Savior, Antichrist or Irrelevant? An Interview With Jack Serge
When I was alone sometime in 2006, I looked through the screen of my computer at a strange constellation of writers sharing ideas through blogger comments and facebook posts and online zines and saw a kind of beauty in their collective efforts. I sensed the shape of a group of people connected to one another through online networks and irl literary events and there was really nothing to call this ‘thing’. In 2011, someone created the term 'Alt Lit’ and to me that seemed an appropriate name to the group I had been observing and trying to participate in for the past 10 years.
Since 2011 the term 'Alt Lit’ has increased dramatically in use. Query it on google trends, or twitter, or tumblr tags or within facebook search and you’ll find hundreds of references. It has a wikipedia page, it has self proclaimed writers, it has a torrent of haters and it has this site.
Everything seemed great until in 2012 something strange started happening. Alt LIt began to develop a need to 'define itself within itself’. Anything defined is essentially dead, and quickly a host of writers began to emerge demanding attention out of Alt Lit in the name of Alt Lit with the express purpose of subverting Alt Lit towards their own ends.
I don’t think Alt Lit is a 'thing’ so much as it is a party of ideas and experimentation of writers of all walks. I think the less it is talked about the better it is, the more the focus is on the writing and the literature and the sharing, the better.
Athens is burning, America can drone-kill anyone they desire, the mayor of Toronto is supposedly a crack head, but the story we’re focusing on today is Jack Serge, a writer who has seemingly stumbled into the Alt Lit community in 2013 with a highly controversial stance that exemplifies this new trend of egocentrism in alt lit.
Jack Serge wants to change everything.
“I am aiming to never relent, just keeping on Doing my Do and Being my Be. I am Jack Serge.”
Sitting in a Nevada airport watching a blurry haze quiver off the tarmac, upon booting up my macbook I noticed a name appear increasingly throughout the Alt LIt Gossip (Spread), a facebook feed with an average of 50-100 comments per posting. The name 'Jack Serge’ popped up over and over again, linked and macro’d and commented upon.
I spent the next few days trying to piece together just who Jack Serge was and what was going on.
The first piece I came upon was a link from the website “Alt Crit” a kind of schizophrenic-anarchist version of this site.
The piece made claims about Jack Serge being bigger than Tao Lin, being a saviour of Alt LIt etc, etc. I was generally confused by the content as it seemed to have no sourcing or contextual background. The only telling section of the post was this:
Upon inspection, Jack Serge is reminiscent of Andrea Coates. Both are demanding of attention and use seemingly random capitalizations throughout their writing. Both are seemingly famous before the fame.
To extend the comparison, Serge and Coates each have less than three independently, non-self published pieces of fiction/poetry available on the internet. Both of them are antagonistic to current trends in alt lit, and both are self-proclaimed geniuses.
I sat down with Jack Serge to try and find out a bit more about his aims/who he was. Below is our conversation. Hopefully it serves as a way to better understand. By times endearing and others frustrating, Jack Serge is nothing short of insightful.
Here is our discussion.
Frank Hinton: Who is Jack Serge? What was your impetus for pseudonymity?
Jack Serge: People assume it is a pseudonym well maybe it’s not the Exact name on my passport but add a hyphen and a name and it’s me. People who I know irl could find me here, or deduce it was me, if they wanted. I think Jack Serge is me being me <doing my do>, maybe for the first time in my life.
FH: That’s good. I think the weird thing about certain online anonymous personalities is that there is a genuine authenticity the mask brings out.
Do you consider yourself a writer? On message boards you talk a lot about your brand. What kind of 'brand’ are you trying to cultivate? Why is a brand important to writers?
JS: I think that is true, Frank. Conversely, some of the most contrived brands in the Community <in my analytical stance> have been from people who use their real names <or certainly appear to be doing so>.
Yes, I am a writer. But I talk of having many threats. Writer, content producer, brand consultant. I think my BRand is one that is all about Empowering Honesty in a POSitive Motion. I think that I have something credible and artistic to say; certainly my inbox of personal messages seems to concur, if not some of the reaction in the COmmunity. Conflict is something I have learnt to manage. It boils down to this: as upbeat as I am, as full of hope, if you come after me it’s probably not a great idea for you right now.
