One of the biggest selling points of the roman a clef is the reader's salacious desire to suss out who is who: which real person are we getting an illicit glimpse of? Alt lit plays on this desire in its routine conflation of fiction and non-fiction. But how does flattening real people into fictional characters affect how we interact with those people in real life? --SBB
The Sincere Pose: What Happens When Everyone is a Character
An Exercise in Art of and from the Internet
Definitions of alt lit vary widely—as anyone who’s ever tried to learn about it from the outside can attest. Here’s my own working definition of the movement: an exercise in creating art that is reflective of and derived from the internet. Existing just outside the mainstream, the writer of alt lit is self-aware, introspective, and sensitive. This writer delights in the banal and the personal: a navel-gazer just as interested in the lint as the personal revelations. That persona often discloses personal shortcomings and humiliations to gain the reader’s trust. In the best of the genre, you the reader aren’t just a voyeur watching from a distance, you’re engaged personally with the writer.
Alt lit says what it means directly. Often the only ornamentation is the misplaced punctuation and a near total lack of capital letters that is common of internet speak. The result is writing that is so personal it risks the sentimental and occasionally confronts the grotesque. And it is hard to turn away from such frank descriptions and such feeling, even if you want to, because those personal disclosures are worth wading through the flood of details that make up the writer’s everyday life.
What makes the writing of alt lit different from personal blogs or status updates is the very label “lit.” The writing is presented as art and so it is—for better or worse. The writers of alt lit, unlike the writers of blogs and status updates, choose those excessive details. The work is the result of deliberate and aesthetically motivated choices.
Considering a piece of writing as “art” usually forces a reader to separate the “speaker” in the writing from the author. But here alt lit is funny. It erases this distinction by creating literature that reads as non-fiction or memoir but is deliberately labeled fiction, leaving the reader to doubt if there is any separation between speaker and author. This flattening of speaker and author is further complicated by its presentation almost entirely online. We know the internet is a place where we can never trust a person to be who they claim to be. Reading alt lit, who is to say what is real and what is fiction?
It’s not just the frame of “art” that complicates the distinction between the real and the fictional. Many writers in the alt lit scene use pseudonyms: xTx, Beach Sloth, Marie Calloway, Peter BD. Many name their characters after celebrities: Adrien Brody, Dakota Fanning—or other writers. Just as author and speaker are flattened into a single persona, so supporting characters and the real people they are based on are flattened into a single persona, as well.
Though the literature is personal and self-aware, that self-awareness is derived from the act of turning life into art. The status updates, the tweets, the tumblrs, the memes, the published stories and poems: all are the literature of the movement. This extreme pose, collapsing the real and the fictional into one, forces the reader to take everything as performance, because the alternative—that everything is real—beggars belief. Ultimately, the reader knows the writer is posing but takes those poses as true expressions of the writer’s self. We are left with a seeming paradox: a sincere pose.
As we see with the assault, abuse, and rape charges in the alt lit community, art on and of the internet works the same way as the internet. Predators masquerade as friends and gain trust—trust that they later exploit. And the flattening of person and character lets both the writer and the reader off the hook. The writer can pretend that whatever she or he writes is only art and can’t hurt anyone. The reader can pretend that they aren’t complicit in the exploitation of real people because this is only art and not really about anyone in particular. Thus the tropes and aesthetics of alt lit enabled predators by giving them a pose that both masked their actions from their community and obscured the reality of their acts from themselves. Just as rapists distance themselves from their actions by dehumanizing their victims, so the predators of alt lit distanced themselves from their actions by turning their victims into supporting characters in a fictional tale where the only three-dimensional—and thus fully humanized—character was the predator himself.
Reading the Apology as a Sincere Pose
After Sophia Katz, Tiffany Wines, and E.R. Kennedy made their stories public, the men of alt lit apologized. We need to read these apologies as literature, applying the tropes and aesthetics of alt lit to our analysis, as alt lit uses status updates, tweets, and blog posts as literature and employs the everyday media of the internet in the production, distribution, and promotion of said literature. And, indeed, each apology fits neatly within the alt lit trope of the self-reflective writer who reveals his peccadilloes in order to gain the reader’s trust. They use that persona to mask the truth from themselves and (attempt to) hide it from us. Let’s look at them one at a time.
