Musings on Quickshit

The profanation of the unprofanable is the political task of the coming generation.

Giorgio Agamben

The debate going on at the moment over the substance, value, and methodologies of “alt lit,” as well as whether or not they constitute something worthy in the realm of literary criticism, seems to be heavily constructed on a simple divide between two stances:

  1. That held by those who criticize a lack of artifice, quality control and time investment in the individual works being produced, accompanied by a perceived lack of objectivity in their reception by fellow readers; and
  2. That held by those who interpret the former group’s gestures as snobbish and self-aggrandizing, and feel that rapid-fire production (ie, ‘quickshit’) is more authentic or “sincere” than work that’s been mulled over or highly edited.

My descriptions of either side of the argument are clearly oversimplifications, acknowledging that any given person involved in or affected by the debate may fall at either extreme, or more likely somewhere in between, even just generally conflicted about their feelings on the matter.  Those of us involved in “alt lit” know that the former group is most definitely stuck up in the attacks they are launching, but we cannot feign ignorance of the proliferation of a blog-post-style writing that doesn’t always manage to move, or provoke a thoughtful response.

To explain what I mean by “move” or “provoke a thoughtful response,” I think of this in terms of found poetry.  It’s lovely to say that “everything is poetry,” but I think the more appropriate phrasing is “anything can be poetry.”  Found poetry relies not on the concept that any given text or instance of communication already is poetry, but that things can become poetry when they are removed from their initial context, usually an accidental operation.  There is always potential, but the process of snipping and removing is essential towards producing the poetic effect.  If not, the words function in base of their communicative purpose and will not produce the intended poetic effect of the editor who intervenes.

It boils down to a debate over the production process.  Both of the extremes seem slightly delusional or unwilling to admit a middle ground here.  People who fall in between probably feel alienated in expressing their indecision, given that most of us have friendships on either side of the line and risk causing problems in those personal relationships by taking a decided stance.

A little while ago I posted a Cecilia Pavón story I had translated a few years ago, “Flourishing Peach II,” about a woman who illustrates covers in the young Chilean poetry scene.  Her husband is an important and serious critic; her best friend is the most experimental of the poets.  At the end the husband and friend confront each other.  Our narrator sees both sides and feels sort of trapped in the middle.  I liked the story as my initial response to this debate because it describes that middle ground for me: I am both a Masters student in literature, surrounded by academics and a certain need for seriousness, objectivity, and a critical eye in my approach to reading, as well as an “alt lit” writer, who truly believes in the tenets of the movement as I personally perceive them and oftentimes becomes disillusioned by the elite attitude of many other literature students.

These tenets of “alt lit” that I’m mentioning are important, especially as the critics of “quickshit” are attempting to delegitimize the entire movement, particularly on the point that it needs to label itself just to establish importance (see Daniel Bailey’s tumblr post on this, where he declares: “Basically fuck alt lit and the new sincerity. If you have to give a name to what you’re doing to validate it then it probably wasn’t that interesting to begin with,”).  This is a foolish assertion, because it ignores dozens of early twentieth century avant-garde movements and their manifestos that effectively “named” themselves.  Nobody would claim that the Italian Futurists or Brazilian Anthropophagists weren’t interesting or important.  Seeking to define your movement and approach to literature via providing an appropriate name doesn’t debase the importance of your movement; today it’s an attempt to find footing in a vast ocean of online literati launching criticisms, or rather, a means of establishing or identifying the grounds from which to respond to these attacks.

Regardless, I think “New Sincerity” as a term (although I may be wrong) is something that was put onto “alt lit” writers, not appropriated from its other uses by them, fairly recently in the HTMLGiant sphere, to start to understand and critically look at what is going on now in light of an already established movement.  A.D. Jameson has written great clarifications (see here & here) in his still-developing theories on the movement(s), but an important clarification is the fact that “New Sincerity” doesn’t necessarily mean authentic, real, or something that is “quickshit.”  He explains it:


I’ve seen many confuse the real life author’s “actual sincerity” with the artificial effects of sincerity. I have no interest in the former and every interest in the world in the latter.

To whit:

  1. When an author sits down to write, they may be very sincere about many things. For instance, they may sincerely want to make $1,000,000. This I don’t care about.
  2. There exist, in writing, at any given time and place, certain formal devices that feel “more sincere” (more directly communicative/more transparent /more genuine) than others. This is what interests me.

I’d like to contrast this with the point of view being offered by some “alt lit” writers in their responsa.  Walter Mackey’s “#QuickShit and #AltLit” essay grasps the increasingly heated term “#sincere” and compares the editorial process as something that strips sincerity away from writing.  He quotes his own tweet that says: “if your heart and soul is in your writing, then it shouldn’t take forever to produce.”  Steve Roggenbuck has briefly commented on this line (he promises a full essay soon) with a Bukowski quote that seems to affirm this idea that authentic writing, the writing that is worth the time to produce, is that which doesn’t require editing and simply spills out.

I tend to agree more with Jameson that the term “New Sincerity” in its intended use means the potentially artificial, or maybe better put, crafted tone of sincerity, as opposed to genuine authorial intimacy or proximity to reality.  The bridge between what was initially known as “New Sincerity” and the writing of the “alt lit” movement has been fingered as Tao Lin.  But it is the style he uses to write his works that make it feel “sincere,” not the extent to which they are autobiographical or not.