Brand is important as it is who you are: why demure? Why try to place yourself in the market without a usp? Let people love you and get to know your work, be honest: as a writer you want your work to be read.
FH: So what are some of your goals, both individually and within the community?
JS: I would like to be Solicited for a chapbook, I am open to who can sell themselves to me in the most attractive way. My goals for the community? Put it this way, if people want me to be some kind of leader, I’m not sure… it’s been brought to my attention that there is a lot of resentment, a lot of factions <some of which might surprise people>. Will the community split? I can honestly see that happening. When a prominent establishment figure messaged me to say that they would ensure I would never be published by anyone it kind of felt to me like 'this is a community that needs some kind of timeout or do-over’. Luckily, Stephen M-McDowell reached out and he put together the Mammal PRoject, which was a huge success in terms of hits and also the feedback I received.
I think the community has benefitted from my arrival: certain activity be it re-launching a brand off the back of 'hating Jack Serge’ or feeling compelled by my heat to try something new has given them a boost. So even if it doesn’t feel good to hear it, I’m glad to be creating a cause for people.
FH:The traditional path to publishing has been that of submitting your work to a series of publishers and taking the acceptances and rejections as they come. Even with the exponential development of online journals and litmags, the submission process has remained relatively unchanged. Some people wait years before being solicited if ever. Why do you want to invert that process?
JS: For me, the process is somewhat archAIc. Here I am, producing content, a complete brand. Approach me, talk to me, let’s figure out how this can work for both of us. Okay so that’s what I’m saying on one hand. On the other hand I worry, Frank; I worry that certain publications are an absolute closed door to anyone new. Not everyone is ready with a fully birthed brand. I have on average maybe 15-17 conversations going at one time, maybe 75-85% of those will state a similar concern. It’s difficult.
FH:It’s sterling confidence. It seems to me though, writing is more about your work than you in the beginning (not your writing, but all writing in general). When I started writing in 2003, it was deeply frustrating to have noone noticing me and I racked up maybe forty rejections before getting accepted. Even then it was small. Now, in 2013 I feel like, maybe three steps ahead but any success I have I attribute to my struggle physically writing. Do you worry you’re going to put people off by demanding solicitation?
JS: Frank, I admire your work and respect your product journey. I am all about work ethic, I guess I’m just trying embolden a kind of fusion approach whereby the time is split 80-20 <writing-promotion> instead of 99-1 (writing-promotion>. Is this to the detriment of my content? I don’t believe so, but in other words - only time will tell. I don’t worry with the reactions of others; I can’t control them. When I was a junior at high school I was punched in the mouth by a rival ten minutes before going on stage for a battle of the bands. My band came second and I couldn’t stop crying for maybe a half hour. I guess for me the only thing that matters is the end result.
FH:So let’s talk about your style. Talk about some of the things you use. What is the story behind your intentional capitalizations/isolated prefixes…
JS:I guess the capitalizations just come out of a sense that every word <like every breath> is vital in it’s own way. I used to read a lot of Chaucer and it was remarkable to me how loose his English was <you could also site CuMMings here for me>. WHy accept the rules that you have not set, especially when this causes trauma potentially? I think Andrea Coates is a great writer, and a great exponent of this stance.
FH: What is your take on the alt lit scene?
JS: We are in the Third Phase of Alt Lilt. Phase one was Tao’s Age; but there will be a time, approaching very soon <if it hasn’t happened already> that someone will join ALG-Spread having never heard of him. They will join because of Steve <Phase two>, but the reality of the situation is that Steve has vacated the community, he exists on his own as a self contained BRand (which he’ll know is due for renewal). His position has not been filled, and the community is rudderless. For me, the biggest difference between Phase one and Phase threE is that Phase one had a supporting product list that was SERiously talented and serious over their ARt. Is that the case now? I don’t know.
