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Reading About Other People's Lives

An Interview with TAO LIN

Photography by Akasha Rabut

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

By Nathan C. Martin

Earlier drafts of Tao Lin’s new novella, Shoplifting From American Apparel, included an additional 5,000 words at the beginning and end. Lin says that his favorite parts of the finished book are the first few pages and the last two lines, because he can read them over and over without getting bored. There is nothing at the beginning of the story that really resembles a beginning — no problem set up to resolve, no map laid out for readers to follow — and all that announces the book’s end is an abrupt absence of sentences. It’s as if he wrote a long series of chronological events, considered the appropriate word count for a novella (he wrote Shoplifting as part of a series), found some lines he liked in the right places and made two neat snips.

Such truncation might prove problematic if the book existed as an isolated object, but Lin’s printed works are parts of a larger whole. His deft use of Web 2.0 and knack for online publicity stunts has made him the closest thing the lit world has to an Internet celebrity. Shoplifting is an autobiographical book — it follows two years in the life of a young writer, Sam, who eeks out a living in New York among vegan restaurants, awkward relationships and a cult following — but when the novella starts and abruptly ends, one can simply visit  Lin’s blog, Twitter feed or the slew of email interviews that populate the 1.2 million results from searching his name on Google. Lin’s books mesh with these peripheral elements with striking synchronicity. The mundane autobiography, simple language and inside jokes of Shoplifting, in particular, make an easy transition for eyes accustomed to scanning the blogosphere. But to consider his books anything besides the efforts of a serious literary artist is a mistake.

Along with Shoplifting From American Apparel, Tao Lin, 26, is the author of a story-collection, Bed, and a novel, EEEEE EEE EEEE, published simultaneously by Melville House in 2007, as well as two poetry collections: Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (2008) and You Are A Little Bit Happier Than I Am (2006). Two of his e-books (one poetry and one collected stories), are available online at Bear Parade. His second novel, Richard Yates, will be released by Melville House in spring 2010.

I spoke with Lin earlier this month on a sidewalk near Washington Square Park in New York, and once again over the phone from Chicago.

Stop Smiling: You’ve said that your target demographic includes hipsters, happy but sensitive teenagers, depressed vegans, Europeans and college students. Does it strike you as odd when other types of people — say, literary critics or editors of magazines — are attracted to your writing?

Tao Lin: No. The way I write, I feel, is within the tradition of what literary critics in every mainstream publication would approve of. But because of other factors, like how often I do things that appear really stupid on the Internet, those people get a sense of who I am and probably associate that with my writing before reading it, or even while reading it, which puts them off. But I feel that all the stupid things I do on the Internet will naturally attract a certain demographic — the one I named. So, by targeting those people, I’ll just maximize how many books I sell.

SS: Is it frustrating when people don’t take you seriously as a fiction writer because of the more outrageous things you do on the Internet?

TL: I think it may have bothered me for a short time in the beginning, but now I feel like it makes it even better for people who read the writing and see that it’s something like, for example, what Lorrie Moore might write. If they like it, I feel like they’ll like it even more if there’s a group of people who don’t like it for reasons that are outside of the writing. It makes it more special to the people who do like it.

SS: There are a lot of writers who have a persona — where people can have an idea of the real-life author in their head while they’re reading — but you’ve created a sort of literary Internet persona, which is something I don’t think most people are used to. Do you think about this at all, the Tao Lin Persona?

TL: I think about it constantly, but I don’t feel I have control over it. But I do try to control it, a lot. It’s just that, one day to the next day, I’ll think different things. And I’ll do stuff that makes the previous day’s work on my persona not seem like it makes sense.  One day I’ll think that to help my persona I need to sell a bunch of stupid things on eBay, and then I’ll feel really good about that, like I’m headed in a direction where my persona will become more clear to everyone. But then the next week I’ll think that I’ve ruined my persona by exposing too much of myself.  Then for a week I won’t do anything, and I’ll think, “This is good. I’m becoming more mysterious.” So I just don’t have a set plan overall. And that has become my plan, I think, in terms of my persona — to just do whatever I feel like, and through that to seem … not like a complex human being, but just a normal human being who’s not a character with set attributes.


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