On Jan. 2, Tao Lin uploaded a home video titled “wedding | 27 nov 2010,” shot entirely on a handheld MacBook Pro, to his Vimeo account. The footage, most shot from a single angle, is of a large craggy clergyman filling out paperwork at a desk, unaware that he is being filmed by an embedded camera. Lasting an inordinate nine minutes, it ends in the parking lot of a Las Vegas wedding chapel. The video is pretty boring. As of last week, it has been watched 4, 141 times.
The footage was linked, as an addendum a few hours after publication, in the article “Tao Lin and Megan Boyle Get Married,” a scoop secured by Thought Catalog editor Brandon Scott Gorrell. Thought Catalog is a blog known, since its launch in 2010, for catchy memoir-style pieces by post-collegiate writers—28-year-old Lin was an early writer solicited by the site, brought in with other young-and-popular bloggers known for their established internet followings. Lin had recommended that Gorrell write for the site, and the latter had maintained close ties with his friend, who has, at that time and since, been a subject—but never darling—of the literary world.
His position as such is oft examined, usually in juxtaposition with his diffusive Internet presence—the apparatus seemingly responsible for his rise to avant-garde literary fame. Many critics, and fellow bloggers, ask “why?,” but perhaps the more pertinent line of inquiry is “how?”
A month after the announcement, Thought Catalog ran a piece by Lin called “How to Get Married in Las Vegas”:
“Be in your late 20s and idly alienated, living off a royalty check that’ll last two more months, when you meet an attractive girl in her mid 20s…”
Personal subject matter is par for the course with Lin, who tends to style both his existence and his work around full-frontal honesty. Case in point: one can also find Lin’s “Every Time I’ve Had Sex with Megan Boyle, Pt. 1 of ?,” or Boyle’s “Everyone I’ve Had Sex With” on the internet. Or in his fiction, large amounts of which are thinly-veiled roman a clef, where we read his Gchat conversations and emails.
In his Thought Catalog piece, Lin goes on to note that he and Boyle had an “earnest” discussion of whether or not to get married that “lasts fifty seconds.” They wonder if the marriage will be “good for our brands, as depressed writers.” Sincerity is always up for grabs in Lin’s life and writing—he forces the reader to wade through a tone that, while forthright, always remains vaguely ironic, a contradiction exasperated by his flat prose. It’s true that affect-light, low-brow mumblecore and minimalism can work for a while as an aesthetic, but eventually, the spectator and reader is left wanting for authenticity, either from the man or from his work.
This contradiction—opaque over-sharing—is inherent to the ire and fascination that Lin, and his work, inspire. You can know all the surface details of his characters and his life and still not quite get it. Did he actually have an “earnest” talk about his wedding for “fifty seconds”? Is he genuine with his public?
The wedding video is interesting precisely because the camera provides a rare opportunity for us to see the couple caught off guard, something that never quite happens on the page or the computer screen. In an attempt to make small talk, the undoubtedly genuine officiator exposes, as perhaps only a Midwesterner can, the ethereality of their “brand”—to these New Yorkers a lifestyle, to the outsider, a career:
“What do you guys do back there?”
Lin answers first, in his de facto mumbled delivery, but without pause, “writer.”
Then Boyle, “writers.”
Boyle speaks up, “Writers. We’re both writers.”
“Writers! ... ” His eyebrows shoot up.
“For some publication… Or…?”
THE PUBLISHING JEREMIAD
A peripheral Google search on the state of American publishing does not leave one wanting for information. The jeremiad goes something like this: people aren’t reading (and therefore aren’t buying books); or, if they are reading, they’re buying books from the evil booksellers’ industrial complex—die Amazon!; or they’re too stupid to read “difficult” books (the vampire industrial complex, anyone?). Or really, the problem is that there are more writers than there are readers, therefore hacks are flooding the market (and the internet) with slush fiction—die bloggers!
But despite everything always being worse than it once was, books are still written, published, and read, sometimes through the classic channels, and sometimes not. It will always be the case that beneath all this fear-mongering are stories of individual writers getting their work out there against the odds. Which brings us to another jeremiad altogether: the one angled at Tao Lin—the writer everyone loves to hate. Drawing conclusions about Lin’s merit, literary or otherwise, is not that interesting (and has been done: see The London Review of Books and Gawker, respectively).
