the first unedited section of my non-fiction book about current lit movements like Misery Tourism and ExPat Press
“You’re a poet, rejection is your middle name.”
The poet and teacher Bob Bensen had said this during one of his workshop sessions when I had expressed my distaste for submitting and risking getting shut down. It was the kind of workshop where you brought a poem to read, people sitting around a table critiqued it, and you weren’t permitted to respond, since that would sully the message that you were trying to open yourself to when you read. In 2019, I had joined the poetry workshop, which met at the Bright Hill Center in the artsy town of Treadwell, NY. My purpose was to refine my skill as a poet and to build up the courage to start submitting poems for publication, something I had never done.
I had written several crime novels for fun and gathered some poems I had written since I’d gotten divorced in 2010. Right after the divorce, I was living with my parents and needing something to do to cut through the loneliness, so I went on a whim to an open mic night at the Bright Hill Center and psyched myself up to read a poem I had written in front of the crowd. The applause I got after reading (I have heard this is a quite common occurrence) was like the first hit of a narcotic, flooding me with euphoria and confidence and setting me on a course to replicate that first high.
I had always resented and thought impossible the world of publication, fretted over getting rejected, and doubted myself.
Another attendee of Bob Bensen’s poetry workshop, Cicada Musselman, approached me after one session and suggested we meet periodically to work on getting published. Cicada was an organic farmer living in an intentional community and a fearless person who made things happen. She was from Colorado and had been part of a hippy collective there that taught and practiced poetry as a theoretical activity. She stated that she wanted to dive into the punishing, bruising world of submitting poems and getting rejected. She said she wanted to rack up rejections, paying dues.
Cicada and I started meeting in a coffeehouse in Walton NY, sifting through the listings on the Poets & Writers website, making lists of places to submit, trying to feel out where our poems belonged. It was and is a bewildering world; it seemed a common thing to feel lost at sea with no lighthouses.
I had my first acceptance at a place called Azure with a poem called “Hablu l-Waridi (The Jugular Vein)” and it was another triumphant feeling because this poem had gotten a good reaction when I’d read it at open mic nights in Treadwell. I then had another acceptance, this time at Maudlin House, with a poem about my inklings of the afterlife, a favorite topic of mine. Maudlin House, I was later to learn, was quite a major outlet in the biosphere of online lit on a certain scale. Like the multilayered canopies of the jungle, online lit mags exist in clusters and arrangements which for better or worse have a hierarchy. There is little to orient one’s self in this wilderness, even with the maps provided by the websites like Poets & Writers Cicada and I looked through. I struggled to understand the otherworldly terrain of online lit mags, until I hit on a solution: reading other writers’ biographies.
Most lit mags, ether online or not, ask for biographies to publish along with your work, where you list your previous publications and awards. This is handy for finding new places to send your work, for, if you like a writer’s work and feel it has some affinity with your own, it makes sense to find where this person has had success in the past, and try your luck there. It is akin (but somewhat less egregious) to drafting off of other bicyclists in the Tour de France, of which more later.
One crucial aspect of the biography is the contact information. Authors list how they can be contacted. This seemed like a formidable wall to climb, for even if I liked a writer, I couldn’t imagine ever sending them an email to say so. Everybody with even a rudimentary list of publications was like an intimidating celebrity to me. I wondered if I would ever be on the same cruise ship with those writers, talking, drinking, exchanging points of view like I imagined writers had in generations past. I saw that many writers gave their Twitter and Instagram handles. I had faintly heard about the practically essential requirement of using social media to network with other writers, but I always shied away from doing that. Until I remembered that I had a defunct, derelict Twitter account.
I had gotten it in 2011 at the behest of a long distance girlfriend I was trying to align with. Soraya was an Egyptian-American living in St. Louis, Missouri, and I had met her online as she was in Cairo during the Arab Spring Revolution that happened there. She often talked about how the revolutionaries in their struggle to shrug off the government of Hosni Mubarak utilized social media to organize and communicate. Before long I had gotten a Twitter account and was using it to get news about the political ferment and journalistic coverage of the Middle East. I also found myself slipping into what was called at the time “weird Twitter,” a zone where people tweeted quippy observations and bizarre, almost Dadaist works of quasi-performance art.