Stephen Tully Dierks wrote:
|(Screen cap from Gawker.)|
I’ve read this thing dozens of times. I believe he sincerely feels bad and wishes things were different—he is sensitive, aware, and hopes to become in the future to be “only a positive, cautious, loving presence.” That said, I also hear some serious bullshit. For instance: “consent seemed to have been given.” Really? “[S]eemed to have been given?” Seriously, dude: anytime you need a verb phrase that convoluted, you aren’t being honest. And how about those passive verbs: “what has happened,” “the toxicity of our society’s patriarchal structure has led me”? That’s dodging responsibility, too. Man, and he actually blames alt lit for making him this horrible person when he regrets how “writing, editing a magazine, and participating in this social group” led him down this dark and twisty path. The only remedy Dierks proposes to the situation is improving himself, retaining himself as the protagonist of this story—not Sophia Katz, not Tiffany Wines, not the alt lit community. The question I want answered: is he lying to us or to himself? Those slippery passive verbs help him mask his actions to readers and attempt to keep us under the spell that casts him as a misguided soul who admits his mistakes in order to learn from them. But if he is sincere in his apology, as I believe he is, then he is also lying to himself about who he is.
Next up, Tao Lin:
|(screen cap from Gawker)|
Just like Dierks, Lin is hiding behind the sensitive, introspective writer persona: “I try to be open about my negatives as a person, and examine these negatives for example in Richard Yates and in my other writing.” In other words, Lin’s past crimes shouldn’t matter anymore because he knows he behaved poorly and is working through his issues so he can be a better person. Sounds pretty nice on the surface, until we remember an actual person got hurt in the making of this very important lesson for Tao Lin. Lin’s openness about his misdeeds does shit all for E.R. Kennedy. Just as the writerly pose of alt lit allowed Lin to distance himself from the worst of his own behavior by fictionalizing it in Richard Yates, here it allows him to distance himself from that same behavior by acting as though his self-reflection and actions in the present—such as his self-important offer of giving Kennedy “all the royalties to RY,” as though that is what Kennedy wants—excuse him from behaviors in the past. Again I ask, does he use this persona to lie to us or to himself? I venture he’s lying to us about how much he has done to make amends with E.R. Kennedy and lying to himself about what a nice guy he is because he is “open about [his] negatives.”
Ultimately, the goal of these apologies is to regain the reader’s trust. Offer unto us a confession and promises to learn from past mistakes that we may all move on from this nasty business. Taking these men at their word is what they want us to do, as they know how to use words for any purpose they please. Enabled by the aesthetics of alt lit, these men honed writerly personas perfect for obscuring predatory actions. And here’s the really fucked up thing about these apologies: by confessing, these men only strengthen that sensitive writer persona. The apology doesn’t serve to humble them, as a real apology would, but to strengthen their position as protagonists in worlds of their own creation.
After the Assault: Two Paths
Statistics show that most rapes are committed by acquaintances and not by strangers with knives and guns, but the image of the rapist as a masked offender we can file away as “bad guy” and think no further about persists. In fact, it turns out men will admit to committing rape as long as they don’t have to use the word “rape” to describe their actions. The stigma attached to the word is so powerful that it scares even admitted rapists. Rape is so powerful a word that even its victims are afraid to wield it in the fight against rape culture. So long as we believe rapists are outliers, scary sociopathic bad guys, we won’t call the majority of rapists out on their crimes because they are people we know and like and have beers with. And so they continue forcing themselves on unwilling sexual partners without societal repercussions. All because we as a society cannot confront the evil that lives next door.
Even as Dierks and Lin address accusations of rape head on, they don’t see the connection between their actions and the label “rape.” And though they claim to understand their roles in perpetuating rape culture, they either blame that culture for making them monsters or believe their desire for rehabilitation necessarily lifts them above those who are trulycomplicit in rape culture. They want to confess their sins, but cannot bring themselves to face how terrible those sins are. For me to believe any apology—or statement—from these men, they would have to acknowledge that their actions make them guilty of rape and guilty of perpetuating rape culture, not the victims of a fucked up patriarchal world that chews everyone up equally. (Please.) The word “rape” is powerful—and explosive—and asking these men to acknowledge that the stigma attached to the word is a stigma now attached to them as well is only appropriate.
