Alt-Lit’s Jeremiad Against the Novel

Alt-Lit’s Jeremiad Against the Novel

Alt-Lit’s Jeremiad Against the Novel

Where Sean Thor Conroe’s Fuccboi fits in recent literary history.


Various people in my life have asked me what Sean Thor Conroe’s Fuccboi is about; in most cases I’ve said, “It’s about a fuckboy,” and reckoned I’d said enough. Conroe’s debut novel is billed as a study of young masculinity: Sean, our narrator, is a low-paid delivery worker who cycles the streets of Philadelphia while working on a book about a cross-country trek, negotiating relationships with unhappy “baes,” and trying not to bottom out, financially or narcotically. He staves off the grind of life with Adderall, psilocybin, and pot. More unusually, however, he becomes bedridden and then hospitalized by a painful skin disease—it seems like severe eczema, but if a more precise diagnosis is given, either I missed it or he did—from which he gradually recovers and begins working on a novel within this novel, which is also titled Fuccboi and represents, or is supposed to, a triumph over adversity.

Fuccboi (the published book) was one of the final projects championed by the late Giancarlo DiTrapano, publisher of Tyrant Books and hierophant of the American alt-lit scene. From his mentorship came the likes of Marie Calloway (what purpose did i serve in your life?, 2013), Megan Boyle (Liveblog, 2018), and Nico Walker (Cherry, 2018): rebarbative writers who fictionalized their own lives, viscerally, with few airs. Conroe’s protagonist, like theirs, is presumably himself, and his secret villain, like theirs, is “literature,” which in its contemporary mainstream form—as Sean tells a man he meets at a bus stop—is “insulated, masturbatory bullshit completely irrelevant to the culture.” Sean defines “culture” as what comes from below, emerging from the mouths and minds of “people who don’t read,” who don’t “give a shit about books” or stupefy themselves by enrolling in “MFA programs.” (Conroe himself, it must be said, is studying for an MFA at Columbia.)

“Alt-lit” isn’t quite how Conroe’s book is being marketed (his publisher, Little, Brown, says he has an “utterly original idiom”), and for a literary historian in the archives of the 2000s, it might be a half-useful tag at best. While “alt-lit” was a convenient way to describe a group of novelists, poets, and writers who trafficked in alienation and Tumblr and gossip, it didn’t name a coherent program that all those writers shared. DiTrapano might have agreed: He told Dazed in 2014 that “I don’t feel associated with the alt-lit scene…. grouping individuals into a ‘school’ has always felt insulting to me.” While no one enjoys being pigeonholed, alt-lit is so self-referential that its works have certain family resemblances, of which Fuccboi displays a few: a relentless first-person voice; a diaristic chronology; a proliferation of slang and shorthand; and single-paragraph sentences such as “Too fkng cringe, bro,” “Unreal,” and “Yeesh.” (In his acknowledgements, Conroe thanks DiTrapano “for encouraging me to write how I talk.”) To pick a representative passage:

This Wawa was the belly of the beast.

Blown af.

A fkng shitshow.

I held the door open for a trio of yelling drunk girls: one wobbling and crying, eyeshadow streaking down her face; the other two stabilizing her.

I turned to see where they went.

Into an awaiting Uber.

I let the door go.

A series of drawn-out monologues and digressions, like the above, stand in for a structured plot, and the mainlining (or “railing”) of junk food and drugs is the motor behind Sean’s life. (Alt-lit is, above all, materialistic, whether the writers live large or are down-and-out.)

Fuccboi was, at one point, subtitled “A Novel,” as is Nico Walker’s Cherry, which DiTrapano helped bring to fruition and which sounds like a forebear of Fuccboi’s flattened tone. For both books, the status of fiction is a declaration of belief: Tidy plot arcs are unlike real life, where things happen in sequence endlessly. This, plus the borrowed vernacular, plus the concision, gives their narrators the ring of raconteurs. By having that ring, alt-lit can justify its tendency to sprawl: Who deserves to say what’s unimportant, what matters more, what should be cut? You can read this as a mischievous gloss on American literary history: We start with Whitman, the capaciousness of whose songs signalled his democratic heart, and we end with Megan Boyle’s Liveblog, which is 550 pages of smoothies, masturbation, and heroin.

Fuccboi, which contains its own recipe for juice, has the same maximalist approach. The novel isn’t a product of discrimination or hierarchy; it can be full of garbage as well as glamour, because (again) so is life. “This is not going to be interesting,” Boyle wrote at the top of her 168-day diary, because what you (or “the culture”) call “interesting” is a set of choices, and they’re probably middle-of-the-road. Liveblog could have continued for another 100 days, or 1,000, just as Conroe could describe 1,000 more bike rides, burgers, trips, or smokes. Profligacy is radical: All experience is genuine, and therefore meaningful, and therefore must be listened to.

You can mark the progress of Fuccboi by Sean’s relation to two groups: his hookups (nameless) and his idols (named). As he drifts from one “bae” to the next—“ex, editor, side, autonomous, roomie”—it seems as though “ex” left the greatest mark, though he may be missing Winnie, their cat. All the women are anonymized to stress their connection to Sean, which makes them an ensemble of shadows that he can first objectify, then feel conflicted about. The gag is clear by the time we meet “dermatologist bae,” who’s “so pretty…. Skin immaculate. Hair so straight, like she straightened it.” She might balk at being called a “bae,” given her only contact with Sean outside the hospital is a telephone conversation, but no matter—her medical advice is enough to set his mind on its single track:

Sounding so sultry, so sexy on the phone.

Like she’d just gotten home from a long day giving out orders, healing the masses. Had poured herself a, say…I don’t know…Merlot? Had taken off her dress, kicked off her stilettos—

Wait. What am I saying. She a doctor.

OK whatever. Taken off her …smock?

Look she was taking off her clothes for me! how she sounded.

She advises him to bathe in bleach.

Conroe is bent on dopey humor: Sean’s exaggerated pauses cue up his single-word gags, which echo through the line breaks with theatricality. He trades with light self-deprecation on the gulf between serious and casual registers, as in his description of World War I—“homies getting merked, left and right”—or his way of paraphrasing the US military’s stance on threats from North Korea: “Bro you make one fkng move we blowing this bitch.” By inflating the discrepancies, he’s trying to expose machismo as merely a vacuous routine. But in alt-lit, everything is an object, even the people, and the comic potential of objectification is obviously fraught. Any comedian could tell you this: Say what you like about yourself—burrito addict, apparent leper, fuckboy extraordinaire—but if you turn another person into a smock with sexy legs, it’s not enough to claim that the joke is actually on you.

As for the idols, meanwhile, they tend to remind Sean of himself. He believes fanatically in the “scene,” using “alt-lit” as a serious and laudable term, and he (or Conroe, if you like) is anxious to get Fuccboi into the gang. So not only does Sean read and reread Philadelphia (2017) by the poet Gina Myers—“Every time,” he marvels, “I felt I was about to spazz out”—but he reproduces and analyzes her work over several pages, in the most banally approving way. He does the same with the rapper Lil Peep, explaining “the subtlety of [Peep’s] subversion” as if he were in front of a lecture hall. He even reproduces an admiring e-mail from the writer Sheila Heti, who really did send it to Conroe and may in turn have read Sean’s verdict—“Sheila to me was Jesus”—before she gave Fuccboi a positive blurb.

A few of Fuccboi’s progenitors, Liveblog and Cherry in particular, shouldn’t be overlooked. They were provocations, attempts to throw formal grenades into the conformist literary world—this is how experience should be represented, they declared, and didn’t stop for a response. If fiction had to depict something, it could be made not elegant, but accurate. It’s why these novelists, from Tao Lin to Megan Boyle, litter their work with detritus like G-chat logs, to-do lists, and nudes. Conroe is equally sure that novels can’t be controlled and neatened things. He sits in his van; he “merks” lots of coffee; he starts writing Fuccboi; his typewriter breaks; he hunts for a pen; he resumes scribbling—all the while telling us exactly what he writes. (“A Fuccboi chapter,” he adds, “meant saying everything.”)

But this transcriptive approach, in the end, has made alt-lit a project of disdain. It’s emotionally inert, like verbal Xanax, and few of its writers have developed a style, as opposed to an affect, because that would force them to prune their sentences and decide what to intimate, rather than state. Such judgments might seem traditional, or at least not countercultural enough—the stuff Sean ascribes to the “mainstream-ass mag”—yet in truth they’d involve the opposite: doubt and openness. Being nonabrasive, even sincere, might be useful for understanding why many of us like some of the stuff that Sean calls “irrelevant,” and with which he refuses to engage. The politics of alt-lit, in practice, were always conservative, as cliques tend to become, however radical they think they are. DiTrapano himself once said in an interview: “I don’t see anything wrong with something that is self-involved. Whatever ‘self’ it is, it’s a human self that others will relate to, since they are also selves.” This belief may be reassuring, but it’s reactionary as well: Groups that bond over “relating” love to self-perpetuate and self-mythologize.

Fuccboi, then, may represent the last fumes of alt-lit as a genre: its clubbish stylistic tics, its hatred of “mainstream” writing, its contempt for the novel as a form. Fiction is a medium, not an intercom; it is in its nature to complicate, tease, obscure. But when Scott McClanahan, one of Conroe’s peers, says Fuccboi “sounds like no one I know,” it’s not because Conroe is “utterly original” but because the rage of his book seems rote. Self-involvement, in the end, tends toward sterility: No good politics can develop from dealing only with yourself. Fuccboi mistakes narcissism for introspection, as so many alt-lit failures have before. Long before this novel is over, it’s reached a stylistic and moral dead end.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy