Tao Lin Has a Neutral Facial Expression

You’re reading this on the Internet, so you may know about Tao Lin.

Born in 1983, Tao Lin is part of the first generation of writers to understand the Internet from its inception and evolve with it. His writing is of the Internet in a way that hasn’t been seen before to this extent. Much of his writing is composed of transcriptions of Gmail or AIM chats — in fact, he started his own publishing imprint, MuuMuu House, that specializes in publishing other people’s Gmail chats. His longer works are rife with emails and texts. His writing has the feel that its been scanned over more than a few times by Microsoft Word’s find-and-replace function. It’s literature that must be contextualized within the blink-and-you’ve-missed-it world of blogs, tweets, and memes. Whether this is merely a reflection of the modern environment or a calculated attempt at relevance is what makes Lin a locus of debate.

In September, Tao Lin released his fifth book, Shoplifting From American Apparel, and in the press cycle that followed, the response was as expected: some critics hailed Lin as an important voice from a new generation, while others dismissed him as a gimmick. Lin was often compared to Bret Easton Ellis, Joy Williams, Raymond Carver, and others of the so-called Kmart Realism school. These authors are now well-respected, but Kmart Realism still carries the pejorative weight that it did when Tom Wolfe first coined the dismissive term. The most frequent criticism of Lin echoed those levied at the Kmart realists: Shoplifting From American Apparel is too saturated with up-to-the-minute cultural references to have any lasting weight. Bookslut wrote that “here the ephemeral retains primacy over the durable… [Sam, the book’s protagonist] and his friends connect through commercial culture, not history. They share the saleable and trendy, and not the ancestral or traditional.”

It’s true that Shoplifting From American Apparel is filled with ephemeral references that may be incomprehensible to all but Lin’s target audience. Allusions to the shifting landscape of Internet mainstays are delivered with a wink — Flickr vs. Photobucket, Facebook vs. MySpace, Vice TV vs. YouTube. And while these distinctions could quickly become outdated, their inclusion is not only acceptable but necessary for Lin to reach an audience acutely attuned to such Internet-centric references.

The Bookslut review complained that “Lin as a writer seems to be secondary to Lin as a microcelebrity artman,” and that his writing is merely a “vehicle for his performance art and self promotion.” This is meant as criticism, but Lin the writer and Lin the celebrity are so conflated that one cannot be considered without the other. His fiction and his self-promotion are so closely connected that the relationship between them is one of the most interesting aspects of his art. Shoplifting From American Apparel has to be considered in relation to Lin’s media persona, which is inseparable from the cultural moment in which he is writing.

During an interview with Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger, Lin said that “Shoplifting is like memory as the first draft, and then I edited it into the novella.”In Shoplifting From American Apparel, Sam serves as a stand-in for Lin; it’s necessary for readers to supplement the intentionally sparse information given in the book with details from the public persona Lin has cultivated. Keeping that in mind, a purely text-based critique of his work seems absurd; a more interesting and productive approach is to consider his autobiographical fiction in the context of the public persona he cultivates online.

Two Parts Hustle, Five Parts Gimmick

Controversy about Lin is indicative of an anxiety about this generation of writers and how they will interact with the New Media. Lin’s Internet presence first became remarkable in 2007, when his first two books were published. Since then, the list of his Internet-based publicity stunts has continued to grow. Some of these are worth only a brief mention. He sold the rights to have Gmail chat sessions with him while he took various drugs — prospective buyers had a choice between Adderal, Methodone, and several less interesting, more legal options. He auctioned his old Moleskines and some art, but nobody took him up on it. He offered a free copy of his book to anyone who wrote 1,500 or more words about him.

Some of his stunts are more noteworthy, like his selling his MySpace page for an impressive $8,100. There is an is-he-or-isn’t-he debate about Carles, the notorious blogger behind the Hipster Runoff site. Most signs point to Carles and Lin being one and the same, as they both write in the same postironic, scare-quote-ridden style that the site’s commenters seem to find contagious. If Lin is Carles, though, he’s good at keeping quiet about it.

Lin created a minor spectacle in the publishing world by selling shares of his yet-to-be-written second novel. For $2,000 apiece, six investors received a contract ensuring them of ten percent of the book’s royalties. The New York Times‘ Freakonomics blog wondered, “If the novel were invented today, would they all use Lin’s startup model?” During an interview with BBC Radio 2, Lin was asked a similar question, and he responded, “I don’t think it will work for other people.” And he’s right. The model is unique to Lin because it is inseparable from his artistic statement.

The Globe and Mail‘s review of Shoplifting From American Apparel said that critics tend to think of Lin’s model as “two parts hustle, five parts gimmick”. Most criticism about him tends toward these two extremes, either making the (largely true) point that his gags are more annoying than brilliant or extrapolating from his publicity stunts a model for the entire industry. Serious consideration of artistic intent is left out of the discussion entirely.

Considering all the attention paid to the democratization inherent in the New Media, its strange how conservative the process of publicizing oneself has been until Lin. In interviews, which he often conducts as online chats, Lin has often said that he uses the Internet because it’s the only form of publicity he feels is “artistically acceptable.” Indeed, Lin’s use of New Media to highlight its alarming prevalence in our lives can be considered a form of art that hasn’t been fully defined yet. The potential usefulness of MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter for artists has been written about ad nauseum, but what Lin has hit upon is how these forms make publicity artistically viable. It takes ingenuity on the part of the artist to go beyond creating a MySpace account or video meme.

In a fiasco involving Lin and the hipster-venerated Gawker, he annoyed the site’s editors via email until they wrote about him. And then they wrote about how annoying he was, which earned 16,000 hits for Gawker and that much more name recognition for Lin. This sort of thing leaves the strange impression of being both childish and groundbreaking. Who would do such a thing? And why hasn’t anyone else thought of doing it?

This is what is often overlooked when considering Lin: it’s not the content of his publicity tactics that is remarkable, but his use of the internet itself. The fact that he held an eBay auction for a piece of online real estate (his MySpace page) made popular through another piece of online real estate (his blog) is a comment on the way we now communicate. He was able to make a substantial amount of real currency by manipulating avenues that don’t tangibly exist. Forget that the Gmail chats he publishes can be inane or self-consciously quirky. His presentation of these digital transcripts as art calls into question our own communications in these formats and whether these media make them inane or valuable (or both) as well.

Lin’s system of stunts has allowed him to create an online persona that is as carefully planned out and executed as his novels, that is, in effect, a novel itself. Lin is divisive because he is currently more effective at manipulating online media in all its facets than anyone else. It may be that he is remembered for this as much as for his fiction. It’s telling that when asked during an interview with New Hampshire Public Radio whether or not his books will be remembered, there was a rare lapse in Lin’s standard monotone delivery. He laughed and said, “I really don’t care.”