Ada Wofford, Senior Editor
April 7th, 2021
Alt-Lit was born out of blog and Tumblr culture in the late ’00s. Although this culture began online and had an international reach, it’s primary physical location would have to be New York. The genre references internet culture heavily, often eschewing capitalization and punctuation; the way one might write online. In my essay on alt-lit I cover the two key figures of the movement, Tao Lin and Steve Roggenbuck.
Tao Lin is easily the most famous of the movement and has somehow emerged from the fall of alt-lit successfully, despite having a relationship with an underage girl and being accused of abusive behavior. His novels Taipai (2013) and Trip (2018) have received modest but nonetheless mainstream success. The fact that Lin could write in a manner that would find him success outside of the genre of alt-lit makes sense. Alt-lit was primarily concerned with poetry, and at the time poetry did not sell the way it does today. Lin’s focus on prose was unique within the movement but he dabbled in poetry as well; and when he did, he stood out as unique among the other poets of the genre. While his early prose certainly contains a number of the alt-lit tropes I documented after surveying the canon, his poetry is much quirkier and idiosyncratic. Take this example titled, “hamsters are heads with little characteristics on the head, part one”:
in florida a giant hamster lays in bed worrying about its future
the hamster has bad eyesight
and many other problems
later that night the hamster drives its car around
listening to sad music; the master lightly drums its paws on the
steering wheel the hamster is alone
but not for long: at home three waffle friends wait
cooling inside a countertop oven in the kitchen (Lin)
It certainly plays with some of the tropes that are characteristic of the movement, but even when it does, the poem is abstract and impersonal in a way most alt-lit is not. There is also a very purposeful use of punctuation used in this poem and this is not at all indicative of alt-lit. To put this into context, here is a list of the tropes I discovered during my research:
2) Purposeful eschewing of punctuation and proper capitalization.
3) All-caps for emphasis.
4) References to social media.
5) Purposeful misspellings.
6) The naming of a commercial brand or entity.
7) The slightly more complex, “I want to…” trope. (“Alt-Lit”)
For something more indicative of the movement, we turn to the other big name in alt-lit, Steve Roggenbuck. Roggenbuck did not get his start by writing poems and publishing them online, but by making videos of his poetry and uploading them to YouTube. His most viewed video is titled, make something beautiful before you are dead and currently has 226,680 views (Click here to watch). The video consists of several clips of Roggenbuck in his house, walking in the woods, or walking in a field, all while filming himself and saying things like, “Two words, jackass: Dog the Bounty Hunter! Two words, jackass: YOLO!” A few moments later, apropos of nothing, Roggenbuck shouts, “As the Marxists say, ‘Superstructure reinforces the fricking base.'” It’s like Roggenbuck wants us to know he’s somewhat educated and perhaps he even wants us to take him seriously, but it’s obvious he doesn’t want us to take him too seriously. He doesn’t want to be seen as a normal or traditional poet.
Throughout the video there’s some peaceful, twinkling music meandering in the background and sometimes audio clips are added. One of these clips is from the film, Dead Poets Society, which makes perfect sense because the best way to describe Roggenbuck is as a manic perversion of Robin Williams’ character from Dead Poets Society. Walt Whitman is a huge influence for Roggenbuck and he takes Whitman’s positive view on life and turns it up to eleven via a mishmash of random phrases, thoughts, and ideas. Roggenbuck’s positivity is the only thing that really sets him apart from the rest of alt-lit; otherwise, he’s perhaps the most indicative of the genre and this becomes abundantly clear when we look at his book IF U DON’T LOVE THE MOON YOU’RE AN ASS HOLE [sic].
The book identifies itself as a product of the internet immediately. The epigraph is shown below:
I include it as a screenshot because the way Roggenbuck presents this is an important part of both his personal style and the genre of alt-lit. There is something undeniably formal in the presentation and citation of this quote, but at the same time, it’s purposefully silly. Alt-lit writers were interested in turning concepts and expectations in on themselves to create something that simultaneously took itself seriously while not taking itself seriously at all. You even see this in the title of the book: The contractions, “DON’T” and “YOU’RE” are punctuated and spelled correctly but “you” is spelled “U.”