I found myself getting addicted to the well-known timesuck of Twitter, constantly checking for updates and buzz. Then, after it got to be too much, I shut it down and tried to return to a more moderate online existence with Facebook. Soraya and I broke up and I did the mundane Facebook thing for a while, until I started to have a yearning to show my writing and comics to other people. I published chapters of novels and poems, drawings and comics, and people on Facebook liked them, but it never seemed to catch on in the blazing way I’d hoped.
But then after getting published in 2019 I started inferring through their bios how people were conducting themselves in the new realm of social media. I remembered my Twitter account and started it up again.
A lot of the older accounts I’d followed had gone out of circulation in the eight years since I’d left it alone. The news accounts were still there, pumping out horrors. I didn’t follow Trump but it didn’t matter since he got retweeted left and right like Thulsa Doom, the snake-cult leader reaping heads all across the countryside in Conan the Barbarian. It was hard to avoid.
Harder to suss out was the world of publishing online that Twitter allows pathways into. I was new to that so I couldn’t really use my imagination beyond finding obvious places to follow like the places that had published me and larger out-of-reach outfits with legitimacy like ___________. I tried to crack the poetry puzzle for a while but that seemed daunting as I was getting rejected and the Twitter elixir seemed to be no help. I was getting snared up in not knowing where the peg of my poetry fit in the board of publications on offer.
I had written several crime/mystery novels and had quite a few works in progress in that genre so I started thinking about publishing those, almost as a joke I was playing on myself. As a break from poetry, I started an investigation into the crime fiction field and started learning about the landscape. It was just as daunting as the world of poetry but perhaps more condensed as genres are apt to be. I started learning the names of some heavy hitters in crime fiction and where they were getting published. I began to read the output of some of those denizens and was simultaneously impressed, intimidated, and at times emboldened because I thought I could write at least as good as they could, if not better. I started submitting and got rejected as was foretold by all the oracles that meet you when you begin on such a path. I wasn’t gritty enough, I didn’t have the mastery of the tropes and standards of crime writing. If you write about crime, you inevitably write about the police, and I had intuited from my few mystery novels that slipping up in describing the way police operate was a sure-fire way to get laughed out of existence. The police detectives in my novels were rough approximations from those I’d seen in movies and read about in my limited exposure to crime novels. It may as well have been sci-fi or fantasy for all the resemblance to the real world these sleuths had. Realism seems to be crucial in this genre, and I had a hard time acquiring the lineaments of realism.
But I had some pretty good plots. I wanted to write crime novels that would speed along and be entertaining. Fun, cinematic stories that might make you forget about the grit and procedural veracity that was missing.
I wasn’t getting crime stories published, or if I was, they were pretty slight. I was getting a few more poems published but I didn’t have the ambition to really press my case. I was nibbling at the edges of the Twitter poetry food web. I tried #pitmad, which is an event on Twitter that creeps up every now and again like a lunar eclipse where people can try their luck at pitching their novels and finding an agent. Like many writers on Twitter, I sensed that I needed an agent in the worst way. I pitched my two crime novels, Wind Chill and Wet Up, trying to learn the ins and outs of refining a pitch while in the midst of the whirlwind.
Wind Chill is a murder mystery set in a ski resort town in the Catskills where I am from. A local gigolo is eking out an existence fucking older, lonely women and getting by until a series of events happens which leads to one of his clientele being murdered. It looks like he’s the perpetrator, but he isn’t: a classic frame-up. A powerful blizzard hits the town, and in the aftermath a quirky detective from the nearby city (aren’t all detectives quirky?) arrives to investigate the murder. Guess what he finds just below the surface of the town: a layer of seething sexual and criminal activity. Original, eh? I tried to make it so. I pitched it and got a bite not from an agent but from a publisher looking for sensationalistic crime novels, CamCat Books. I jumped through many hoops to follow the form of submitting to the publisher, and after a few days of fretting, they rejected me; it was clear I didn’t know what I was doing with queries, synopses, and the unfortunate realities of laying out the strategy for how to market a book. I also suspect the sexual content of the book was not to their liking.