I see two paths open to these men. Path one is a circle back to the beginning, a field trip around a land where they are unique and precious snowflakes, forever the protagonists of their own stories. This is the path foreshadowed by Dierks’ and Lin’s apologies. On this path, self-reflection stands in the stead of punishment. As Dierks said, in private messageswith his then-girlfriend Isabel Sanhueza, “i know i can educate myself and change how i act and be accountable.” Lin similarly holds up his own self-reflection as his defense, and he offers to give E.R. Kennedy all the money from the book he wrote about their abusive relationship. Both Dierks’ desire to pursue education and Lin’s promises of money are hollow gestures offered in lieu of punishment. The path of self-reflection and education allows predators to bypass connecting their actions with rape and rape culture, offering only a surface corrective to a deep-seeded ill.
On path one, Dierks’ and Lin’s self-reflection is the pivotal moment of the story—not the assault itself. The people they hurt are in the past. They are props, and forgotten props at that. Shifting the climax of the story to education and rehabilitation ensures Dierks and Lin continue to be the heroes of their stories. It plays directly on alt lit’s trope of the introspective writer. The apologies acknowledge personal humiliations and/or shortcomings to regain their readers’ trust—without ever confronting the consequences of their actions—and allow them to continue authoring the story, retaining and potentially growing their audiences.
On path two, the accused stands trial for his crime. Admittedly, this path is wildly unrealistic because, unfortunately, rape victims often choose not to press charges and even when they do those charges rarely lead to conviction. But on this path, we puncture that writerly pose and find the real person underneath. This is exactly what Dierks is afraid of. In his conversation with Sanhueza, he says, “if someone pressed charges and i was facing jail time i would kill myself . . . if anyone is willing to do anything to let this be a non-legal repercussion it would be the greatest mercy of my life . . . and i would remain accountable and i would still be punished as i am (reputation compeltely [sic] ruined) and i would work on myself v hard to make sure i never hurt anyone again.” This would be a “great mercy” to Dierks because it would not only keep him out of jail but also allow him to continue to deny that he is a rapist. And isn’t his reticence—and Lin’s reticence—to confront to true terror of their crimes and the concomitant label just further proof of how heinous those crimes are?
Followed to its conclusion, path two sees the accused investigated by the police, put on trial, and sent to jail. His intentions no longer matter more than his actions. It doesn’t matter if the accused is really a good guy deep down; what matters is what he did. Unlike on path one, where the climax turns on the protagonist’s own actions towards rehabilitation, on path two the climax is in the hands of the people—literally, The People versus Stephen Tully Dierks (or Tao Lin). Standing trial and going to jail takes the story out of the hands of the writer. These men can no longer be the stars of their own stories because they lose control of the narrative. The survivors, the police, the lawyers, the correctional officers now share authorship.
Facing jail time forces a connection between the accused’s actions and the (legal) definition of rape. It forces the men who assaulted and abused others to realize the world will forever see them as transgressors against the people they victimized and against the community—whether they ever do or not is now beside the point. How they tell the story is no longer relevant because, suddenly, Dierks and Lin are that guy, the “bad guy” they never thought they were. This path stretches the sensitive writer pose to its breaking point. While on path one, confessing to the transgression allows Dierks or Lin to show how brave he is for admitting his ill deeds, on path two society tells him he is a rapist. This is the point of no return: they cannot flex their chops as writers to manipulate the story once society attaches the stigma of “rape” to their actions.
Importantly, path two does not preclude path one. Ideally, the perpetrators of assault, abuse and rape should reflect and seek out education to make themselves better in the future—as should all people guilty of crimes against their communities. But that education is no replacement for punishment. To suggest that education could replace criminal punishment is to suggest that the crime under consideration—rape—really isn’t so bad. But the lengths rapists go to in order to avoid the words “rape” and “rapist” prove that the crime is as horrible as crimes come. For Dierks and Lin to suggest that they could avoid punishment by education and/or monetary reimbursement is hubris at its worst. It reveals how deeply male privilege informs their world views and how dissociated they are from their crimes. Anytime we fall for this argument, that the abuser has learned from his mistakes and is going to change, we are enabling rapists and rape culture to continue hurting very real people.
Closing the Gap between Perception and Reality
This, then, is the problem: these men are content to pursue path one (and asking them to voluntarily walk path two is unrealistic) and seem to sincerely believe that learning from their past mistakes is enough. That sincerity derives from millennia of male privilege. For haven’t men always been the protagonists, the stars of the story? Why shouldn’t Dierks and Lin expect path one to be sufficient? Abandoning control of the story is antithetical to everything they’ve ever known.
This blindness prevents many men from being true allies in the fight against violence against women. But is it unique to alt lit? A gatekeeper taking advantage of the neophyte is hardly new. Nor is a criminal denying responsibility for his actions. But I’d argue that the alt lit practice of flattening the distinction between character and real person enabled predators to better stalk the alt lit community while hidden in plain sight. And the aesthetic of the sensitive, self-aware writer trading on his own failures was ripe for exploitation. Which isn’t to say there are more predators in alt lit than other communities, just that they had better tools at their disposal for getting away with it.
I’m aware that the likelihood these men will ever face trial is slim at best—and that prosecuting rapists on the whole is woefully difficult. So, how do we close the perception gap—if not the legal gap—that lets men like Dierks and Lin believe they aren’t, at heart, bad guys and thus shouldn’t be held accountable—even when they commit unspeakable (literally, see above) crimes?
Shame is an excellent tool for closing the gap—and sometimes the only weapon we have as a society when victims choose not to press charges and are often denied justice even when they do. And Dierks is already feeling the sting of that weapon, with his “reputation compeltely [sic] ruined.” Lin likely is, too, from where he stands hidden behind his lawyer. Shame will certainly (hopefully?) push these men outside of the communities they preyed in, but it doesn’t necessarily puncture the creep’s positive conception of himself.
We could start communities without men entirely. Though this, too, seems insufficient. Such self-imposed boundaries also allow the gap to persist, just outside the bounds of the sanctuary. This isn’t to say there is no place for clubhouses with “no boys allowed” signs nailed to the door—just that they cannot solve the problem, only provide temporary respite from it.
Just as the most powerful weapon in the men of alt lit’s arsenal (after their penises, apparently) is their art, so could the most powerful weapon in our arsenal in the fight against rape culture be our art. Perhaps it is the hubris of the artist to believe that art can change the world—but what else do we have? If the courts cannot help us, cannot irrevocably label these men “rapists” or criminals, then it is our job to make those labels stick. We cannot let such creeps regain control of the narrative. And so we must flood the world with the storiesby and about women and LGBTQI individuals and minorities. Not just survivors of abuse and assault—though we need more of those—but stories that show not-white-men doing whatever the fuck they want to. The more stories of not-white-men, the more examples men have to see that they are not the default setting on literature—or the world. That anyone can and should be a hero.
Simultaneously, we must continually hone our bullshit detectors. Writers are really good at making horrible things sound nice. We have to be on the lookout for anyone abusing the art to advance violent ideas or mask violent tendencies and reveal the untoward motive lurking beneath the beautiful surface.
I’m loath to see the actions of a few (and more) bad men spell the end of alt lit. The movement prizes self-aware consideration of one’s own faults. It loves the ordinary and the everyday and the banal. It embraces the grotesque alongside the sentimental. It is democratic in its embrace of self-publishing. Just as it enabled the predators, alt lit is uniquely built to produce and deliver stories of women, minorities, queer and genderqueer and nonbinary people, and anyone else who feels shunted to the sidelines by the mainstream. It’s time we put these tools and tropes to use in building a new canon that challenges and ultimately dismantles the narratives at the heart of rape culture.
Have something to say? Email comments, questions, responses, links to relevant articles elsewhere, and submissions to: rapeculture.and.altlit [at] gmail [dot] com. For the original call for submissions, see here. To read all the essays in the series, click here.
Sarah B. Boyle is a poet, activist, mother and high school teacher. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Menacing Hedge, Sugar Mule, Cheat River Review, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College.