I think the Community works perhaps in the same way as a movie franchise or Tv Franchise; cast members will graduate, go in different directions, leave, some seasons will be iconic, some seasons will be less so, some cast members will stick around way too long, some former cast members will disappear completely. We need a Bold New Direction.
I guess like SNL, it’s a training ground. That’s how I SEe it.
I do think that Pop Serial is perhaps the most damaging thing in the Community right now.
FH: I think my views on alt lit/ the make-up and nature of the community may differ from yours. I feel a kinship with a lot of the writers and I enjoy reading a lot of things, big and small, shared on the spread/tumblr. I think I’m addicted to online literature in general, before 'alt lit’.
Who would you say are the key voices in alt lit at the moment?
What is it about Pop Serial that is damaging?
JS: I don’t think there are 'key voices’ at the moment <Ref. Phase Three> but that is not to say that there are not talented artists in and around the scene; Moon Temple <potentially the first female Leader>, Stephen M-McDowell. Richard Chiem is very talented but I do not think he is Alt Lilt (you could make a case for him being Alt Lilt Phase One.
The same could be said for you, German, and maybe some others, Heiko Julien
Pop Serial does not accept submissions and this comes across in mostly negative ways: the content is tired, it is off putting to most in the community, the brand is toxic <via knowing, smug, promotional stratagems>.
But yet it appears above critique for the most part. Why?
I think the person who runs Pop Serial is very fortunate to have an HistORical connection to Steve.
FH: You mentioned earlier that the traditional submission-acceptance process is archaic… What are some methods you feel publishers should use instead?
JS: It’s a teaser and I’m Not Sure I have all of the answers on this. Sure you want your work to be jUDged fairly and on merit but at the same time here am I talking about a Brand Based Reality Concept. I guess a mixture of the two somehow. But unlike Clarissa, I do not have all the answers right now.
FH: It’s something of a contradiction though. You’re demanding to be an author who is solicited without submitting but critical of Pop Serial for being a solicitation-only press. How does that work?
JS: To an extent or degree I can see your QUandry with my response. Let me enhance it: Open Solicitations. Pop Serial is a closed solicitation process <making a swarth of PEople very disillusioned right now>.
FH: Ok I see what you’re saying… If publishers switched to solicitation-based would it make things more equitable?
Also, can you talk about some things you’re working on right now? Writing/projects?
JS: I have just finished a piece of Video Content and have 5-7 SHort Stories in the Editing Suite. I think I am ready to begin final work on my Long Manuscript, it has been two years in the making and tells an autobiographical story holistically and with a sense of Other that some haters might find astounding.
FH:Can you talk a bit about your background in real life? School? Growing up? What is your past?
Also, can you explain a bit about the thing that went on in April… I was away and don’t have a full picture of what happened re: Jack Serge/Tenets of Alt Lit thing..
JS: For sure; my background is kind of international schools, moved around a lot. I guess I’m used to jet planes but in some ways it disconnected me from a grounding in normalcy. I think it is why I have something URgent to say that resonates with people even if they’re not a hundred per% sure how or why.
The April Situation was maybe when Jack Serge first came into the public consciousness. I rallied against certain anti-Alt Lilt attitudes and made a comment that the CommUnity was built on certain tenets; this kind of went Viral and all of a sudden the word was out. The Tenets of Alt Lilt.
I had a lot of support <privately and publically> butit was my first encounter with negativity
since high school. high school was a turbulent time for me.
I guess any time someone is remarkable or brilliant, there will be a period where the Confusion of others Manifests as Anger.
An essay was put together, placing me alongside Megan Boyle as the Defining Voice in Alt Lilt and where the scene was going. I felt happy but it made a lot of people very angry.
A prominent member of the community messaged me post-Tenets and said:
'You took a lot of heat for that I guess. But idk, what you said made so much sense to me or something’
If you would like to solicit Jack Serge for a piece he can be found here.
When I was a junior at high school I was punched in the mouth by a rival ten minutes before going on stage for a battle of the bands. My band came second and I couldn’t stop crying for maybe a half hour.
