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Why Tao Lin's Taipei can breathe new life into literature


Tao Lin's latest novel could bring energy and excitement of Alt Lit into the mainstream literary conversation

Tao Lin's novel Taipei could, as Richard Lynch-Smith suggests and as I argued recently in Futurebook, be a game changer. What I want to do here is dig a little deeper into the "black hole" of Alt Lit and look at why crossover success for Taipei would mean a tornado of invigorating energy that stirs up a storm in the literary world and leaves it a richer, more nuanced place once the debris has settled.

In many ways, Tao Lin is a red herring. Arguably, he's no longer Alt, but in other ways he's the big thing. I'm not sure it's true that the Alt Lit community nurtured his talent and allowed him to rise from it. Tao Lin keeps himself somewhat aloof from the larger Alt Lit community, swooping down occasionally to cast just enough largesse to keep his acolytes happy, offering some the imprimatur of Tao's Muumuu House.

But Tao is not only the public face of Alt Lit, he is the lens through which Alt Lit is seen by the wider world. He has drawn up the tube map of Alt Lit and any prospective publisher will inevitably get off only when stops on the Tao Line are announced.

Which is a huge shame, because much of the most exciting work in Alt Lit – and the work the literary world at large most needs in order to be invested with new life – lies outside Muumuu's penumbra. Bret Easton Ellis is much quoted in discussions of Tao Lin. But one of the simplest ways to put it is that Tao Lin's books are little more than Less Than Zero, in which the drugs are ordered on iPhones.

As a movement, though – if it is possible to call Alt Lit a movement (I would say it may come to be seen as a movement for its uniqueness in making the digital world not just its medium but its subject, and letting the two iterate off each other) – Alt Lit is full of richness and energy.

One of the things I was criticised for in my piece for Futurebook was dismissing poetry. I did so because I wanted to look at the impact of Taipei on the publishing industry. And that really says it all. Poetry's place in a discussion of publishing has to be justified – it's a partygoer that'll be continuing to show its ID when it's drawing a pension. Arguably, however, what Alt Lit does best is poetry.

Whatever the success of Taipei, publishers and the media won't come beating a path straight to Alt Lit's most exciting poetry. But perhaps Pandora's box will be open just enough for all the Alt-evils kept therein to come flooding out anyway. I hope so, because Alt Lit poetry has the potential to deliver a shot to whichever arm performance poetry hasn't got to first.

At its best, the poetry of Alt Lit mixes three elements whose spread to mainstream literature would add extra richness. First, and most obviously, it engages fully with the digital world. Works such as Daniela Barraza-Rios's ♥ incorporate the rhythms, marks, and subject matter of the internet seamlessly – a far cry from Carol Ann Duffy's somewhat clumsy attempts to make poetry mainstream through text speak.

Second, Alt Lit poetry has a glorious confessional ecstasy that incorporates the primal screaming of the most vibrant abstract expressionist and the Beat poetry of the 50s and 60s.

This reflexiveness then shoots itself back out through Lacan's remade mirror in a moment of glorious jouissance – something that speaks to the one-dimensionality of some (but by no means all) performance poetry and the aridity and distance of much "serious" poetry. The finest proponent is Penny Goring, who uses words as fearlessly as Willem de Kooning slapped thick gobs of paint on the canvas. In fact, she utilises every tool afforded by the digital age to layer expressions on top of one another, image on text on video on reference on image until a 3D existential howl appears on the computer screen in front of you.

At the other end of the spectrum, much quieter but no less effective, is Paige Elizabeth Gresty, the salonista behind the first UK Alt Lit Spreecast party. Gresty is a video artist and poet whose tranquillity belies, and possibly even enriches, the complexity of her work, which uses subtle typography and image macros alongside more conventionally laid out texts to present a life gently being pulled apart by technology and disappearing down the optic fibres of fate.

Which brings me to the third element. Alt Lit poetry plays fast and loose with form, and is as much at home with image macros, screen captures and gifs as with lines of connected text. It is a movement that has taken the lid off the technological toy box and decided to have a proper play, pressing every button out of curiosity.

It is the willingness to borrow, copy, cut, paste, click and remix that may prove to be the most incendiary point of contact between Alt Lit and mainstream publishing. As long as image macros are reblogged on Tumblr, the precise images and text that have been pasted together playfully, creatively and pointedly go largely unnoticed. But if those who look after the rights of content producers make it their business to notice, the literature business might finally have the discussion about intellectual property that the music industry has been having ever since the Amen Break was sampled.

At what point is recycling the creation of something new – at what point does it cease being theft and start becoming a necessary part of progress? The mainstreaming of fanfiction has hinted at the question and perhaps it is Alt Lit that forces it into conversation.

All this hints at another box, outside of which remains Alt Lit. Head to the truly wonderful repository of experimental and Alt Lit The Newer York and you'll be hard pressed to find a .mobi or an epub file. This is a movement that produces ebooks as readily as it posts to Tumblr, but its ebooks are most likely to be read directly from a website or to be pdfs readable on or downloadable from Scribd.

This gives us a real freedom to integrate different media that would horrify many of the new generation of ebook authors, who fret whether they have the table of contents in exactly the right place for Kindles. And it might be this almost naive lack of awareness of what an ebook "should" be that finally helps to differentiate ebooks artistically from their paper-based cousins.

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