thing there’s this idea that nothing is off-limits. You can talk about anything. You can tell the world what drug you’re doing and what it feels like, or who you’re fucking and how you fucked. There’s also a disavowal of set grammar rules, and so forth, and the incorporation of absolutely modern (and therefore considered “non-literary”) means and methods of communication. Were the Beat and Alt-Lit writers taking these ideas from their own processors, or were they just creating literature, and that’s the natural result?
I think it is the natural result, I think there is a portion of the population that wants to be honest about what it means to be human. We all know what is on TV every day — a bunch of people acting fake for the sake of money. Like when you watch X-Factor and someone is singing and the judges are pretending to be nervous, or they start crying, or they look super impressed, and everyone pretends. And things like that drive some of us nuts. It’s all so fake. I watched the show Big Bang Theory once, it was like reality destruction. No one behaves like that. Nothing about it is real. I watched the movie Moneyball recently. The movie was well done, it told a nice story about a man and his dream to make the game of baseball better. But it meant nothing. There was nothing universal or true about the movie. Most humans never do anything to make anything better. Most humans live humiliating little lives working lame jobs (I include professors, lawyers, and doctors into this; most of them live lame ass lives also; having a lame life is not a question of economic class). Most of us never get offered millions of dollars to do anything. It isn’t real. America is obsessed with a statistically low percentage of people who make it in life, and the bottom 90 percent of humans who live boring lives aren’t even considered humans. Well, we are humans, and we live here too, and we want to talk to about our shitty version of life.
I’ve been wondering about the extent to which these groups were/are social or literary. The Beats, of course, began as a small social group, and essentially that is one interpretation of what Beat means – it was the Columbia University group. Even in some of their best-known literature, there’s this focus on the social element. Kerouac and Ginsberg wrote about the all-night Benzedrine-fueled conversations, the wild street antics, and the jazz bars. To be labeled Beat, you have to have been connected to the group socially rather than stylistically. In Alt-Lit it seems the writers who are most commonly labeled as part of “the group” are connected through Tao Lin or Steve Roggenbuck, and in this case I’m referring to social media as well as being actually physically in proximity to these people.
Between the years of 2005 to 2009 Tao Lin and I were in daily communication through Gmail chat. I’ve looked up things from our chats, and there must be a thousand chats there. We were really digging deep during those years. Sometimes we would Gmail chat all night, trying to get ourselves to get to some thought. It felt like our chats were art in and of themselves, but factually we met very little in person.
I think Alt-Lit could be compared to The Theater of the Absurd movement. The Theater of the Absurd included Beckett, Ionesco, Albee, Genet, Camus, Sartre, and Durrenmatt. But those guys didn’t talk to each other in person. I think Sartre and Camus went drinking like five times together. But not enough to consider them best friends.
From a stylistic perspective that makes sense, because Gary Snyder didn’t write at all like Ginsberg or Corso, and Lucien Carr and Neal Cassady are considered Beat and they never really wrote anything. But I think in Alt-Lit existentialism and minimalism really have to play a role in the writing or it is disqualified. But there are people like Brandon Scott Gorrell, Zachery German, and Ellen Kennedy who wrote one book and might never write another one, but they are tied up in the mythos of Alt-Lit. I’ve been at parties and met Alt-Lit people in their early 20s I’ve never met before and they will ask me questions about Ellen Kennedy, because her personality is so large and amazing.
I think the thing, though, that makes Alt-Lit interesting is that Tao Lin, Scott McClanahan, Gabby Gabby, Ana Carrete, Sam Pink, Steve Roggenbuck, Marie Calloway, and myself all write very differently and about vastly different topics. For a movement to produce seven to ten writers that can use the same underlying style and still write about different topics, that is unusual. I seriously think we are reinventing style and how people use the English language, and that is why it is taking so long to catch on, because we are the ones trying to leap ahead. I think our generation is the first one to truly understand Wittgenstein, just like the Beats and the Absurdists were the first to understand Nietzsche. We are the first ones to understand Wittgenstein.