This is why many people get frustrated at similar writers, such as Spencer Madsen, for having perfected an apathetic tone that they feel doesn’t match up to the writer’s real life attitude.  It doesn’t matter if Spencer Madsen is incredibly fulfilled or not: he has achieved a style of language that presents itself as sincere, and may thus purport any feigned depression he’d like and it doesn’t strip his work from the potential of being labeled “New Sincerity.” (I don’t care to search for [I went ahead and searched for it] the anonymous blogger who commented that they were a good friend of Spencer’s in high school and ranted that he lies in all his poems – but anybody who remembers that incidence knows that it accentuates this point).

“New Sincerity” aside, I have come to prefer the term “alt lit” because, as childish as it may sound at times – especially when written out L† LI or other variants, I think it is emblematic of the most essential characteristic of this movement.  It is an alternative to the traditional publishing process.  Steve Roggenbuck touched on the benefits and implications of this a year and a half ago in his essay “Raising Poetry to the Level of Internet Culture.”  Putting aside the fact that it also approaches alternative content and language use in its works (a feature that is common to most avant-garde poetry movements in the last hundred years), the resistance to the traditional outlets of submission, review, editing, waiting a year and then publishing with a formal contract/distribution deal is what defines the movement.


The effect is positive in that writers have more control over their works, freedom to release as they please, ability to self-promote and also choose the channels best fit for their writing: a general liberty to craft their own “brand.”  Nonetheless, we cannot be surprised that this degree of freedom will always opens the floodgates to lots of lower quality work, regretful publications, and a general diarrhea of new poetry that floods our social networks. 

The Question:

Is Quickshit good or bad?

Honest answer:

Much of it is good (or has the potential to be good), but a fairly large chunk of it is awful.

Still, the freedom that has allowed its emergence is more important than any concept of quality control.  I think many of the strong (and emotionally charged) reactions to this debate have overlooked the good critique being delineated simply because it is disguised in a pompous tone.

“alt lit” writers should be seeing this as a call to arms to start to harness their power better, sort of like I mentioned earlier in the example of found poetry.  I don’t think reviewing, editing, and harnessing are inauthentic or bad. Actually many of the most successful “alt lit” writers engage in these processes.  Roggenbuck has mentioned numerous times the influences of advertising on his poetry and promotion.  I recently chuckled when I translated his poem “Somewhere In The Bottom Of the Rain” to Spanish, because I used the printed version in Crunk Juice [p. 58 of the pdf, released 29 Feb, 2012] to make the translation, then played the earlier youtube video of him reading the poem for Up [uploaded 30 Dec, 2011], and then realized he had cut out a few paragraphs between the two versions.  For all the misspellings and accused “carelessness,” Steve does review his poems, editing and achieving a desired effect and brand. [I have just now stumbled upon an even earlier version of a portion of the poem under a separate title, implying possible the synthesis of various pieces of writing over a six month period: ie, not “quickshit.”]

The group of critics who stand against “alt lit” is not likely to appreciate many of the responses, given that it has already labeled the movement illegitimate and unworthy.  It has most definitely assumed a snobby tone, and reads with an air of Raymond Picard and other French literary critics panicking in the face of structuralism and the “New critique.”  The world is rapidly changing.  To deny that this change has an effect on what we write and how we write it is ignorant.  Internet, cell phones, wi-fi: all of the conditions of modern technology have made simultaneity a reality; hence we can no longer imagine being ‘turned off.’  Our writing will obviously reflect that attitude, the tendency towards immediacy, the ability to post and share without much reflection first.

We have consistently seen elitist critics of new movements look foolish in hindsight, because literature is an ever-adapting concept that will invariably change as society does too.

My musings are not directed to that group, but rather, stand much more for the in between crowd, that probably (just as I do) wants to defend “alt lit” but cannot reconcile that defense with some of the truth behind the critique.  I think we need to overlook the asinine tone that the critique has taken on, as well as avoid an extreme posture of refusing to engage in editing, reviewing, or crafting a brand.

Language is often imprecise, or insufficient.  It often takes time and effort to achieve the right language to express what we truly feel.  Not all “quickshit” has the raw emotion in it to constitute a worthy spilling out like what Bukowski calls for.  Sometimes energetically consumed bursts (or “boosts”) create beauty.  Oftentimes, they create foolishness.  While “quickshit” can only exist in the “alt lit” framework (the traditional editorial process implies re-writing or editing the initial production, as well as the intervention of players other than the writer in the production process), “alt lit” itself should stand more firmly on the quality that truly covers all grounds of what we consider “alt lit” (which is undeniably more than just the “quickshit”).

The essential quality of “alt lit” is its esteem of alternative publishing methods.  It does not mean that edited work is inauthentic, but rather, that the writer has the freedom to edit their own work as they wish, publish when they want, and then re-edit and republish later if they also please.  As more critiques of “alt lit” develop, this is the indispensable quality I feel we must defend.

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    the engl101 teacher inside of me responds: walter mackey’s essay ‘#QuickShit and #AltLit’ was published via habitat on...
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    Eh…sort of over simplifies the argument… Dionysian vs Apollonian Aesthetics vs Narrative Art vs Work - A rather...
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