I was dejected but not surprised.
I caught wind that a publisher of crime fiction from the UK called Close to the Bone was opening the sluice to potential crime novels for publication. I summoned up the courage to try again and submitted my short novel Wet Up to them. I was feeling more encouraged as Close to the Bone was more gritty than CamCat and perhaps edgier. They seemed to publish pulpier, smaller books aimed at a certain type of audience, and Wet Up, being a novel about a man hiring a hitman to kill his ex-wife’s new husband, might have fit that better. Also, a writer named Stephen J. Golds, a prolific crime novelist who was on his way up in the world at the time, and still may be, vouched for me with the editor of Close to the Bone, Craig Douglas. After a short period of time, around January 1st, 2021, I got the news that Close to the Bone wanted to publish Wet Up in 2022. I was blown away and accepted the contract. I didn’t have any illusions that the novel would be a runaway hit and make tons of money, but it was a book deal and I had been seeking this in some form since I was a little kid dreaming of being a writer.
Close to the Bone had announced a slate of other writers who had gotten accepted for publication around the same time. Books would be coming out throughout the months ahead. Close to the Bone puts out crime novels as well as poetry books, so a roster of crime writers and poets was put together. In the beginning of 2021, I went about the business of introducing myself to the other people in the club, including JB Stevens, Max Thrax, and Gabriel Hart. I sensed that it would be a good move to familiarize myself with other writers who would be in the same boat as me.
Most of them had achieved a higher level of success than I had in the crime fiction world. They were getting published in places like Bristol Noir, Shotgun Honey, Pulp Modern, A Rock and a Hard Place, all storied and substantial players in the field. They had connections. I was a new kid on the block with a short crime novel that I believed in. But I didn’t have a lot of hustle and know-how necessary in order to connect.
If crime fiction on Twitter was arcane, the post-genre world I was about to enter by comparison would be downright Byzantine and hermetic, because there was no clear pathway in. Crime fiction, even at its most unpredictable, had at the very least, a type of content: some character committed a wrong against society. The personae of crime fiction, the authorship, obeyed certain norms: suspense, thriller, noir, grit, good guys and bad guys.
I was soon to learn that alt-lit and outsider authors, for the most part, flee from norms: the wrong against society is *in the form as well as the content.* This literature, which makes much crime fiction look like Blue’s Clues, is charged with anarchic energy and attitude and “transgression,” a much-debated word which nags at the discussion. The danger might be coming from inside the house. Transgressive literature is at times tainted with accusations from the left of being crypto fascist, sexist, hateful, the literature of incels and secret Nazi types. These provocations may exist deep down; I have gotten vibrations of them through the strands of the web but I have never yet come face to face with the spider.
One curious aspect of social media’s effect on literature is that the authors across the board are themselves like characters playing out a story on the screen, and the swarm of authors playing roles seems to be much larger and more multifarious than the grouping of authors on the 20th century bookshelves of my hometown library. It’s difficult to keep track of. A flattening has occurred, where formerly only those who passed through the gate kept by the higher echelons of publishing would be seen. This new literature I encountered in 2021 is punk in the sense that anybody “who can play two chords” can do it, except the chords in this case are: do you have the ability to submit things in a quick and dirty way? and do you have the raw sensibility necessary to break through old forms, a sensibility that veers to the nihilistic?
There are no sharp distinctions between genres in this amorphous world of life-as-fiction-adjacent. Also, literature in this world often has a genre-resistant, autobiographical inflection. Genre, to my current way of seeing it, is where you are injected into the bloodstream; alt-lit is where you pass the blood-brain barrier.
