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Canada's alt lit poster boy gets real

Are all popular books inferior and what exactly counts as alt lit these days? Guillaume Morissette clears things up

For anyone kicking around the alt lit blogs, Guillaume Morissette’s is a name that will sound familiar. In addition to co-editing the blog Alt Lit Gossip with the omnipresent, also-Canadian anonym Frank Hinton, Guillaume published his debut novel, New Tab, last month. Beyond his clear-headed reflection on the contemporary twenty-to-thirtysomething’s lifestyle, though, he feels representative of a broader trend in the literary community in general: from Alice Munro’s Nobel win to the success of independent sites like Metazen (also c/o Frank Hinton), Canadian literature seems to be having a moment.

We talked to Guillaume about the formation (or not) of a Canadian literary identity, ‘the mainstream’, alienation and, as always, the Internet.

Given Canada’s proximity to America, the culture of which overbears on countries that don't share borders with it and low population density, it probably would have been quite difficult to assess/generate a Canadian literary voice before the Internet, right?

Guillaume Morissette: As far as I can tell, Canada has always struggled with its literary identity, which has traditionally been overshadowed by American or British literature. Margaret Atwood’s argument in Survival is that Canadian literature is a literature of victims. If you look at very early Canadian literature written by pioneers, a lot of it is stuff like, ‘This land is incredibly hostile to us, and our lives are bleak, and I am really not sure why we moved here from Europe.’

There’s also Quebec, which seems like this massive cultural anomaly — does its influence span the broader Canadian literary perspective? 

Guillaume Morissette: My situation is weird in that I am originally Francophone, but I write in English. In practice, this means I get to feel like an alien from both Francophone and Anglophone cultures. Unless my novel ends up getting translated into French or something, I am doomed to mostly be ignored by French Canadian culture, but that’s a choice I made, so I am okay with it.

I can see that – I live in Berlin, and since I’m not writing in German, I’m mostly engaging with a small English-speaking expat community and the more significant online literary community. The latter kind of feels like one giant (possibly problematically homogenizing) culture you can dip into as you please.

Guillaume Morissette: In the collective imagination, many people’s idea of Berlin is probably a kind of German Montreal, which seems good. Montreal is a little special in that there are literary communities in both English and French, with not that much crossover. The two literary scenes sometimes seem almost unaware of one another, which is either funny or really depressing, I can’t tell.

“My audience is honestly whatever I can get away with...I definitely feel more kinship with Internet people than with Canadian writers, just because Internet people’s sensibilities seem closer to mine” – Guillaume Morisette

Do you feel like your primary (or desired) readers are Canadian, or do you aim for a more international audience?

Guillaume Morissette: My audience is honestly whatever I can get away with, I think. In general, I definitely feel more kinship with Internet people than with Canadian writers, just because Internet people’s sensibilities seem closer to mine. But for New Tab, I decided to sign with Vehicule, which is a Canadian press, because it made sense to play both fields – to maintain an Internet audience but also exist as a Canadian literary something.

What I think we’re starting to see with younger writers, and this probably applies to much more than Canada, is that there’s resentment at how books are covered and treated compared to other mediums. I think younger writers are just as interested in being covered by blogs as they are in getting reviewed by a traditional outlet for books, like a newspaper. They want to be part of that flow, for their thing to appear as part of ‘what’s cool’ next to a music video or a video game review or some other thing. We’re starting to see some writers adopt a ‘visual’ identity online to complement their ‘written’ identities, because it’s easier for visual stuff to go medium-ly viral. This allows them to participate more in the ecosystem of blogs, etc.

This desire to ‘go viral’ or ‘be part of “what’s cool”’ contradicts something you said earlier in our conversation, though: you mentioned something about [Toronto-based Sheila Heti’s 2010 novel] How Should a Person Be? being a ‘rare’ example of a book that's both popular and worth reading – Do you really think most popular books aren't ‘worth reading’? And surely ‘worth reading’ differs from ‘good’?

Guillaume Morissette: I guess you’re right – implying that popular books are ‘inferior’ or ‘not worth reading’ was probably harsh. For the record, I am okay with anyone reading anything, in that I feel like, as a reader, you’ll inevitably end up projecting yourself into whatever it is you’re reading, which will get you to think about your current problems and stuff and maybe find inspiration or solutions for them by reading about someone else’s internal agony with being a human being. In that sense, reading anything is good.

I don't want to make too simplistic a claim about alt lit – what it is or isn't, but I guess now I have to ask the requisite ‘What is alt lit? Do you consider yourself part of the movement?’ questions. Because you hear similar things from people like Dennis Cooper, Scott McClanahan, Noah Cicero, etc – that the masses blindly follow ‘popular’ writing that isn't actually good.

Guillaume Morissette: Alt lit has always seemed to me like more of a community than a movement, but now the term has been used so much and in such a ubiquitous way that it’s starting to feel like the term will outlive the community, which is exciting. In the long term, I feel like ‘alt lit’ might become synonymous with ‘early Internet literature’, which is, not implausibly, a class I could be teaching twenty years from now. What I liked about alt lit at first was that it operated differently from other literary communities. Traditional literary communities seemed, to me, like walled gardens a little, difficult to infiltrate, while alt lit was just like, ‘Here I am. I started a Tumblr.’ I still want alt lit to be that, I think. In that sense – in terms of accessibility – I feel like I want everyone and everything to be considered ‘alt lit’, without distinctions of who is and who isn’t.

That’s fair. I would say Sheila Heti is experimental/alternative and hyper-subjective, both of which are qualities of ‘alt lit’, but stylistically she's much more narrative in a ‘mainstream’ way. She plays on traditional narrative modes rather than on, say, Internetspeak/cultural modes.

Guillaume Morissette: I feel like what I meant was probably more that Sheila’s book is both popular and has a ton of artistic merit, which is a difficult combination to pull off. In terms of literature, or any in medium really, that’s probably the Holy Grail, I guess.

I think her success is related to alt lit becoming more ‘mainstream,’ though. Like maybe she (and people like Miranda July, Dave Eggers, etc) primed readers for that particular subjective/narrative/tonal style, so now people like Mira Gonzalez sound more familiar to readers than they would have if they had been working in some kind of traditionalist vacuum.

Guillaume Morissette: It’s been really cool to see people progress over time and reach bigger audiences with their books and publications. It’s surreal to see stuff like an article in the New Yorker about the Yolo Pages or Miranda July tweeting about Mira Gonzalez’s book. Mira in particular really emerged through the alt lit community – it sometimes feels like she’s some sort of sad cyborg programmed by the alt lit scene to unleash precarious life decisions onto the masses.