Not many people have heard of Alt Lit as yet. At the risk of being humiliated, I’m going to stick my neck out and say that they soon will.
Oh dear, I’ve done it now. Making predictions is one of the surest ways to incur public ridicule and utter mortification, which is perhaps why fortune-tellers are a largely nomadic bunch on the whole. Still, there is at least some evidence to back up my assertion. Tao Lin, for example, the de facto leader of the Alt Lit community, is due to have his novel Taipei published by Vintage in June. This won’t be the first time that alternative and/or online literature has been co-opted by the mainstream, of course (Fifty Shades, anyone?), but Alt Lit may prove to have a far more profound impact on both literature and self-publishing than E.L. James’s tale of handcuffs and floggers ever did.
First things first: what exactly is Alt Lit?
Straight away, things get tricky. Alt Lit is difficult, and perhaps almost impossible, to define. According to Wikipedia, Alt Lit is “a fairly new form of literature, centered on and/or drawing from the internet, internet culture, and ‘a population of people that are connected with one another through their interest in the online publishing world’.” Rather a vague definition, admittedly, and one that could conceivably encompass anyone with an interest or involvement in literature and some kind of online presence. Essentially, though, these are writers who belong to an online literary scene and form an online “community”, albeit a rather loose one.
More precise definitions can perhaps be given by those who are actually involved in Alt Lit. Stephen Tully Dierks, in this article, argues that “the only consistent difference between ‘alt lit’ … and ‘lit’ generally seems to be a greater embrace of the Internet for promotion and release of work and for socializing.” “I don’t know if you can define ‘alt lit’,” Frank Hinton says, “because I think what people are doing right now is defining it. In the end it will be judged by what it brings into the world.”
Alt Lit seems, in essence, to be a creative community built on social media, one that harnesses the internet in order to create, publish and distribute literature. Nothing new, you might say, in these days of eBooks and self-publishing; but it seems to me that there is something new, something different, about Alt Lit. For one thing, Alt Lit doesn’t simply slot into the more conventional self-publishing model. It is more likely to be found on blogs and internet forums than on Amazon, for example (take a look at the Alt Lit Library). And while more traditional self-publishers create literature that reproduces traditional literary styles, Alt Lit makes liberal use of text speak, common internet terms and abbreviations, and stylistic choices that show the influence of Twitter, mobile phones, and instant messaging. Alt Lit often contains spelling and grammar mistakes, clunky sentences, and so on. Does this make it shoddy, or somehow more authentic – an immediate, unfiltered, as-it-happens (almost) insight into the writer’s mind?
In Alt Lit, the internet is seen not only as a means of distribution, but as both subject matter and a source of inspiration. It draws on internet memes and talks about the ways in which the internet influences our lives. It makes liberal use of cutting and pasting, to such an extent that copyright can hardly be an issue. Spelling and grammatical errors – the bête noire of more traditional self-publishers, who strive for slick presentation on a par with that championed by traditional publishing houses – are inevitable and unremarkable. Most Alt Lit is, moreover, free, and most of its practitioners’ goals are not financial. A career in literature, in the common sense of the term, is not amongst their ambitions.
Naturally, all of this has provoked controversy and, on occasion, indignation (see here for an example). Obviously, it runs contrary to the values espoused by the traditional publishing industry, where presentation is of paramount importance and little is ever available for free. But – and this, from my point of view, is much more interesting – it also cuts across the values that the self-publishing community at large has either adopted or inherited. Self-publishers often try to produce perfectly edited and proofed books and eBooks of the kind that could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with anything produced by the big publishers. A noble aim; but is it really as essential as we perhaps think?
One thing above all strikes me as being worth repeating: most Alt Lit is free. It is circulated freely on the internet, and no payment is requested or received. In a world in which the self-publishing community has largely aped the financial imperatives of the traditional publishers, this is heartening. (I’m targeting myself with that criticism, lest anyone think I’m being unbearably sniffy and high-minded here.) Take a quick look at the Amazon Authors’ Forum, if you wish. Every other discussion, it seems, is about sales: how many, how few, and how to make more. Understandable, perhaps; but in a revolution in which all received wisdom should be up for questioning, it seems rather sad that so few self-publishers seem interested in questioning this particular credo.
Alt Lit, like self-publishing, is far from perfect. It involves and perhaps even encourages charlatanism, pretence and frankly bad writing. And yet it seems to me exciting in a way that conventional self-publishing often is not. If there’s one thing that we can learn from Alt Lit, it is perhaps the simple value of being “Alt” – of not playing it safe, of being prepared to take chances, experiment, and fail. After all, self-publishers are not bound by considerations of financial viability. If we can’t do things differently, perhaps we need to question why we are doing anything at all.
What do people think?