What is fascinating is the story of a painfully awkward boy who, during his sophomore year at NYU, wrote a “100,100 word novel,” looked up the literary agents of all his favorite authors, and sent out his manuscript, only to be universally rejected. The nineteen-year-old kid that not only went on to publish one book a year, every year since graduating in 2005 with a degree in journalism (two books of poetry, a short-story collection, a novella, and two novels), but also scores of short stories, essays, poems, annotated drawings, and posts published on the internet. The young man who decided to be a full-time writer despite what the system, and its appropriate channels, told him. The writer that came to rely solely on the internet and creative posturing to supplement the attention, audience, and monetary support he failed to gain in the print medium.
This is the story behind the creation of a one-man public relations machine that allowed him the position he holds today, as a fairly recognizable internet personality and full-time writer that, as The Wall Street Journal announced in August, will be writing, six years after graduating from college, his third novel, his first for a major publishing house, for which he landed a $50,000 advance. It is a story of an anomaly of the publishing world, an example of a person who made it work in that vast landscape outside the system—that ambiguous space we all fall into after graduation.
It is, above all else, a tale of painfully loud ambition from a very shy person. This contradiction lends a certain narrative ambiguity: for all the action is filtered by cable, all intent hidden behind a stoic face. When I interviewed Lin in late August, he was polite, sweet even, though uncomfortable about being questioned, and rarely offered elaborate explanations. Both he and his wife, whom Lin suggested I interview, were genuine and open about their choices. But neither could speak to the sources of their ambition—in many ways they are, in real life, oddly disconnected from the people they appear to be online, in that they are normal and unassuming, their speech peppered with “likes” and “ums.”
It was a very different impression than the one I’d held since May—after my initial interaction with Lin—an impression of a sharp, advantageous businessman, one that is called to memory anytime I sift through his astounding, excursive internet presence.
PROSE AND TWITTERVERSE
I first ran into Lin, as one does, on the internet. Before that point, I knew only that he was an oft-hated, little read, potentially autistic, Asian-American writer that got famous on Gawker, that he had inspired a parody-profile of himself written in his style at The New York Observer, and that he wrote seemingly indecipherable tweets. I had not read his books, nor did I know what he was famous for exactly: only his name, his profession, and his questionable repute. For a writer whose books are printed in batches of roughly 3,000 (this is Tao’s estimate; Melville House, the small New York-based publisher that has handled his career up until recently, would specify only that each of his works has gone through reprintings, but no more than five per work), this would seem like a lot of information.
I was working at n+1 magazine. It was a job at which, for no apparent reason (read: errant intern), I started a Twitter account, @nplusinterns, “for” the magazine. I soon began spending the better part of each day tweeting at literary people, under the persona of a composite group of interns (“Good gossip is like Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns. We don’t even know what we want to know”). The umbrella of the parent organization helped bolster interest, and soon I had quite a few followers. In May, when New York Magazine ran the Wesley Yang cover story “Paper Tigers: What happens to all Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?,” I took to Twitter, asking why @tao_lin hadn’t been asked to write it.
This was a blatant, superficial ploy: Lin has over 6,500 followers on Twitter, mention of this question on his account would potentially blow up my own. But something else happened entirely, because Lin replied, in a seemingly spontaneous move, wondering if “we” wanted to create a Tao Lin intern Twitter account. Within an hour I was Tao Lin’s “intern.” Over the next few weeks, I gave out the password to other Columbia undergraduates and we tweeted anything we wanted, from jokes about spilling his lattes to blanket laments about our wasted youth. I did not meet Lin, nor did we communicate except for by the occasional message on Twitter.
My being a “fan” was markedly beside the point—the crux of Lin’s public relations know-how is the internalization of the maxim “all press is good press”—as was any altruism directed at him. It was quite the accident that I ended up adding yet another thread to the massive, storied tapestry that is the Tao Lin Media Machine. As I found out later, I wasn’t even the first. Lin has been “hiring” young “fans” to do everything from creating Tumblrs to stickering downtown Manhattan since 2007 (these Richard Yates stickers, the title of his second novel, became sort of iconic, and one can find them in café restrooms all over the city).
Tao Lin enjoys describing his undergraduate years at NYU as a time when, “I didn’t know anything about the literary world.” This statement would seem to refer to the mainstream publishing world’s unanimous rejection of his first attempt at a novel in 2003, as a second-semester sophomore. But despite this setback, Lin proved himself to be a savvy adaptor. He got rid of the novel and began writing 1,000 word short stories. Nineteen-year-old Lin was not particularly wedded to the idea of being a novelist, instead willing to be a “writer” in any form that would provide success. This decision would bring him his first success.