Stop playing yourself and start paying attention. Check your head out and make sure to pay tax on your dreams because that stuff is not free. I know I can hardly believe it either: Jack Serge is back. Ah yes I remember it seems like only yesterday that Jack Serge returned to the Internet. Of course this is a lie. It was two day ago.
Jack Serge showed up in a stretch limo pulled by sixteen wild stallions. Out of the limo came Jack Serge wearing a crown for he has been kinged in the game of checkers that is branding. To the expectant crowded of imported Bulgarians, imported all the way from Yellowknife, Canada he proclaimed “Now it is official: I am a literal motherfucker. I am going to be a dad.” Everyone in the crowd cheered in order to get the twenty dollar Amazon gift card they were promised. I was there because a twenty dollar Amazon gift card would increase my yearly income substantially.
For a while Jack Serge explained what his contributed to the award-winning hit anthology “2 Fast 2 Furious” would mean for the world of literature. Heads were not ready Jack Serge told the audience about how the “2 Fast 2 Furious” anthology was going to change literature forever, finally incorporating car chases as an important thing. Everybody loves seeing a car chase, Jack Serge yelled to the audience, so why not have it as an important part of literature. People nodded their heads and watched as Jack Serge walked into the Subway restaurant so he could eat fresh, fresh as fuck.
Yes the Internet is full of Jack Serge haters. They make a living off of their Jack Serge hate, collect dividend and pay taxes on those Jack Serge hate dividends, at least that’s how it works in the United States, the grand old US of A the red white and blue. Like the colors of freedom, Jack Serge does not run. Jack Serge is a dog so he moves quickly like a dog looking for a new bone to chew.
Literature has yearned for a savior like Jack Serge. Jack Serge will save us all but only if you let him into your heart. A few people lock their hearts, that’s understandable. People steal hearts to sell them on the black market. Illegal organ sales are not pretty things. If anybody deserves a heart it is Jack Serge, the sort of dog who got gold stars in Kindergarten with the greatest of ease. Thank goodness for Jack Serge. Hopefully no one will ever jack his style.
As I’m not involved in much alt lit Facebook, which seems to be where most of the buzz surrounding Jack Serge originated, most of what I know about him comes from reading Frank Hinton’s interview. One thing that particularly struck me in that interview was the notion of three “phases” of alt lit, at least thus far.
This is an idea that I’ll probably sound ridiculous saying I’d already been thinking about before Serge came out and said it, but I’ll say so anyway, just as “full disclosure” regardless of whether anyone believes me (don’t feel obligated). To be fair, I think most people picked up on at least two distinct phases of alt lit, the first dominated by Tao Lin and the second by Steve Roggenbuck. Tao’s phase was defined by the defining tropes of Tao Lin’s work - “sincere” negativity and/or affectlessness, diary-style minimalism - at least in what I’ve read of the work from it, which is mostly by the other perceived “leaders”. Serge, on the other hand, gives credit to more obscure people who were active during this period, like Kendra Grant Malone, some of whom seem to have been doing quite different things. I can’t really comment on that.
Steve’s phase, too, was defined by the defining tropes of his work - “boosting”, positivity, and formal experimentation with web-based techniques like macros, plus an increasing surrealism in the writing (while Serge’s example of KGM points to that having been present in Tao’s era too, it seems to have become more “mainstream”). The “Third Phase” is trickier. I wouldn’t go so far as Jack Serge as to outright say we’re already in it - we seem to be transitioning. Whether or not Steve is now a “self-contained brand”, itself a debateable assertion, a lot of major writers still seem to be working within a largely Steve-defined set of tropes. On the other hand alternatives are emerging. I think we’re less likely to have one phase “end” outright and be automatically replaced by another phase, which must then grow into something recognizable in a vacuum, as we are to have phases grow inside each other (Steve himself worked comfortably in the context of the Tao phase for a while) and be replaced perceptibly only once the new phase is fully grown and recognizable.
