Alt Lit Diaspora: looking from the outside in with Luis Silva
Luis Silva runs Electric Cereal, a literary site dedicated to sharing the work of new and exciting voices. I like talking to Luis on facebook because we are facebook friends and we both consider ourselves outsiders in the lit scene (which we are totally okay with and even proud of). Like someone said on House M.D., I think it was Omar Epps’ character, “You can see a lot more when you’re on the outside looking in.” I’m unsuccessfully trying to find the exact quote on the House M.D wiki, but I can swear someone said something like that while I was binge-watching on Netflix.
Anyway, I sat down in my bedroom the other night and messaged Luis some questions about alt lit and we had a pretty lengthy and somewhat controversial conversation about the community. Keep reading.
Alexandra Naughton: What is alt lit? What does it mean to you?
Luis Silva: A community and a style. I was first attracted to it back in March 2013, around the time I started a literary website that I had been planning for a while. Before that, I was a reclusive writer. Never had friends in high school or college who had the same taste in film or literature. Or the same level of interest in history and philosophy.
Art has always been a solitary pursuit for me. At least the consumption of art. I had a really hard time starting to write. I thought about it all the time, spent my entire time in college contemplating what I would write, but never actually did it. Instead I was collecting influences for a long time, which I don’t think is a bad plan per se, but it can be pretty slothful, as you can end up taking in the same type of influences, becoming mentally stagnant. And since what I first wanted to be was a film writer/director, I really wasn’t reading that much literature. But eventually I decided that I needed to improve my prose if I was really going to be a writer, so I started reading literature at a rate I had never done before. This really lifted me not only from a creative stupor but also a period of depression that was already a few years long. I started writing and kept writing for almost two years without ever thinking of showing it to anybody. Not out of insecurity, I was just in the middle of the process and didn’t get the point of doing anything else.
I also had a bad impression of artistic communities. I had never been involved in any. And although most people see the portrayals of these communities in books and films as positive, I always saw the exact opposite. Most people are completely misreading these portrayals. They are mostly made by artists who couldn’t work, couldn’t get along with anyone, because their environment was a total distraction and filled with hacks.
You know why Hemingway wrote in cafes? Because he went to dives where he knew none of his friends would go. And because his wife was at home. Most people confuse this and think he was writing The Sun Also Rises while Fitzgerald sat next to him, drinking a beer. Instead the whole point was to get away from everyone. Read A Moveable Feast. He hated everyone. You really gotta look hard for anything nice he has to say about anyone.
Oh yeah, so what is alt lit? A community and a style. Which I try to participate in and don’t think I’m a part of.
I was attracted to it because it was the first writing community that was built by young writers interested in literary writing. (Although what is literary is a constant debate) Whereas other communities consisted of older writers who focused almost completely on genre. And I was stuck in my writing. I was pretty sure I needed to abandon all my projects. So putting them on the internet was a good way to dump them. Because I still liked what I wrote but didn’t feel I could build a whole novel from it. And having it just sit there in my notebooks was a huge weight. And there was a prolific quality to alt lit. That people just wrote, published it, and then moved on. I didn’t like what most people wrote. Mostly I thought they were good prose writers whose devices usually fell apart or lost my interest on the third paragraph. I skimmed more than I read. Everyone skims more than they read. Everyone likes and reblogs more than they actually read (it’s not rare for me to receive more likes on Facebook than click-throughs).
And of course after my first attempts to participate, I found what most other people find, that the community that portrays itself as all inclusive, really only wants to hear from a few select writers and what these few select writers like and tweet. So I just started participating mechanically. My stuff really didn’t reach anyone inside the alt lit community. But my site still grew through other areas outside of alt lit (most of my traffic is still Google). And I also benefited from the fact that people only paid attention to the few select writers, because the rest who were being ignored began submitting to me. And these people turned out to be really good. I think these people were and some still are mainly considered the audience, but if people actually read them, they can see that they are just as good as anybody else.
Alexandra: Do you think alt lit conforms to a style?