Junior year, he enrolled in writing classes and focused on submitting stories to small online magazines. Bit venues like Opium, known for their loyal bands of tight-knit commenters, began to publish his work. Lin started working on the pieces that would end up in Bed, his first short-story collection. In an e-mail after our interview, I asked Tao if he had received support from any writing professors in college. He responded with a telling quip, “I had writing teachers who encouraged me, but I decided to take the writing classes first.” This sentiment is typical of Lin’s creation myth and, it seems, not too far off the mark—his success has hinged on his own decision to be a writer, and a dogged commitment to that decision. The mainstay of his internet presence is the notion that if “I didn’t make an effort to be published or get covered by big places than no one would know about me.” If Tao is successful, it is not, in his mind, because of anyone else, and he might be right.
His decision to be a writer seems to have cemented during his senior year, in 2004, when Lin went into self-imposed isolation. He left the dorms and moved to New Jersey. He spent a lot of time alone, writing most days. It was during this time that he finished all the stories in Bed. He was also learning about “the literary world”: the summer after he graduated, Lin gave the publishing world another chance. “I sent emails to agents of writers I liked. Two wanted to represent me. One of them was Curtis Sittenfeld’s agent. In retrospect, I should have gone with her.” Instead he chose an “awkward, nervous middle-aged guy,” mostly out of pity, but also comfort.
Though a recent college graduate, Lin wasn’t focused on gainful employment, believing that his agent would sell Bed and he could begin his career as a writer. He stepped up his writing regimen, something he has been known for ever since (writing for an average of six to ten hours a day), and maintained relative isolation. That summer he completed his first poetry collection and submitted it to a first book contest. But in September, things began to fall apart. As he was no longer a student, he lost his job at the NYU library. Having run out of money, he found a job on Craigslist as a personal assistant. He moved into an apartment on Wall Street. Though he won the contest, which would result in his first publication, you are a little bit happier than i am, that fall, this success was overshadowed by a larger, and in Lin’s mind, crippling failure—by November the manuscript for Bed had been rejected by twenty editors.
Both Lin and his agent began to feel desperate. “The only period I was thinking I’m going to make a ton of money and not get a job was before the editors’ rejected Bed. After that I had no hopes.” Quiet resignation would define Lin’s mind space for much of the next three years, though, importantly, not his activities.
WRITING FOR HIPSTERS
It was in fact a resignation to making less money, and not a move to choose a different career path. Tao Lin was going to be a writer, and write he did. His first three years out of college are marked by their tenacious, discursive productivity. In fact, from his output during this period, it is hard to tell he lost hope at all.
Lin began to slowly diversify his online presence, and published his stories in popular online magazines like 3:AM and Noon. One such story would turn into his first novel, Eeeee Eee Eeee, which he had begun to work on, slowly, after finishing Bed. He would only give the work his full attention after his first big break: in the spring of 2006, almost one full year out of college, Melville House announced they would take Bed. Lin had since quit his job as a personal assistant. In March he started working at the New York Society Library. Bored of having a job and wanting to focus on writing, he quit after three months. That summer, bolstered by the success of Bed and with more free time, Lin finished his novel. By the fall, after seeing the manuscript of his novel, they promised to publish both works simultaneously, in May 2007.
On the surface, Lin was experiencing rather enviable success, with three works coming out less than two years after college graduation, particularly for a writer who chose to begin his second novel with this vignette:
“I’ve only had the opportunity to hold a hamster once,” said Dakota Fanning on Gmail chat. “Its paws were so tiny. I think I cried a little.”
“I saw a hamster eating its babies,” said Haley Joel Osment. “I wanted to give it a high-five. But it didn’t know what a high-five is.”
He’s not necessarily kidding when he said, in an online interview, that he relies on a readership of “hipsters, depressed teenagers, depressed vegans, happy but sensitive teenagers … all college students.”
He also realizes the fiscal limitations of such an audience—the reality of which taints the success of this period for Lin. Though his relationship with Melville House has allowed Lin to publish consistently, year after year, starting at a young age, it has also kept him relatively impoverished. For each book published by Melville he “got only $500 to $1500 in advances.”
It was in the summer of 2006 that Lin began shoplifting full-time, an experience he later turned into the novella Shoplifting From American Apparel (now available for purchase at Urban Outfitters). He also moved around a lot, leaving New York in August and moving back to Florida, where he grew up. By October, he was living in rural Pennsylvania. In February 2007, he moved back to New York, a few months before the release of his books, he spent that time in various apartments in Manhattan and Brooklyn. On the second anniversary of his graduation from college, May 2007, Lin had three books in circulation. He also ran out of money. In August, he started working part-time at Angelica Kitchen and moved to Brooklyn, where he has stayed ever since.
By the summer of 2007, Lin was convinced that he would “have jobs for the next four to five years.” He stopped caring about ever making money from books and decided to let “Melville publish whatever they wanted.” In early 2008, needing the promised $1,000 advance and feeling like “he had no choice,” Lin signed the contract for his second novel, Richard Yates.
THE GAWKER GAME
The narrative of the impoverished, struggling writer at the whim of the submission and rejection cycle is not new. What is abnormal, and what Lin referenced only after prodding (and, interestingly, almost not at all in the profile he wrote of himself in The Stranger last year), were the peripheral activities he was engaged in during this time—activities that account for his success these last few months.
The game he undertook was over-exposure—a risky fiscal business, as strategies go. Over the course of seven years, in a brazen refusal to act as one ought to, Lin wielded a fierce mix of volition, creativity, and stubborn output. And, against the odds, it worked.
The most oft-told tale of his activities is that of the notoriety he gained as a source of great ire for Gawker, a New York-based, snark-heavy gossip website. It was in June 2007—Lin was still living off shoplifting, and had released his books to little notice—that he rather brazenly plastered the door of the headquarters with stickers promoting his work. He sent the site enough self-promotional emails to inspire a post that referred to him “as probably the most annoying person we’ve ever dealt with.” But Lin views the situation as wholly logical:
“At the time, I had no connection with the literary world. I didn’t know anyone. So I felt that I could make an ass out of myself because I didn’t think it could possibly affect my life… If I wrote for Gawker I would want some person like me to put myself out there to be made fun of. I’m fine with it. I like Gawker. I think it benefits both of us.”
The post currently has 29,000 hits. One year and two months after the Gawker post, Lin “sold 60 percent of the royalties to my next novel in 10 percent shares to six different people for $2,000 per share. People gave me $2,000 to receive 10 percent of my U.S. royalties for my next novel for the rest of their life, every six months, as I get royalty checks from my publisher.” The move was covered by a swath of popular news outlets. He took the $12,000, quit the restaurant, and decided to “never get another job for the rest of my life.”
FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS
Thus began the second phase of Lin’s literary life, as a full-time writer: 2008 to present. For Lin, being a writer had a lot to do with being a blogger. This is due in part because of a keen awareness that even if his books won’t keep him afloat, fame might. Internalizing this reality has given Lin quite the algorithm for a particular brand of success, for he doesn’t attract the limelight as much as he continually, systematically jumps in front of it (as with Gawker) or, when that fails, creates his own.
In 2008, Lin founded a small online and print press, Muumuu House, which publishes a select number of generationally similar writers. Brandon Scott Gorrell, the editor that leaked the marriage story, got his job at Thought Catalog per the recommendation of Lin—who published Gorrell’s first poetry collection at Muumuu House. His friendship with Gorrell is typical for Lin, in that it is primarily writerly, mostly viral, and if anything, altruistic—Lin publishes much of his friends’ writing and seems intent on allowing them to piggyback on his coattails whenever possible.
Last year Lin and Boyle launched the film company MDMAfilms, which, as is so topically suggested, tends to feature movies of them taking drugs. Mumblecore, a film about their relationship that cumulates with some of the wedding video, is a surprisingly poignant, fascinating, and, seemingly, sincere look into their lives.
These pet projects are funded by Lin himself. For Lin is famous now, in an internet sort of way. 6,853 people currently follow him on Twitter. On average, 22,200 people search his name in Google each month. Blackbook, The New York Observer, Nylon, and New York Magazine have all profiled him, the latter announcing him the “New Lit Boy” of New York in 2009. The London Review of Books and The New York Times each reviewed Richard Yates.
He has been able to sustain a consistent freelancing presence since 2009, working up from 3:AM and Noon to writing for The Poetry Foundation, The New York Observer, and The Believer (he recently conducted an interview). After publishing one of Lin’s fiction stories, VICE offered Lin a column earlier this year. He pitched “Drug-Related Photoshop Art,” and the magazine, known for its hipster-kitsch style, picked it up. A typical post: “Dumbledore Levitating Valium, Adderall, Seroquel.”