Note on Parameters and Scope:
A crucial point of understanding for this entire book is that in order to survive in online lit environments, one must pay attention to who everybody is. Where they’re coming from, what they write, are they editors. Where in the biosphere do they make their nests. What are their allegiances, what flags do they wave, what clan are they a part of, do the clans overlap. Online personalities are notoriously slippery and while everybody on Twitter more or less has a home page and a bio, there is a constant feeling that everybody is drifting away on conveyor belts, conversations are disappearing down the scroll, effort is needed in order to stay current on pertinent events and doings. It’s like this all over social media, anybody online knows this, but even more so when you have a particular yearning to be included in the conversation. Life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop and look around you could miss it. Time erodes sandcastles of text, and text (mostly) is how individuals mark their position. It’s a game, and keeping current on all the players requires a level of managing info and comprehending often deliberately obscure, disintegrating utterances. Twitter is a place where clarity and concision flies away like butterflies, in spite of the notoriously narrow character-space allowed for tweets. Some people get lost and don’t want you to find them. What happened even months ago must be unearthed, digital archaeological ruins must be deciphered. Those who left the artifacts behind had no care to be understood in history. The archaeologist remains firmly outside the clique of the dead.
Like the game Concentration, forming a list of relevant authors requires a test of memory. The combined output of Misery Tourism and ExPat Press, the two lit outlets I will focus on, would take an army of readers and critics to summarize and put into context. Attempts at completeness are futile. Both publications emit a steady stream of daily stories, poems, non-fiction-like pieces, novel excerpts—fields of content that stretch out backwards into recent history like monuments receding to a vanishing point in the rear view mirror during a cemetery drive, the cemetery being larger than Cavalry Cemetery in Queens. ExPat Press’ website features a contributor’s page by which some outline or shape of who has been published there, and where ExPat Press has been, can be inferred; Misery Tourism truly vanishes into the digital mist, and the pool of contributors can seem ghostly and anonymous. Both publications are like daily newspapers delivered to, funnily enough, expatriates living in a foreign city, except instead of a geographical point on a map perhaps in a war zone, this city is one behind enemy lines in a struggle over what current literature is.
This study is not meant to be an exhaustive catalogue of all the writers who have been published at these two sites and other associated publications. Nor could it be an analysis necessarily of the most important writers and influencers in this scene, as I am still an arriviste less than one year in and cannot readily judge that. Besides, the ones behind the games of thrones and behind the history may not wish to be known: real G’s move in silence like lasagna. Figures who have been around the scene longer than I have, when the real ferment took place, will tell you who the leading lights are—if you can locate them to talk to. This is a subjective history, not a secret one.
Jake Blackwood—a lurking figure who I saw a few times when in spring 2021 I started going to Misery Loves Company, the weekly zoom reading series sponsored and organized by Misery Tourism, and who followed me on Twitter later—tweeted out a meme in 2021 showing the famous “tip of the iceberg” image with all the insider conspiracies of this alt-lit community etched as the inky depths increased: unschooled people could only see the surface veneer. This is like the Rosetta Stone of a certain section of alt-lit as it existed back in the foggy distance of 2021, evidence that a long-gone civilization existed and the world has moved on since then, giving up only the faintest traces of occult knowledge to those not in the know in the present moment, the present writer definitely included.
Another crucial point is that lacking a sense of humor is fatal to understanding this community. Twitter is a huge, moving jousting tourney for amateur comedians, and whole bustling neighborhoods of Twitter are off-limits to those who can’t take, or even comprehend, a joke. Those who lack the tastebuds are shown the invisible door. The Weird Twitter of 2011 spawned a variant so potent that anybody looking at it today must adapt, or die. This is true, even in the deadly serious arena of online literature: who makes it, who curates it, who critiques it, who consumes it, and—most earth-shaking of all—WHO IGNORES IT. “No one can read it all,” is the motto of our time, and whole literary careers online are distinguished by the oblivion of having zero readers.