Alt Lit as the New Beat Generation

Tao Lin and Jack Kerouac

“Do you think in five years the national media will create a stupid term like blogniks to describe us?”

 

As a scholar of the Beat Generation, the recent public attention focused on the current phenomenon known as Alt Lit has inspired in me some observations of similarities between the two literary movements. Indeed, one could provide comparisons to other movements or “generations,” but for me the similarities between these two sets of urban hipsters, sixty years apart, seems interesting.

The above quote, from Tao Lin’s novel, Shoplifting From American Apparel, shows an apparent awareness that the group of people he describes will become subject to, in the near future, the same sort of media scrutiny that was foisted upon the Beat Generation, who were derided in the press as “beatniks.”[1] Indeed, Noah Cicero, another key member of the Alt Lit community, described as central to the Alt Lit movement “the idea of the return to the literary life.” He goes on:

The literary life is about ‘living,’ like Rimbaud, Whitman, Celine, Bukowski, Hunter S. Thompson, traveling, doing drugs, partying, standing on street corners in cities and thinking crazy thoughts, taking shits in gas stations in Nebraska at 4 in the morning, going to Asia to teach English, flying over from New Zealand or England just to get drunk with people who’ve met online. Staying up till 5 in the morning talking about philosophy and politics. Making a ten-minute long YouTube video about something you can’t get off your mind. It’s that kid walking down the street with headphones playing Ladytron, carrying a laptop, and a copy of The Stranger, who just feels like this is fucked.

In referencing Rimbaud, Whitman, and Celine he is acknowledging key influences on the Beats, and in mentioning Bukowski and Thompson he is talking about writers who’ve later been categorized as “Beat” or at least in the Beat vein. His language in the description, too, is Kerouacian and Ginsbergian. He is channeling On the Road and listing like Howl, yet applying these techniques to his own generation.[2] In a word, he is placing Alt Lit as the next step.

Like the Beats, there is no real unifying style in Alt Lit. There is certainly an influence taken from Lin’s own unique voice, but Alt Lit is as diverse as the massively varying approaches taken in the Beat classics. However, there are of course elements that unite these groups, not just into social networks but also a literary framework. The Beats were categorized by their confessional prose, their drug use, and their challenging of social and sexual norms. There is, in their work, the notion that nothing is too personal or sordid to tell the world. Likewise, in Alt Lit writers like Marie Calloway and Megan Boyle document the most intimate details of their own lives, treating sexuality in a manner that would not seem out of place in a poem by Ginsberg, while Lin depicts his own drug use as matter-of-factly as William S. Burroughs.

Moreover, there is also the breaking of grammatical rules and attempts to move away from literary convention. From Kerouac’s “automatic writing” and “spontaneous prose” it is hardly a great leap to the treatment of Twitter feeds as literature, and the inclusion of Gmail chats in novels. Where the Beats took liberties with run-on sentences and attempted to imbue their narratives with the jargon of their times, so too are Alt Lit writers willing to forgo capitalization, punctuation, and embrace internet vernacular into their own prose and poetry. Rather than look back and embrace their literary forbearers, both groups sought to immortalize their own generations. The Beats and Alt Lit are united by the documentation of their own times and their almost insular literature. The Beats wrote about each other, like the Alt Lit writers, and their works stand as a biography to their times. People like Neal Cassady have become virtually household names through their depictions as characters like Dean Moriarty, and in the future we will surely remember some of the less prolific Alt Lit writers as their published alter egos.

What readers of Beat Generation literature often failed to observe is that although the Beats became known as a literary force in the mid-fifties with the publication of On the Road and the Six Gallery reading, the Beat group that is described in these works existed ten years earlier. By the time the Beats were a cultural phenomenon, the Times Square hipsters and Columbia group that made up the core of the Beat legacy had largely disbanded, and were leading lives far apart from one another. Perhaps, had Kerouac had access to Createspace and Lulu, or even a Blogger or Tumblr account, it might not have taken so long. Ginsberg, certainly, would’ve enjoyed promoting his friends’ work via Twitter and Facebook.[3]

If this essay is descending into increasingly random observations, then I apologize for what is coming next: a far-fetched comparison of various Beat and Alt Lit figures.

 

Tao Lin = Jack Kerouac.

Why?

Kerouac was famously the “King of the Beats,” the man whose style and philosophies were adopted and mimicked by millions of young fans. His stories documented the lifestyle of his contemporaries, and his work influenced other writers and artists.

Lin is the father of Alt Lit, and writers considered “Alt Lit”, whether by their own admission or labeled by others, are either involved with Lin on a social level, or draw heavily from his stylistic and thematic innovations.

Both men have chronicled the lives of their fellow young hipsters and the times in which they lived, and utilized the patterns of speech of their generation in order to create the definitive novels of their day. Their work has garnered the most attention to their movements, and been viewed as inspirational to their followers and contemporaries

 

Noah Cicero = William S. Burroughs

Although his place in literature is as part of the Beat Generation, Burroughs was only briefly part of the Beat group, and largely took off on his own. He was older than the other Beats, and following a few arrests in New York City, he went off on a decades-long journey around the world. His style deviated tremendously from those of the other Beats, and he rejected the idea that he was a part of the movement, or indeed that it ever really existed.

Cicero, while only three years older than Lin, is also like an elder to his so-called generation. Like Burroughs, is prose bears little resemblance to that of his peers, and while they seem to have maintained a relatively tight social group, Cicero wanders off to far-flung locations.[4] In many regards, these men appear set apart from their literary labels, yet their associations appear cemented.

 

Megan Boyle = Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg was one of the most important members of the Beat Generation, promoting the work of his contemporaries tirelessly, and later ensuring the continuation of certain Beat ideas in the cultural shift to the Hippies. His poetry was intensely open and confessional, and he sometimes appeared naked on stage.

Megan Boyle wrote an essay called “Everyone I’ve Ever Had Sex With,” and is in the process of liveblogging her life. These alone make her a unique and Ginsbergian genius. Her writing is as revolutionary as her better-recognized peers, but it is only a matter of time before she is considered one of the more important poets of her era.

 

Steve Roggenbuck = Peter Orlovsky

Peter Orlovsky was Allen Ginsberg’s long-time lover/boyfriend/husband/partner, and his fame was largely accredited to his association with Ginsberg. However, Orlovsky was a poet himself, yet even in that capacity he was derided for his inability to spell.

Roggenbuck has become a key member of the Alt Lit community, too, in spite of his apparently lacking literary credentials. Like Orlovsky, Roggenbuck can’t or won’t spell correctly, and his editors appear content with that, allowing spelling mistakes in the titles of his books, as did Orvlosky’s. Roggenbuck is better known for his YouTube videos, wherein he often appears manic, and also his status as an Alt Lit social butterfly. These traits also place him surprisingly close in stature to Orlovsky.



[1] The term Beat has a debatable history but was popularized by John Clellon Holmes and Jack Kerouac. The suffix “-nik” was added by Herb Caen following the launch of Sputnik in order to associate the Beats with Communism.

[2] These phrasings are not arbitrary. Cicero is well-read in Beat literature, with a particular affinity for William S. Burroughs, whose work he says inspires “hope.”

[3] I’ve spoken with one of Ginsberg’s old assistants and he concurs with this notion, agreeing that Ginsberg would’ve made a thoroughly irritating Twitter-fiend.

[4] On the advice of this reporter, Cicero took a job in South Korea.

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Author: David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom magazine and the author of The Dog Farm. He travels a lot, and is currently working as a professor in China. His latest book is called Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult. You can read more about and by David at his blog, www.davidswills.com or on Tumblr.

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7 Comments

  1. Sigh. I’ve got to be the one to say it. It’s my job. As the Alt Lit Witch Doctor: No. No. No. and again No. No. No. No. No. No. No. Try again Nxt Time unDoubtably Well-intended Stranger.
    I mean. I’m Actually Really upset. I wish stuff like this didn’t offend me, that I could laugh it off Ha ha ha! What hilarious fools you are! and move on, but the truth is I might shed a sad lonely tear before I fall asleep – over this. And then I will get up tomorrow and I will try again. I will try again to get Alt Lit to SEE why comparisons like this are …. just …. No., and that accepting this ‘No. – you are not the Beats. Not yet’ is the Healthiest Thing Alt Lit could do. That’s my job: to say what no One wants to hear. ‘No. You are not the Beats. Not yet. As of 2013, you are monotonous apathetic consumer culture hipsters and accepting this Fact is the Only Way OVER it to true artistic Originality.’ THIS is who I am in Alt Lit. The Fucking Bitch. I’m gonna go cry my sad lonely tears of genius. I am so done with blogging. If you want me I’ll be busy fucking your boss, ignighting the Utopian rEvolution with my Passion. Peace.

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    • Andrea sucked it from my lips. These heartless fucking consumer maniacs will be torn apart in the future. My god the egotism of this crowd! Whew! Way to go Andrea.

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    • why are you fucking my boss?

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      • To prove the Only Way to get Tao Lin to acknowledge a Woman’s Literary Talent is for her to fuck someone he respects

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        • Most of Tao Lin’s favorite writers are women (Jean Rhys, Lorrie Moore, Ann Beattie, Joy Williams), what the hell are you talking about.

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  2. I think that the comparison is delirious. Also it is very romantic for two things: 1) The Beats and the music, it is not in altlit 2) the narrative estetic. as influence is very good. but, it is not like the beats.

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  3. I like the essay and think the comparisons are fun but I will offer some other interpretation:

    Tao Lin is more like the Ginsberg of the group with his small press sharing tweeting social media gig. You know you’d never have heard of half his friends without him and that’s not cause they’re not good but because he’s good at promotion.

    Noah Cicero is Kerouac to me. He seems to think more and is more philosophical in his writing. Less viceral than Burroughs.

    I don’t know. The essay portion was good but comparisons will always be silly.

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