Much of his success, however, is not literary, rather it is his ability to maintain two things: his fan base, the cultivation of which is an operation facilitated primarily by his Tumblr (and now Twitter), and relevancy to the fickle media machine of literary New York. Lin plays impressive hardball. As a fan of Tao’s, you can easily have a personal connection. He holds contests on his Tumblr (“discern what drug i’m ‘on’ contest first 5 correct answers receive richard yates free,” to which 106 comments were made). In July 2010, he let fans vote on the outfit he was to wear to a photo shoot for Nylon. The post received 658 comments. He hangs out in the comment sections of almost any article written about him. He can often be found on 4chan message boards. His number and e-mail are available online. These relationships are fairly symbiotic—the reader is allowed input in a space wouldn’t otherwise (imagine Philip Roth being available on Gchat!) and Lin manages to coax them into reaffirming their interest in him.
His current Twitter and Tumblr reigns were preceded by a MySpace profile, which Lin deleted in 2009. In fact he sold the URL, a de facto move for Lin since he started writing full time, and a business move that has been sustained by an ability to leverage his fame. The account sold for $8,100. Such schemes are just the tip of the iceberg, for Lin can make “$700 a month from selling stupid things on my blog.” In one such YouTube video he auctions off “an outline of my book tour. It includes a key for what drugs I did on what day.” He adds, with a straight face, “This seems really valuable to my future biographers.” He isn’t kidding about the drugs—you can watch the video of a California reading where he stops after two minutes, and then read about it on Thought Catalog, in the essay “How to Give a Reading on Mushrooms.”
In 2009, an anonymous donor gave him $12,800, stipulating only that he not reveal his/her identity. In June of this year, a man he met on Twitter lent him $6,000—Lin wrote up a contract, which photocopied and blogged on his Tumblr, that stipulates repayment in full, plus compound interest, courtesy of the “Tao Bank.”
When I met with Megan Boyle, she joked that Lin wanted me to know they’d made a porn video. I asked if they’d be willing to put it online. She didn’t miss a beat, “If we could get money for it.”
THE TAO LIN MODEL
Tao Lin got famous in a small corner of the internet and, for now, he spends his days maintaining that position. He is the first to admit the frustration involved, as someone who relies on the internet for his well-being (as well as royalty checks from Melville House every six months, to the tune of $6,000 to $8,000), knowing that “no one thing makes a big difference.” I asked for an example. He mentioned the surprise he felt when, after the recent Times article on Bebe Zeva, the young internet blogger starring in the third feature of MDMAfilms, “only two copies of the DVD sold. It only sold two.”
In talking with his wife, she admits up front that the film company costs “a lot more money than what we gain.” Muumuu House doesn’t turn a profit either.
In Lin’s mind this is proof of the failure of “The Tao Lin Model”: “It’s bad. I had jobs from 2005 to late 2008. If selling shares from my novel hadn’t worked, I would have had a job for another year. Then I got lucky with someone giving me money.” Lin argues that writers should just “focus on getting a literary agent and having them sell your books.”
But Lin’s cynicism hides an inherent contradiction: the classical publishing model he’s postulating failed him right at the beginning of his career, because he wasn’t the classical model of a writer. As Noah Cicero, one of the Muumuu House gang, aptly pointed out in an email, he and Lin are “writers that aren’t writing normal things, like things about vampires or things that would go in The Paris Review.” They seem to be in a position where, if they get famous at all, it will be in spite of their writing.
Tao Lin will never write for The New Yorker (though he used to submit to them, but no longer will at “that level,” and, this summer, posted the rejection of some cover art he sent in), nor for Time (he did spoof the cover profile written on Jonathan Franzen—“Great American Novelist”—for The Stranger, with himself as the cover subject), nor for The New York Times (they gave a rather scathing review of his second novel Richard Yates but did run the piece on Bebe in The Sunday Styles).
In other words, he will never be recognized, lauded, or understood by middle-aged craggy men working Las Vegas “desk weddings.”
However, he will, to a small group of people, fame and money aside, be known as the guy who helped them find their place as writers. And he will remain, for the time being, as the only guy who, in the middle of a crisis in the book business, not only invented The Tao Lin Model, but got it to work.