The book primarily eschews the use of line breaks and instead, presents the poems as blocks of text. Selfies are interspersed throughout the book as well. It’s as if Roggenbuck is attempting to create a physical copy of an online space. Here is an example of one of Roggenbuck’s written poems:
in spain they love football so much they even call soccer football. im becoming aware of the fact that boredom and laziness are social norms, that ive felt pressured to supress my excitement and set lazier goals. I TRAINED MY SON TO EAT OUT OF MY HAND SINCE HE WAS A TODDLER. IT’S RLY STARTING TO FUCK WITH HIM NOW HE’S 15. if i dont get verified soon on twiter im gona have an identity crisis about whether or not i am actually me. i’ll sleep when im IRL. is “charlie” short for charizard, or charmander? i am falling asleep to emo songs on a litle sofa in montreal. i dont feel proud of myself in terms of talent or even hard work but i am proud that i havent given up. i want youre life to be better because im in it (9)
As you can see, this piece possesses all of the alt-lit tropes listed on page 4. Though it does not explicitly utilize the “I want to…” trope, we can see it in the line, “I am falling asleep to emo songs…” A more explicit example can certainly be found in another poem from IF U DON’T LOVE THE MOON: “I WANT TO PEE FOR AN HOUR AND A HALF AND THEN DIE” (Roggenbuck 18). And for good measure, here is another example from Megan Boyle’s book, selected unpublished blog posts of a mexican panda express employee: “i want to own a warehouse that stores all the empty dolphin tanks and cigarette butts of the world” (Boyle 83). These are two of the five I identify in my previously published essay on alt-lit, but there are several more examples to be found throughout the genre. It’s the most interesting trope of the genre because of how odd it is; I attempted to explain it as such:
This trope might be the most important aspect of alt-lit in regards to the genre functioning as the “voice” of a particular generation. These absurd longings, when taken alongside the mundanity of these authors’ lives and coupled with the fixation on consumption, can be argued to illustrate the complete lack of meaning these authors, and perhaps by extension their entire generation, possess. (“Alt-Lit”)
The other writers I explored in my essay used all of the tropes listed above but were much more restrained than Roggenbuck. Roggenbuck is a good example of what alt-lit is because of the extreme nature of his work. Other big alt-lit names are Mira Gonzalez, Gabby Bess, and Megan Boyle. Megan Boyle wrote one of the most famous pieces of alt-lit titled, “everyone i’ve had sex with.” This piece is important because it embodies the current trend in Instapoetry of placing honesty and sincerity above all else. The piece is essentially a list describing every sexual partner they have had and what their experience was like. The writing is plain and ordinary; it reads like a diary entry:
anthony: i visited my former college to go to homecoming with my old friends and met anthony while dancing. he was a freshman and it was his first time. he was a really good kisser. i bought him and his friends a handle of gin (they paid me back) and we played card games in my old dorm. it was nice. i wanted him to be sure he wanted his first time to be with a stranger. he said he did. i left right after it happened. we used a condom (Boyle, loc-150)
Notice the lack of punctuation and the absence of a period at the end. Being open and honest is another trope of alt-lit and one I believe influenced Instapoetry. Alt-lit’s persistence on honesty results in works that often feel voyeuristic. Not only are there explicit mentions of sex, but descriptions of everyday personal moments; as in the poem, “today my alarm went off at 12:30 pm” by Mira Gonzalez:
I stayed in bed for over an hour
looked at things on my phone
I felt slightly anxious about nothing particular
I walked downstairs and poured coffee into a jar
I asked a person on the internet if I should take drugs
I took drugs before the person had time to respond (45)
After reading several collections of alt-lit, I felt like I knew the authors behind the works because through their writing I’ve witnessed so many quotidian yet intimate moments of their lives. This idea of a reader feeling like they personally know the author is also an essential aspect to the genre of Instapoetry.
The alt-lit community imploded in the early ’10s when several women came forward and reported prominent male authors and editors in the community for rape and sexual harassment. While the women of alt-lit did not go on to become Instapoets, there’s no denying alt-lit’s influence on the genre of Instapoetry. Both stemmed from social media platforms, and the tropes of Instapoetry are in direct contrast with the tropes of alt-lit. While alt-lit engaged with meaningless sex, drugs, alcohol, and misogyny, Instapoetry promotes wellbeing, self-care, romantic love, and feminism. The positivity and romanticism found in Instapoetry can help us understand its broad appeal, which we will begin to explore in the next part of this series.
You can follow Ada Wofford on their Twitter: @AdaWofford.