By Chelsea Haith
“The prose is shockingly sparse. There is no plot to speak of.”
This is the description given by Bizarro and Alt Lit publisher and editor, Cameron Pierce, of Noah Cicero’s prototypical 2003 novel The Human War. According to Pierce, the Alt Lit movement disfigures literature, champions the grotesque and rejects all manifestos. It is quite literally the literature of the Internet.
“Mainstream American publishing was completely ignoring young people’s voices at the time,” Pierce said, explaining the growth in Alt Lit in America after 9/11. The publishing industry in the USA promoted hundreds of patriotic books and ignored the despair young people felt at the invasion of Iraq. And so the Alt Lit community retaliated and grew, writing and publishing books that spoke against the Bush administration. The stories presented the concerns of anti-establishment Americans in sparse language and realistic plots, featuring young adults feeling despondent and surrendering to mediocrity. This was never going to be very cheerful.
The Human War follows the dejection of a young man who in the early hours of the invasion of Iraq by the United States of America reacts to his government’s actions by getting trashed, going to a strip joint and getting laid. He’s looking for an escape from the horror of the events, but his quest for carnal distraction leads him deeper into despair in keeping with Alt Lit’s trademark deadpan black humour. In 2011 the novel was made into a film, directed by Thomas Henwood and Pirooz Kalayeh who specialises in turning Alt Lit fiction into clever little indie films. “A book like The Human War, despite its flaws, was exactly what was needed. And in the 12 years since, it [Alt Lit] has exploded into the mainstream,” Pierce said.
The movement is described as the literature of the Internet as it stems from blogs and the personal narrative mode that so many young people have adopted to tell their stories. Might this be a symptom of our narcissistic age in which exists a plethora of Internet platforms on which millions of people share their mundane experiences?
“Alt Lit writing seems to self-consciously skim the surface, utilising minimalism and Internet aesthetics to live the hyper-realism of a mediated culture defined by advertising and the normalisation of failure,” argued Paul Wessels, a co-director on the Masters in Creative Writing course at Rhodes University, rejecting the accusation of narcissism in the Alt Lit movement.
Many of the Alt Lit writers promote their work through their presence on social media like Twitter and use their Internet fame to get their work read, particularly the Alt Lit poets Steve Roggenbuck and Mira Gonzalez, explained Pierce. The movement has come from the Internet but is a champion of the anti-capitalist ideology, so much so that some Alt Lit publishers allegedly intentionally run at a loss, Pierce said, laughing to himself. South African author Lauren Beukes rejects this form of anti-capitalism. “Making money from art kind of is winning against the capitalist system,” Beukes said.
This lack of profit is mirrored by the style of the work produced by the movement, which favours minimalism. This dearth of description seems to be a reaction against the excess of capitalism. “What art and literature can do is to try to push certain tendencies inherent to capitalism to their most extreme point, to situate oneself within but against capitalism,” explained Wessels, his assertion supporting Beukes’ position.
The Alt Lit movement is interested in the human condition as experienced by the contemporary person, subject to vast inequality and perpetually on the edge of disaster. As Wessels suggested, “Global humanity seems to be approaching the dead centre of hurricane apocalypse and soon the financial disasters, the exponentially rising levels of unemployment, climate change and all the other horrors of the neoliberal world order will come to life like the zombies we already are.”
There seems to be no cure, except to write through it, to embrace it and to remember that we’ll all die soon anyway.
Listen to Cameron Pierce read an extract from Chelsea Martin’s work here: