Literary Criticism after Literature: Andrea Coates’ Throw the Tao Lin
January 20, 2012
Books aren’t selling well, and the result is a desperate and dark era for content merchants, the ones who have historically determined what qualifies as “literature.” They see themselves as going the way of switchboard operators, carriage chauffeurs, and all other redundant analog labor. They are desperate for a later-day Twain or Dickens, a man of the times who can come out of the digital world to harness its momentum and keep their factories running; someone who knows how to get the wealthy yet thrifty young demographics to buy their paper once again.
The first of these cybernetic heroes has emerged as Tao Lin, the mediocre minimalist whose shallow characters and banal plots resonate with the emptiness of hipster existence. Sure, his critical reception was a disaster, but he achieved that elusive type of success marketers religiously call “going viral,” a feat so potent it has proven literary criticism an artifact of less desperate times in publishing—a time when consumers not only wanted to buy new books, but they wanted good ones. Now that the time of the book and its critic, a time of meaningful and significant content is long gone, the tyranny of the shitty-but-marketable writer is upon us.
It is in this dystopic setting that Canadian writer Andrea Coates has mobilized a sprawling piece of criticism against Lin, a figure whose popularity is largely based on his ability to absorb and render obsolete all criticism, especially from the passé intellectual realm. Coates‘ critique is intellectual, for sure, but its strength is that she brings the fight to Lin’s terrain, The Internet, where experimentation in text, form, and taste run free, especially in terms of overhead. A scatterbrained polemic, she tries many avenues. She attacks his work, especially the dismal “Richard Yates.” She focuses on the man as he markets himself—the vegan, the libertine, the exploiter of young female talent. She says he is sexually repressed. She says he is boring. She says if he were any worse a writer, he would have to work in advertising. The attacks on Tao and what he represents take up more textual area and become more a focus than what he does with words. He, not is work, is the primary target.
Tao Lin is a Self Absorbed Guy, but he has internalized the Attitudes of those who keep the Cages: despite it’s Manifestation in his Literature, Tao Lin behaves, in his OnLine Identity, as if he is Completely unAware that the Theme of his Work is that our Consumer Identities are destroying us by keeping us Captive within them, unable to live our Lives as we ought to: Freely, Emotionally.
Our Consumer Identities trap us, use us, and destroy us: Capitalism raises us in a Cage of Consumerism wherein Every Action must be mediated by the Market. In the City, Capitalism feeds off us at Every Turn. It co-opts our ProFunDity as Beings by making us its Slaves and then convinces us, via School, Advertisement and Media, to replicate its Memes of Production in Order to perpetuate it, and so Tao does: Every Thing about Tao Lin screams: Capitalist Brand. The Truth is, it is him who has been branded, by Capitalism, and so now he is its Slave.
The essay appears self-aware of the Faustian bargain that is feeding the troll, criticizing that which eats criticism; opposing a power structure which only learns to be more successfully cruel from its opposition. Her method thus resorts to counter-position of ‘caged’ and ‘free’ prose. Coates presents herself as the alternate pole of her criticism: “Where Tao Lin is Caged/I am Wild,” she says, before the essay moves completely into the realm of self-promotion.
And while the form of her criticism achieves a mirror-like disruption of Lin’s shit-into-gold success machine, one can’t help but wonder if there is actually a way through the shitty game of paper-selling, or if by attacking Lin as a means to both further a polemic against the acceptance of late-capitalist ennui in literature and to further her own career. She too must play on the same freemarket field of self-promotion and websavy virus-baiting. She is a “Slave” as well, albeit a more colorful and rebellious one.
By and large, Coates will be successful for all the reasons she doesn’t want: the spectacle of controversy between players in the literary realm, the success of writing based on its novel form, the want for a new, sexy young literary popstar. For her, this last point may be the most self-defeating. We like Coates because she is an anarchist, she’s pretty, she cares about stuff, and yet she still seems fun! We begin to imagine that we will like her writing before we have even read it. Like Lin, she is engaged in a process of seducing us by creating a character of herself—one largely divorced from her work.
It was once true that “Lorca died and Hemmingway survived”, but what now that they’re both dead, and their literary field is someplace you can tour and visit monuments. While it is noble for Coates to throw in the towel on Tao Lin and his Kmart Realist prose, she needs to aim her throw a bit farther—against not just the man and his genre but against nostalgia for bygone eras when literature and its criticism were imagined to be socially relevant wholly outside of its existence within the marketplace. Most of all though, Coates needs to throw in the towel on authorship itself.
Instead of watching the video of her smoking weed and burning “Richard Yates“, watch this much better video of Coates reciting her work: