Tao Lin’s Big Kid Book Deal
I hope this is the last time I’ll find myself writing about Tao Lin. In July I wrote a lengthy story for The Morning News that delved into Lin’s publishing venture, Muumuu House, and looked at a few of the prominent (allowing for a loose definition of “prominent”) writers in his literary cadre. (The post engendered quite a comment chain on this very site.) Mere weeks later, Lin landed a $50,000 book deal with Vintage for his next novel. And that was when someone commented on the Morning News piece that they’d be “interested in an update on all of this” (presumably they meant an update from me) and wondered whether his deal would “change things.”
It does change things, yes. The fact that his next novel (it’s tentatively called Taipei, Taiwan) will come out under the Vintage label means that, like it or not, it’s going to get a lot more notice than his books have had in the past when published by Melville House. And that’s no knock on Melville House, which does a fabulous job both with publicity (the Moby Lives blog is fun and occasionally gets good pickup on Twitter etc.) and with the aesthetic look of its titles (see: the Art of the Novella series). But it’s still a tiny press. A book published by Vintage will be seen, not just by critics that have managed to avoid Lin and maybe still haven’t even heard of him, but also by mainstream readers, the Barnes & Noble shoppers who have definitely not heard of him and who read the Stieg Larsson trilogy. This isn’t to say they’ll pick up the novel and buy it, but it may catch their eye, they’ll take a look, and now they’ll know who or what a Tao Lin is.
I’ve watched Lin’s career since September 2009 when, as a journalism graduate student that still loved literary fiction above everything else, I decided to write my master’s project (which had to be a feature-length magazine article) on Tao Lin, his literary cohorts and, if you’ll allow it, their “movement.” Those within the grad program, or others that I told about what I was doing, for the most part thought it was a ridiculous choice. Others were writing lofty treatises on subjects like an Iraq war veteran adjusting to life back in the States or about an urban education problem in Harlem that wasn’t being addressed by the city (both of which are wonderful topics). But I knew I had chosen something that hadn’t been examined, fresh ground no one had yet dug up. I began interviewing Lin as well as every person associated with him. When I finally finished the story in May, I began pitching it to various respected publications that run well-reported, thoughtful stories on writers or writerly things, and I continually received responses from editors telling me that while the piece was well-written and interesting, they just would never run a story about this Tao Lin person. Eventually, Salon published a condensed version of the original that focused only on Lin, and later I was able to go back, add a bit more reporting, and write a longer story about the collective group for The Morning News.
My point in rehashing all of this is twofold: first, Lin has developed his talents over time. I still do not believe, and never believed, that he is what I’d call a good writer, at least not compared to the writers I read for pleasure: Roth, DFW, Irving, Didion, Chabon, Franzen, Tom McCarthy, Salter, or even Lorrie Moore and Lydia Davis, both writers that Lin says have influenced him. I do not enjoy reading his work and can’t imagine enjoying it unless it changes in a major way. Nevertheless, Richard Yates is indeed more adult, and precise—and I think that’s basically indisputable—than Eeeee Eee Eeee (the goddamn title alone, for instance, is a gimmicky, obnoxious trick that, at his current station, I do not believe Lin would repeat) or Bed was. And Taipei, Taiwan will almost certainly be more mature and developed than Richard Yates was. You can bet, too, that it’ll be widely reviewed, and in some of the same outlets that first rejected my reportage on him on the basis that they didn’t want to run anything about Tao Lin. That brings me to my second point: Lin has already, in two years, progressed to the point where now, a writer pitching a piece that takes a serious, analytical look at Lin’s work would be turned down not because the web site or magazine in question is afraid to cover Lin, but because it has already run a Tao Lin story, and won’t be doing another for a while. (Yes, one place I foolishly tried originally was the Times magazine, and yes, I did see it as a breakthrough for Lin when the Times reviewed Richard Yates, regardless of the fact that they panned it. Taipei, Taiwan will likely be reviewed in even more publications, many of them places that, like the Times, had not previously touched anything having to do with Lin.) And the sheer fact that Vintage was interested in him (and you can’t claim it was just a fluke, because Little, Brown and Harper Perennial were also bidding on his book) shows that they believe he’s worthwhile (even if, just to play devil’s advocate, they’re doing it because of the Web-buzz they’ll get).
I’ve even seen Lin progress in other ways outside of his published books. The series of drug-related drawings and descriptions he’s been doing for Vice, while ridiculous, is also hilarious and smart. He’s having fun doing it, and it’s showing a side of him—his complicated sense of humor—that many may not have known existed. (In fact, in my many in-person encounters with Lin, at least in 2009 and 2010, I found him to be nearly 100% humorless, though that’s in part a shtick, and in one interview he even said “I’ll probably kill myself before I’m 40.” I hope that does not happen but, bizarrely, perhaps embarrassingly, I imagine I’d be one of a small handful of journalists qualified to write his obituary).
In addition, his response to a recent controversy—the Marie Calloway “thing”—struck me as rather wise and impressive. I imagine that every single visitor to HTMLGIANT knows the first part of what the girl did and wrote, and who about, but later, in response to a tumblr post railing against the whole thing and mentioning Lin by name, he responded: “I feel like you probably read an amount of Marie’s story but didn’t think about the story when writing your post. I feel like your post described a view that you already had, from a prior situation, before knowing of Marie’s story—a view you then applied, in your post, to Marie’s story, in a manner that ignores the particulars of Marie’s story.” Yes, Lin is doing his usual thing here of overly simply/direct, almost autistic recitation of chronological events (see: the first paragraph of Shoplifting from American Apparel), but he’s also correct, and when you re-read the hater’s tumblr post, Lin seems especially on-point. He sounds downright reasonable and smart.
In case you’re wondering, no, I don’t think that his book deal means anything major for the other writers that surround him. As one of the commenters on this very site noted, there is a steep drop-off in talent from Lin to the best of the rest in his network (though, to be fair, Noah Cicero has been writing books for longer than Lin, and I quite like three or four of Ellen Kennedy’s poems). The others may think this is a big deal for all of them, but I can’t imagine it will do much to raise any of their profiles. If Lin is legitimately internet-famous and, soon, might break into the mainstream literary consciousness, then the best the rest of them can aspire to might be limited Internet fame.
The most succinct thing (and I’m aware this post has been anything but) I can say in conclusion is that when I mention Tao Lin to friends of mine who are intelligent, follow news and pop culture, and read fiction, the vast majority of responses are either that they have never heard of him or, when they have: “He’s some kind of writer in Brooklyn, right? And he was on Gawker a bunch?” After Vintage publishes his next novel, that’s going to change.
Daniel Roberts is a magazine reporter in New York, and tweets @readDanwrite.