Luis: There is a cohesive style. Sometimes this is exciting because people are able to do new things with it. Other times it’s a gimmick. I sometimes think that people need to conform to the style to be read. I think this is caused by the fact that to be read you need to go through the established people and publications. They have to vet you, and tell people about you, in order for people to want to read your stuff. And the alt lit institutions will only do all that if they are publishing you or are friends with you. And they only publish you or are friends with you if you are doing things like what they are doing and then sending these things to them.
I don’t think that readers necessarily dislike writing that doesn’t conform to the style. I think they don’t click on it in the first place. If it doesn’t have one of those long zany titles, they might not click. If it’s not in an experimental social media form, they might not click. If it’s not a name they recognize, they might not click. The only significant traffic I’ve gotten from the ALG Facebook group is when the posts are by prominent people. Stories or poems by unknowns get a lot less attention. People might say that these writers aren’t as good, but I don’t know how people know that without clicking through. I’ve also noticed that people who do like and share my stuff are people I’ve interacted with before, which is nice of them, but also disillusioning that people ignore you if you are not friends with them.
Alexandra: I think that is true of any community, really. Friends come first. But it’s kind of annoying because it feels like the platform of alt lit is that anyone can do it, the only entry is internet access.
Luis: And this obviously leads to resentment when people realize it’s not true.
Alexandra: What do you mean?
Luis: You send emails that aren’t responded to. People promise to read your stuff and don’t. You follow people on Tumblr and Twitter. You reblog and favorite and retweet their stuff and they don’t even follow you.
Alexandra: I almost feel like it’s better to go the Roggenbuck route. Build your own community around your own brand. Build an internet persona. Stay interesting, stay visible. I feel like it’s so easy to say, “This person hasn’t responded to me. I guess they don’t like me.” When really it’s like, they don’t see the value. It feels like, how can this one person extend my brand? Submissions based on Klout scores.
Luis: That’s how I see it. It’s not that people dislike you or your writing. They don’t even read it.
Alexandra: Totally. It gets ignored, which can feel worse than being disliked.
Luis: But that’s also how new publications get their start. Because people who are ignored then send their stuff to them.
Alexandra: Totally. This is how I started my zine back in 2010. I just wanted to publish lit. I didn’t really know that many other writers, so I solicited some friends who wrote funny things on the internet, and I solicited people who read my blog and whose blogs I read. These days I get submissions from all over, but I still like to focus on undiscovered/underrepresented talent. I want to promote the underdogs of writing. People who I know are producing good work but aren’t getting much attention. I feel like we are the alt lit diaspora. The epicenter is NYC, and everyone knows each other. Alt lit is kind of straight/white. We have the Bay area scene which is extremely rich and diverse. There is great history here, and the culture is vibrant, but it feels like it gets no national love. Alt lit coverage seems to be all about the NYC community.
Luis: I am conflicted about the importance of the prominent alt lit journals. On the one hand, I doubt that they can get me as much traffic as I can create for myself. But on the other hand, they are the only ones who can get the attention of the whole alt lit audience. Alt lit is the audience that assembles around these publications. I can only access a section of that audience through Tumblr, Twitter, or Facebook. Then only reach the attention of a section of that section because I’m not a name. But then I also think that their audience doesn’t grow?
Alexandra: I feel like it doesn’t. Insular communities stay insular and no one else outside the bubble cares.
Luis: I want to get into the translation community. Write translations and cover what is being published. There is great coverage on this already. Not enough, but what’s already out there is really great. There is also an untapped demand for content on classic literature.
Alexandra: Do you think people are reading it?
Luis: It’s what people read most. If we are talking about literature from the modernists to the ancients. There is a lot of stuff out there, but if you are looking for substantial material, you run out pretty quickly. So if you write a new essay on Virginia Woolf, you will attract a lot of people. Of course the difficulty is what to write. I’m still figuring that out. The vast majority of what I write about classic literature I have not published. It’s all fragments. But it’s what I’m thinking about all the time.