I also think the phases aren’t entirely random/defined by “leaders”, who are created by the circumstances of the phases as much as anything. There seems to be a logical sequence of development occurring within alt lit, connected to its role as a revival of sincerity/a reaction to postmodern disengagement and emptiness. This sequence might be described in Roggenbuckian terms as an “upward spiral”. In phase one, Lin’s disinterested, diary-style writing method enabled sad young people who had been rendered incapable of “sincere” self-expression by the weight of postmodern self-awareness/the emptiness of capitalist consumer society/“not having anything to express” to express themselves sincerely. This slowly made them, and/or at least people around them who faced similar experiences, happier. This happiness created the second phase, Steve’s phase, in which happiness and a sense of personal meaning could be expressed sincerely and actively promoted.
In this light, I think it is also possible to project the development of the third phase, which has already started, despite not yet having replaced the second completely. The happiness and sense of meaning further increased by the second phase will give alt lit the confidence to round out certain dimensions of itself as a literary movement that had previously been neglected in the interests of enabling the sincerity that made “happiness” possible. For instance, it will develop a healthy self-awareness, as opposed to the crippling self-consciousness it escaped, and a capacity for self-criticism. That much is evident in this blog itself, in the increasing popularity of critics within the movement like Coates and Serge, in people like Meta Knight’s ability to question the movement’s reliance on/worship of the internet (does anyone remember the macros I’m thinking about, they seem to have disappeared?)
At the same time, it will become more aware of, and deliberate in, its relationship with the “outside world”, even IRL. Rather than simply their own sadness and happiness, I see the “third phase” of alt lit being the one in which writers start to directly tackle the world around them, the world that they had to react to with alt lit in the first place. Andrea Coates is very much focused on this, as is Meta Knight in his untitled sequence of a hundred poems. This doesn’t necessarily just mean being political - it could also mean an attempt to be more “universal”, as opposed to focusing exclusively on the feelings of alienated (but often privileged) millennials. To run the full gamut of human experience and subjectivity, as opposed to solely the depressive “affectlessness” and assertive “positivity” most relevant to the central psychic conflict of this demographic. (Stephen Michael McDowell’s work, which deliberately strikes a balance between the emotional tenors of the two phases, seems like a part of this.*) This is also related to the first key change I mentioned. A great deal of the new “self-awareness” and self-criticism within alt lit seems to be focused on how alt lit relates to outside issues, as seen in the now-frequent “social justice” discussions on Alt Crit and alt lit Facebook.
While Jack Serge defines the Third Phase thus far by “rudderlessness”, I’d argue that it currently has nothing but rudders. Insomuch as it currently exists, it consists of people like Coates, Meta Knight, Serge and Ian Aleksander Adams and co. who are, with varying degrees of intent, steering second-phase alt lit in a new direction, or at least being steered by its unspoken psychic currents in a new direction and dragging other people along with them. Serge’s self-awareness in observing these phases of alt lit itself makes him very much part, and a “rudder”, of the emerging third phase.
The third phase is at least the first step towards alt lit fulfilling its unspoken purpose - the purpose that was crucial to its emergence as a movement, and which has the potential to define it not just as an internet fad but, like Jack Serge seems to think, as a development within a larger literary canon. Alt lit was created as an “alternative” to something in the world at the moment - an emptiness, an insincerity, a lack of meaning and a culture/system that forced that on us. At first the “alternative” was isolated and insular, a protective bubble on the internet in which people could recover and “boost” each other and become strong. Now that alt lit writers are - increasingly - “boosted”, they can take the fight to the world and the culture they had to separate from. They can fight on behalf of underprivileged groups, people worse off in that world than they are. They can present an alternative to the current cultural paradigm that it will have to respond to or be subsumed by. They can stand alongside everyone else who has discovered this and say, “we don’t have to consume endlessly to be happy. We can create. We can boost each other. Life is beautiful.” And not just say outright, like in the second phase, but with self-aware, well-crafted, high-level, widely affecting content, prove it.
So bring on the content, Jack Serge. And you don’t have to worry about rudders - we can find our way.
*Edit to include newer relevant content, obviously