Grooming Style

A conversation on how the Alt Lit scene’s documentation of sexual violence became a style of supposed sincerity

Alt Lit was a literary movement that largely existed on an ecosystem of blogs, Facebook groups, small presses, and readings. Alt Lit was rocked in 2014 by a series of sexual-assault allegations against several important figures in the scene, including Tao Lin, Stephen Tully Dierks, and Janey Smith (Steven Trull). In a short span of time counted down by each week’s newly revealed rapist, the scene’s positive media momentum evaporated. Blogs like the scene chronicle HTML GIANT were shuttered. Meanwhile, writers moved on in the same network of readings, tours, and small publishing houses—with some modifications to exclude the outed rapists.

Absent his competition, untouched by accusations, and buoyed by his image as a committed feminist, Steve Roggenbuck quickly became the highest-profile Alt Lit writer save Lin. In October of 2018, Twitter user ALPHA Goddess Ashley Olson posted screenshots of graphically sexual messages sent from Steve Roggenbuck to her when she was 16 years old and Roggenbuck was 24. This dialogue between ALPHA Goddess Ashley Olson and two writers is about Alt Lit’s language and sexual predation.

 

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MARA.— Like many other literary movements, Alt Lit refers to a voice and style as much as a scene or community. Alt Lit’s texts were integrated into the Internet, both being disseminated into and drawn directly from social media—allowing for both Alt Lit’s voice and style to exceed the textual form. By centering rape as an output of Alt Lit, what elements of Alt Lit’s style or voice become more legible as complicit or constructive of a culture of sexual predation? How does Alt Lit groom the reader?

ALPHA GODDESS ASHLEY OLSON.— The Alt Lit voice is fetishistic. Rape is arguably as much of an intention of that voice as the literary work itself. This is especially true when we consider that writers like Tao Lin included actual exchanges between themselves and minors in their published work. The Alt Lit voice is also a teenage imaginary: how these adult writers (many of whom were at a point of existential crisis in their lives age-wise and in turn developed a fetishistic nostalgia for youth) imagine, or wish for, the way a teenager would speak, think, and be. Alt Lit grooms because it is something on a surface level that youth could relate to, media that appears at first glance to be tailored for them. Alt Lit mimics a teenaged affect, establishes a more infantile or youthful voice to use as a vehicle for sometimes very violent or disturbing ideas, and presents these ideas alongside ones that are relatable to adolescents with total indifference.

The voice of Alt Lit is also established through its technical convention. As in the case with Roggenbuck and others, there are abundant grammatical errors, “creative misspellings,” emojis, webspeak, text that is literally copied and pasted from social media, in the attempt to convey familiarity and intimacy through a relatable, confessional mode. Readers can mistake the lack of structure and unrelenting oversharing in Alt Lit for vulnerability, authenticity, familiarity, and sincerity. This voice was integral to the public persona as well; when I was minor whom Steve solicited for sex, he never dropped the childish affect—it was utilized to mask or soften the violence of his behavior. “New Sincerity” as a genre prescribed the uncritical publication of all of one’s thoughts, regardless of their content, as though this makes them somehow defensible and okay. For Steve specifically, that is the Walt Whitman in him. Roggenbuck was obsessed with Walt Whitman: “I am the everything, I am the universe, I am the 16 year old.” Alt Lit’s voice stems from narcissism.

MARA: We can use Tao Lin’s novel Richard Yates as a convenient site for analysis of the Alt Lit voice and style. Richard Yates made Lin a recognizable and emulatable presence in the New York literature scene. As a near-autobiographical narrative originally titled Statutory Rape, it shares with pornography that function of socially delineating acceptable sexual behavior and motivation. It also shares an instrumentalization of narrative, something that Russian poet Vladislav Khodasevich found to be fundamental to works with “pornographic purpose” in his essay “On Pornography” (which may have inspired his student Nabokov’s Lolita). Khodasevich observes that pornography is obsessed with plot, but only as mechanical image of reality. It mistakes an “accumulation of facts and documents” for plot. In the case of Richard Yates, “a maximal proximity to reality in plasticity” is clearly demonstrated through the single major change marking the work as fiction, being that Lin and the 16-year-old child he abuses are given pseudonyms. The “documentary character” of pornography, Khodasevich contends, is conveyed through style—and Lin’s plain, declarative voice, barren of affect, is part of how he grooms the reader into mistaking the documentation of rape for some kind of art.

Confession is another hallmark of Alt Lit style. It’s also a hallmark of Alt Lit rapists—some, like Stephen Michael McDowell and Ian Aleksander Adams even attempted to preempt being publicly accused by releasing confessions. This makes sense once you realize that Alt Lit was also openly about self-promotion and marketing—Roggenbuck gushed to Rhizome about modeling his social media style on “beliebers.” Control over narrative is gained through confession. Qui s’accuse, s’excuse, goes the old French proverb: who self-accuses, self-excuses.

ALEX.— The power inscribed into literary voice is that it advances a particular mode of experience as central while de-emphasizing others. Tao Lin and those that emulate him employ a disaffected language that renders their untrustworthy male narrators’ experiences as one-to-one representations of the real. Alt Lit conceals, in its pseudo-realism, the truth that voice is always a fabrication. In a recent interview in the Tupelo Quarterly, Daniel Tiffany described voice as an extreme form of artifice, “an artifact that is continually evolving and serving new ends.” Alt Lit’s ambivalent childish voice purports to be both objective and naive, placing the space of the ethical decision, of conscience, just outside the boundaries of the work. By rendering its depictions of sexual assault/pedophilia in a pseudo-realist lens, Alt Lit presents skewed power dynamics as natural, coerced sex as spontaneous.

MARA.— Beyond the voice and style of the writing, interviews with writers in Alt Lit reveal a naked desire for teen sex, and works like Tao Lin’s Richard Yates provide almost documentary evidence for the rape accusations held up against him. Out of many examples of prefigurative texts, only Janey Smith/Steven Trull’s “Fuck List” resulted in significant amounts of public backlash. Why did nobody say something about this before 2014?

ALPHA GODDESS ASHLEY OLSON.— The “Fuck List” is an unfortunate example of how twisted these things can be. Smith didn’t even write the book proper that everyone was upset about—it was peterbd (a pen name), whose career was derailed by the backlash. Peter barely even knew Smith; his “Fuck Book” satirized the fact that Smith, a stranger, had publicly declared his desire to “fuck” Peter. Smith’s original “List,” published by HTMLGiant, contained a litany of Alt Lit figures and orbiters whom Smith wanted to “fuck,” including some teenagers. Smith went onto publish the “Fuck Book” without Peter’s consent or knowledge, causing the two to be conflated, and Peter to shoulder much of the blame for Smith’s perverse behavior.* The fact is, Smith was already a known and accepted part of the community, as an out and out pervert. That was just his schtick. He was a violent fetishist. I knew him personally, and he used to call me when I was underage, to try to have phone sex with me. I remember us speaking on what was my first night at college, talking about how I had finally turned 18 and could legally purchase cigarettes.

I’m digressing, but I had hundreds of inappropriate and abusive interactions with these men, some of whom were publicly outed, some of whom were not. Nobody cared, even when it was absolutely brazen. I can’t tell you why nobody cared, but it certainly makes me distrust the rhetoric of “supporting victims” now. Out of the people who have condemned Steve, rescinded their works from his former publishing house, called for “reparations” for his abuse victims since I outed him, many of them not only were unsupportive during and prior to the 2014 Alt Lit implosion but also had prior awareness of my allegations against Steve. I know this because I told them years ago. It would have been meaningful support back then to have others criticize him on my behalf. Now it’s just disingenuous participation in the spectacle that I created.

ALEX.— In “How to Avoid Speaking,” Jacques Derrida wrote that the hallmark of a secret is that it functions less as a speech act with specific content than as a form of denial that one performs. A secret is simultaneously “a secret of denial [dénégation] and a denial [dénégation] of the secret.” This denial is essential and originary. The secret at the heart of Richard Yates, and the writing of Alt Lit in general, takes as its medium the “pure lack” of emphasis, of feeling that is shared with the reader. It is a form of dissimulation that reveals to those in the know “that there is no secret as such,” only a shared sense of complicity. The concave side of the secret in Richard Yates is that the sexual violence depicted is documented pedophilia. In Alt Lit a secret became an induction into a new form of sociality, redrawn along the lines of the acquiescent and the excluded. By ensuring the men’s predation became a shared, guarded object of semipublic knowledge, Alt Lit made its readers not only privy to but active participants in its writers’ illicit confessions.

MARA.— Let’s talk about the specificity of the intended audience here—figured as the teenaged, the feminine. What relation or fantasy about this particular figure attracted these Alt Lit writers? How did these Alt Lit writers use discourses that surround the transition from adolescence to adulthood to their benefit?

ALPHA GODDESS ASHLEY OLSON.— The fetishistic nostalgia for youth is what unified the seminal figures of Alt Lit, most of whom were heterosexual men. They were friends, worked together, used their resources to further each other, organized events together. There were sometimes, of course, women at these events, but then there are countless cases of women complicit in the crimes of men, with any number of motives: “patriarchal bargaining,” indoctrination or lack of awareness, or sheer resignation to the violent reality in which we live. The women present were the kind that weren’t concerned with criticizing the ethics of the situation because they relied on the infrastructure.

These men shared not only a paraphilia but also, as heterosexual men, a phenomenological relationship to their victims—in which we are dehumanized—that they enabled in each other. Someone like Steve is incapable of relating to “othered” people as he can relate to himself. He does not see us as having the same Whitmanesque subjectivity he has, which positions him at the center of the universe. De Beauvoir outlines this idea in The Second Sex. To paraphrase, the act of sex, for the woman, is one of abjection and passivity; for the man, it is the opportunity to actualize himself, to project onto the woman his contention with Nature. It is the same narcissism whether in a book or in a teenage girl’s DMs. We are the mirrors of his sexual pathology, the incarnate form of his fetish.

ALEX.— Adolescence is usually represented as the state that marks one’s becoming an ethical or political subject. In the works of these men, adolescence is never granted these dimensions, or any sort of concrete orientation towards the future. Instead, adolescence become the site of sexualized nostalgia. Alt Lit’s men long for the physiological authenticity of pubescence, for an authentic form of desire, imagined as lost, and it turns out that this isn’t separable from longing for the girls themselves. Stephen Tully Dierks commented on social media that his “ideal audience are cool emotional teenage girls,” which in light of the allegations against him, cast quotes from his work like “what i really want is to lose my virginity in high school” in a very different light.

Nostalgia is a form of mourning. No surprise that teen suicide and dead children figure frequently in Roggenbuck’s work, as well as Lin’s to an extent. In “dead girl, you are dead,” Roggenbuck writes, “i am crying in you and being fucked at the same time,” situating the body of the young girl as both grave and site of sexual satiation. By simulating teenage vernacular, these men simultaneously embody their victims, ventriloquizing through their mouths as they render the qualities that separate them as children, as women—mute.

“Haley Joel Osment,” the character that is meant to represent Tao Lin in Richard Yates, persistently advises—in jest, in earnest—that his 16-year-old partner “Dakota Fanning” commit suicide. In one scene he finds a picture of Dakota as a small child and then proceeds to compare the 16-year-old Dakota unfavorably with the child in the picture, telling her, “be the girl in the picture, stop being obese.” Moments before, he’d told Dakota he would like “to dig a hole and put you in it.” Between these two quotes is the queasy but familiar notion that Lin espouses: the female body that is desired is one that never gets a chance to grow up, because aging is to brave the danger of one day becoming unfuckable, which for the heteronormative imaginations of Lin and Roggenbuck is tantamount to death.

MARA.— After 2014, Tao Lin kept a low profile. In a quintessentially American narrative, he reemerged years later in the media a new man, enlightened by psychedelics. “I recommend X” is a signature phrase of Lin’s, where “X” is replaced with an object or concept to usually surreal and humorous effect. The phrase takes on more concrete meaning within Lin’s new identification with popular normative discourses of self-mastery and self-control. “I recommend pineapple ass” becomes “I recommend searching ‘natural solution’ with any problem you have . . . self-empowerment, etc.” For the most part, this strategy is immensely successful. The Los Angeles Review of Books ran a review of his book Trip in which Anna Dorn finds Lin “a bit prophetic, as he ostensibly wrote this before the mass patriarchy-toppling of 2017,” seemingly unaware of the irony in naming a man who left the public eye after he was accused of statutorily raping a minor as prefiguring #MeToo. At the same time, Steve Roggenbuck wanted to push his narrative in a similar fashion—enrolling in medical school, becoming a Trotskyist activist. These are branding moves, and in the same way marketing techniques like branding exist for consumers to ultimately buy products, Lin and Roggenbuck wanted fans, and something more. What do you make of these tactics?

ALPHA GODDESS ASHLEY OLSON.— Multiple sexual predators have succeeded in reforming their images like this. Speaking of “Trotskyist activism,” Roggenbuck’s old friend Poncho Peligroso is now a member of the DSA. Much like Steve, he is an Alt Lit writer and teen-girl fetishist who turned to social justice to rescue his brand. It’s funny, after the Roggenbuck stuff came out, Peligroso AND his girlfriend DMed me to beg me not to shame him. But they’ve since blocked me and appear to have gotten away with their hypocrisy. Both Roggenbuck and Peligroso seem to believe that they do not deserve to face repercussions for their past actions outside of the limited and fleeting impact negative threads on social media have—as though personally self-identifying as “male feminists” and “socialists” is absolution enough. They want accolades for being better men.

Roggenbuck was overt about his rebrand. He became a “feminist” just at the moment that all of his closest friends and collaborators were publicly lambasted as “rapists.” He consciously changed his voice and poetry and abandoned his cabal of “cis-het males” to appeal to identity politics and shield himself from criticism. These are the same shielding tactics he employed with his literary voice and childish persona.

I did not publicly expose him four years ago partly because I saw how positively his rebrand was received, which showed me I had no recourse in those circles. I did one reading with him afterward (paid, of course). I remember standing in the back of the room in this gallery, and he was closing an hour-long set, which is an unbearable length of time to have to listen to someone perform poetry—Alt Lit no less—of all these poems about dead dogs and children with a 15-minute reading of just “Fuck cops. Fuck police. Fuck racism.” This man never cared or spoke about injustices until it benefited his brand to do so; not only that, but he was, himself, an attempted sex criminal, as proven by our conversations. It was a surreal moment for me, a former child he preyed upon, to watch him punctuate his set of dead dogs and dead children and dead clowns with such an overtly performative “feminist” diatribe. It was caricaturesque.

ALEX.— Self-mastery is a theme that isn’t new in Lin’s writing, and it functioned in 2010 as it does now, as a way to defer responsibility to an Other, whether it be a teenager or the New World Order. In Richard Yates, Lin’s avatar “Haley Joel Osment” continually berates the 16-year-old “Dakota Fanning” for their bulimia, anxiety, and self-harm, requiring them to obsessively catalog all of their “failings” in a journal every night as an antidote for their lack of self-control. This immediately frames Haley in the mentor’s role, but more importantly shifts attention away from the plain cause of Dakota’s signs of trauma in the first place, Haley. This year, the Tao Lin brand is about green, healthy living while the whole world lies to you. In his new book, Trip, Lin advocates psychedelic psychotherapy as the cure to cultural alienation; via his prolific twitter account he recommends never vaccinating, the truth behind 9/11, reading about how the planet is full of water like a balloon. Saying “You should drink kefir” is to suggest the danger is never his own body.

This brings me to the larger theme: The men of Alt Lit have learned to disidentify themselves from their abuse by incorporating it as a dark but ultimately positive aspect of their brand. Stephen Tully Dierks leaked messages to an ex after rape allegations went public, in which Dierks pleads, “I want to be held accountable but in an educational way,” already doing this work of reframing. Steve Roggenbuck skillfully pivoted into socialist organizing after the scene he helped create collapsed all around him. Tao Lin seems to want to do one better, aiming to recast his exile as art—his next book is provisionally titled Leave Society. These men are aided in their reframing by others around them. Megan Boyle is one of Lin’s ex-partners and the rare Alt Lit writer who’s outlived the movement, her new book even securing a New Yorker profile. She’s quoted in a recent interview with CLASH saying that the 2014 callouts were the product of a “jealous, sore loser attitude” on the part of the less successful, deriding those who criticized Alt Lit along the lines of gender, class, and sexuality by reframing their concerns as malicious attempts “to sully the reputations of some of [Alt Lit’s] best and most exciting writers.”

The description of Alt Lit as transactional is spot-on; this extends to the semiotic economy of the texts as well. Literature, according to Maurice Blanchot, produces through contestation an excess of meaning that points outside itself, towards an ethical or political dimension. You find meaning in literature by engaging with the demand of the Other. Alt Lit replaces contestation with transaction. Here, you don’t participate in constructing meaning, you buy it. Roggenbuck, in a 2011 video, implies as much when he shouts that “art is simply the creation of belief systems, memeplexes, brands.”

MARA.— In 2014, Gawker Media ran an article titled “Alt Lit Is Dead and Its Women Writers Are Creating Their Own Scene,” emblematic of the media narrative’s shift to a redemptive arc. Is there anything you’d consider salvageable from this year’s remnants of Alt Lit, twice killed?

ALPHA GODDESS ASHLEY OLSON.— It’s so embarrassing when people say things like “Alt Lit is for the girls now,” or otherwise look for a redemption narrative, as though anyone associates Alt Lit with anything other than pedophiles and rapists at this point, and as though the women and non-men of Alt Lit did not already fail and alienate victims like me. I am “blackpilled”—disillusioned to the point of expecting and embracing despair—about “redemption.” That narrative often obfuscates the true horror of reality. I was serially preyed upon as a child. It absolutely derailed my life and continues to haunt me. What is there to be redeemed? The only artist I can relate to in this regard is Bunny Rogers. Her work resonates with me because the horror and abjection I encounter on a daily basis is palpable, not hidden. In one of her poems she literally writes that “men want to fuck children,” not so much redeeming the experience of “fuckability” as exposing the tragedy and monstrosity the condition of “fuckability” produces.

If anyone cares to “redeem” my station in life, please subscribe to my podcast and support my Patreon so that I can exit the sex industry. And give me access to Roggenbuck’s Twitter account.

ALEX.— Salvage what? The absurdity of Gawker’s call for Alt Lit to continue under the banner of young women, reusing the same infrastructure, foregrounds a failure to recognize the underlying core of the movement: that it had always been a predator’s network first and foremost with its literary content serving only as a pretext. It failed to get off the ground in 2014, and I don’t see it happening now. It’s tempting to look for something successful in the model, to disentangle parts from the whole to see what still works, but trying to derive insights on how to better platform teenage voices using the remains of a movement that actively benefited and preyed on that very same demographic seems disingenuous. Tao Lin remains in the larger literary world and Roggenbuck is probably waiting till this all has blown over to reinvent himself. As Ashley implied, it is time for retribution and reparations.

With that disclaimer: Alt Lit did serve as a platform for several standout writers—mostly women—who existed less at its core than its peripheries by accident of being young and writing creatively at the same time. Bunny Rogers presents an informative contrast on how to handle a similar sort of voice critically. Unlike the men, her work comes from a place of memory, depicting female adolescence as a site of traumatic fixation. The naive female voice is never a site of lost authenticity but is rather always, Bunny contends, the product of a male sexual imaginary. In the poem “@ the one with the screaming in her head,” Bunny writes, “adorability is fuckability.” In another she conflates the sexual advances an underage girl experiences with death, writing, “Andrea looks young / Andrea is sexually inexperienced / And unaware / . . . / Everyone is in love with Andrea,” before concluding with, “Andrea doesn’t deserve to die.” In direct contrast to Roggenbuck’s necrophilic embodiment of minors, her usage of a childlike affect critiques the various ways in which young girls are sexualized. She’s very much the antidote to Alt Lit.

*This paragraph has been edited to more accurately reflect the publishing history of the “Fuck List” and differentiate the roles of (pen name) peterbd and Janey Smith in the circulation of the list.

Consent: It’s Not Sexy

When we talk about rape as a culture, there’s a lot we don’t know how to say. Katie J. M. Baker, Victoria Campbell, Ragna Rök Jóns, Doreen St. Félix, Brenton Stokes, and Sarah Nicole Prickett discuss. Originally published April 29, 2015, in <em>Adult</em>. Re-presented here with a new introduction by Ana Cecilia Alvarez.