I also wonder what other alt lit writers are reading. Sometimes it seems like all they read is Tao Lin and who Tao Lin reads. And although there seems to be a distaste for the mainstream MFA culture, their influences seem to come right off a syllabus. Lorrie Moore. Lydia Davis. Richard Yates. Joy Williams. Ann Beattie. Not bad writers by any stretch, but its like a culture of derivatives taken all at once. I mean, how many times must we write the second person narrative in present tense? Or in declarative one sentence paragraphs? There is nothing inherently wrong with these techniques. Many writers in alt lit use them to write great stuff. But there is a saturation. There is a repetition of voice, theme, and effect. It easily becomes a gimmick. And by the way, I know that people are not actually limited in their reading. But it doesn’t really show up as much as the overwhelming influences that people share. This is the conforming force of literary communities.
Alexandra: I don’t read much of it, to be honest, but I am making an effort to read more contemporary stuff. Most of the books I read were written before the new millennium.
Luis: I skim. I still haven’t read Tao Lin. It’s not a choice I’ve made not to read him. I’ve just chosen to read everything else first. When I first started hearing his name, I downloaded Shoplifting off a torrent, read twenty pages, thought it was good, but I was in the middle of reading Augie March, and there was no way I was going to put down Saul Bellow for Tao Lin.
Alexandra: Not a fan of Tao Lin. At all. I’ll probably get heat for saying that, but whatever. I saw him read once and I left in the middle of it because I was bored.
Do you think there is a power dynamic in alt lit, particularly regarding disenfranchised communities? Writers of color, trans writers, queer writers, women writers. I also mean this when I say ‘alt lit diaspora.’
Personally, I feel like it is weird for women writers in terms of gaining ‘success.’ The lit scene, like almost every industry, is kind of sexist/racist. It seems to favor white dudes. And I feel like a lot of women writers never know if a dude is promoting us because he likes the writing, or if he just finds us physically attractive/wants to fuck.
Luis: I think that’s why there is such a rise of new publications and communities. I rather start something new than focus on reforming the old. The establishment doesn’t care about us so why should we care about them, by helping them out of their ignorance. Especially if we truly believe our perspective is in demand by the public, let’s capture it ourselves.
Alexandra: Pretty much.
Luis: So what is alt lit to you? Should we continue to be involved? Is it worth the effort? Now that is has itself become an institution and it is almost required that you go through its gatekeepers.
Alexandra: Alt lit is writing on the internet, I guess. The term is essentially meaningless, I feel like, in regard to genre, but it is something that I do participate in and I’ll stay involved in it as much as I already am. There are a lot of people in the community who I enjoy and whose work I enjoy. But it is not at all a priority, I think, to be a big name in alt lit.
Luis: I think I pissed someone off.
Luis: Not sure exactly. I was talking to someone about working on an anthology for Electric Cereal. Then it almost fell through because someone else told them I was a controversial figure. First time I heard anything like that.
Alexandra: Ha ha ha
Luis: Something about a post on Megan Boyle. And something about her feud with someone else. I have no idea. I couldn’t get any details. I don’t know either of them. Although I’ve since spoken with Megan and she said she was cool with the post. She said that she “was glad to read the post/that someone cared. You can tell [people] I fully back it. And don’t view it as malicious/exploitative/anything. Feel free to copy/paste that.” I guess I’m still tainted though according to this other person.
Alexandra: Weird. People are so weird. But it’s nice that Megan Boyle supported it.
Luis: Most people define alt lit as the community that assembles around certain journals and blogs. So where do you go if you want to reach the alt lit audience, but you don’t have access to where everybody is centered? Are things like the ALG Facebook enough?
Alexandra: No, it’s not enough. Alt lit is a pretty small bubble. You have to remember that.
Luis: So does our conversation come down to the fact that the underlying message of alt lit is that to be alt lit is to be connected with the New York group?
Alexandra: Our main message is that trying to be ‘alt lit’ is stupid so do you own thing. I think you associating with me may be dangerous. I am hella opinionated. I don’t like a lot of stuff.
Luis: I’m tainted already.
Luis: Man, I think you’re cool. So I want to be associated with you.
Alexandra: aww, I’m not cool. But we can be untouchable together.