by Karl Wenclas
If there’d been a long gap between his parents’ disgrace and his own sudden emergence on the literary scene, one could speculate that their behavior had no influence on Tao Lin. Yet the SEC filed charges against Jui-Teng Lin and Yuchin Lin in 2002. A judgment was issued in 2005.
2005 was the year in which Tao Lin decided he would become a fashionable writer, and more, conquer the established literary world.
Or: It’s impossible to ignore the documented fact that Tao Lin’s parents were large-scale con artists, and had been so for a number of years, while the identity and personality of Tao Lin were forming.
If not a con artist himself exactly, Tao Lin did arrive on the literary scene with the skills of a salesman– with a knowledge of how this Barnum-and-Bailey society operates far beyond that of his peers.
Tao knew that “literature” was a small part of the package. That what was honored as art was merely the necessary reason-for-being which enabled the accompanying machine; the games parties maneuvers machinations egos media backslapping backstabbing activity which remains the established literary scene today.
To Tao Lin, making the sale mattered. The product to be sold was not his writing, but himself. (His writing was HIM; all of him, his feelings and poses poured onto the page.)
You’d have to go back to Tama Janowitz in the 1980’s for a writer who made such a total presentation of self, in which all pieces of the package worked together: look, location, attitude; the consciously hip writing an expression of the larger package. The product. Tao created a Tao Lin “brand” founded on his sense of style and the vagueness of his “judge nothing; know nothing” ideas. His poetry and fiction could appear superficial to outsiders. But to those entranced by the presentation, it could also appear profound.
Tao Lin combined a vulnerable appearance with online vulnerability. Others could rage and rant in online discussions. Tao kept a “Who, me?” perpetually innocent calm.
In his n+1 essay on Tao Lin, Frank Guan speculates that Tao’s Asianness kept him “marginal” in the literary world. Perhaps– but it’s also possible that this aspect of his difference from the white Brooklyn hipster crowd helped him stand out– was one more attribute that made him unique; made him chic. Any drawback stemming from his otherness was more than balanced by his appearance– that he looked the part of a hip young writer, as an Ed Champion assuredly did not.
Do you want DIY? Tao Lin affected to be DIY. Do you want edginess? Tao had more than enough edginess, given his widely announced shoplifting travails and heroin use. (That he demonstrably had no character was, from a strict sales angle, beside the point.)
When Tao first appeared, the clubby literary world was worried about how to handle the “true menace” (per Tom Bissell) of the literary rebels of the Underground Literary Alliance. Tao Lin and his alt lit acolytes provided a safe alternative. They gave the stance of rebellion without actually rebelling against anything– least of all against the status quo publishing system. Their entire focus, with themselves and their art, wasn’t on society, but the self. The gaze ever inward.
Tao Lin’s short stories and “novels” are unexceptional, not outside the accepted established stream of literary writing. They give a fuller presentation perhaps of the narrator’s feelings and consciousness than the standard literary story– which to many observers had become solipsistic enough! The personal– the self– was the world.
In Tao Lin’s writing the world was Tao Lin. The writing strengthened the reader’s/consumer’s identification with the Tao Lin brand.
Through the title of a novel like Shoplifting from American Apparel, Tao reminded his audience that in this hyperpostmodern age, the brand was what mattered. For his media-saturated hipster audience, who’d been bombarded with brands from Day One, this was appropriate.
Tao Lin offered himself as a James Dean “Rebel Without a Cause” character: caring and confused, eternally young and sensitively attuned to the harshness of the outside world. “Escape with me into my cocoon,” his writing said to his fans. “Escape from the world.”
That American literature had been at its best when it confronted the outside world was a truth the alt lit crowd ignored.
But the writing was only one part of the game. Marketing manuals tell you that for a new business, marketing should be 90% of the effort. “Establish the brand.” Tao Lin hypermarketed. At the same time in his words and photographs he never seemed to sweat. (Again, unlike a trying-too-hard Ed Champion.)
Tao put an amazing amount of energy into establishing an online presence. One encountered the name and persona at every turn, in every forum. People were forced to ask, as I did, “Who is Tao Lin?”
The short, easily recognizable yet unique name was an important part of Tao Lin’s success at establishing the brand.
Nine years into the campaign, with Random House contract in hand, with widespread exposure in trendy Insider literary organs like The Believer and n+1: What happened?
The personal matters are for others to discuss. That Tao Lin from the start was an amoral person, for whom there was no right or wrong– the perfect postmodernist– may not have been in the long run a career help.
What’s more certain is that his “art” has limited appeal. Even a literary reader can take only so much meandering obsession with self. The much larger general readership has shown its preference for pace, action, movement, and plot. Alt lit was never set up to appeal very far beyond the boundaries of its Brooklyn stronghold.
We at NEW POP LIT also have a simple message. A “brand.” We aim to be astute at marketing it. The hard truth is that in competing with sports, movies, music, and television, literature needs to be marketed.
But we also seek to operate with integrity, and we’re determined to appeal with our art and our ideas to the larger world. Therein lies the future of both the business and the art.
A special thank you to Brea Souders and canteenmag.com for the fetching portrait of Tao Lin.