Posted by <Devin Thomas O'Shea> on 2021-09-15
In the nonfiction /lit/ piece, I talk about the kinds of people who are attracted to the board without fully disclosing that I was, of course, visiting the board a lot starting around 2010. In the lead-up to graduate school in 2016, /lit/ was a way of eavesdropping on pseudo-academic conversations which didn’t end up helping me much while studying. But, I got to know the board, and ever since I’ve wanted to write something about it—especially if this piece can thread the needle of not condoning bigotry while creating a sympathetic account of why this niche exists.
One of /lit/’s most recommended novels is Stoner by John Williams. Stoner is not about smock’n dope; it’s a campus novel about a public American university which becomes a sacred refuge for William Stoner, a quiet, sensitive man.
Stoner was supposed to become a farmer like his father, but due to the brilliance of a survey course in English literature, he encounters Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, causing him to fall in love with the work of education.
Williams’ novel worships my alma mater, The University of Missouri, as a 1930s haven for the agrarian proletariat turned petit-bourgeois academic. The university here is a semi-utopian structure where young people can enter training, and dedicate their lives to the beautiful stuff of language, which many find boring.
4chan’s /lit/ is full of reactionary spill-over from bigger boards like /pol/, but many end up there because they are thwarted academics, foiled writers, rejected pseudo-intellectuals. Many wish they were William Stoner, tucked safely beneath the wing of tenure, protected by a federally funded university, able to spend their working hours thinking, reading, writing.
We can only talk about average impressions on anonymous boards, but /lit/ is interesting since it has no real-world corollary besides, maybe, a medium-size bookstore in fascist Italy circa 1938. In aggregate, /lit/ is largely male, NEET (not in education, employment, or training), incel or incel-adjacent—the demographic is often seeking higher education, but flunking out or failing to afford tuition. Some say they are posting from inside the ivory tower as graduate students or adjunct faculty. Some frequent /lit/ because they were in academia for a time, and departed, and want a place to complain about/evangelize Dante. Others consider themselves autodidacts, some want to write their failure-novel in a squat shack on an abandoned gas station lot. Almost all are anti-establishment.
/lit/ is not unique on 4chan for its rage against institutions coupled with a quiet yearning for official recognition by the same structures. Outside of 4chan, many fail to locate intellectual validation, and become frustrated with university systems and mainstream literary culture. That thwarted enthusiasm for scholarship translates into anger directed at the institutions and those who are elevated by the system—this is takes on the common 4chan bigotry against women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, etcetera.
Before the hate, what attracts users to /lit/ is education; the suspicion that you are stupid; the promise of secret knowledge; a way to improve your cognitive lot in life.
/lit/’s biggest memes are recommended reading lists, but consuming only the texts discussed on the board would produce a very warped, likely far-right, wojak sitting atop an armchair made of his own brains. For example, shitpants-moron, Charles Murray, of The Bell Curve fame is often recommended and discussed. As is Thomas Ligotti’s anti-natalist manifesto The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. Mussolini’s fascist intellectual, Julius Evola, and his nonsense screed Revolt Against the Modern World makes the /lit/ syllabus often and contributes to a sense that these texts are “forbidden” truths; truth that Hillary Clinton wishes to keep locked away. Q drops fed off the same exhilaration at finding occult secrets, but the landscape on /lit/ is already seeded with sleeper agents—none bigger than the reclusive novelist Tommy Pinecone (Thomas Pynchon).
Pynchon’s style is a mix of extreme paranoia and the sneaking suspicion that gnostic patterns exist in an otherwise chaotic world. His books are long, anti-establishment, challenging, funny, pro-counterforce, and so encyclopedic, you could read them for the rest of your life and discover new paranoid connections on your deathbed. While Pynchon is a self-described luddite, and likely somewhere on the anarchist left, he has not much politics in common with Evola—see the character Captain Blicero in Gravity’s Rainbow, or the jackboot fascist Brock Vond in Vineland.
Conservative fiction writers like Yukio Mishima, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and Knut Hamsung are frequent memes, but there is only so much far-right fiction.
The dick-measuring contest amongst the thousand-page novel writers is a frequent topic of /lit/. Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, William Gass, William Gaddis, Joseph McElroy—the big books appeal based first and foremost on page length and scale. Completing these tomes are often treated as badges of honor, and this opens up some sort of space for left counter-messaging.
In William Gass’ The Tunnel, Professor Koehler sits to write the introduction to his career-defining work, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany. But, he faces a block and pens The Tunnel instead—a messy, dark, lyrical portrayal of Koehler himself. Instead of the neat, well-researched book dissecting the Nazis, Koehler describes the fascism in his own heart. In his basement, digging down in the soil of his soul, he literally tunnels in the dirt floor of his cellar.
The Tunnel is a deeply moral book about filth hiding below the surface of respectability. Like Gass, Koehler is an esteemed American intellectual with a wife, a house, and tenure. His research aims to find what was so unusually nasty about the villains of history, but long before he starts digging in the mud, Koehler concludes that the Germans were just like you and me. Fascism is not aberrant. It has always been down in our subconscious basement; it lives in everyday hatreds.
In a post-work future, or a society that valued and funded the humanities, many different versions of Stoner and Koehler could exist; poetic monk-scientists allowed to squirrel themselves away, studying their souls and the cosmos overhead, but like so many issues of late capital, a better future of literature feels impossible; less realistic than winning a spot in the Princeton English program without filling out an application.
The full-tilt collapse of society seems more likely than tenure, and according to Ryan Heuser, Junior Research Fellow at King's College, there’s data to back it up. Every year since 2017 has been the worst year yet for academic jobs in “English Literature.” The only exception is “Ethnic Studies” which has grown in the last few years. Instead of interpreting this as a long-overdue investment in Ethnic Studies coupled with nihilistic austerity for every other department, reactionaries will blame Ethnic Studies as though university funding is a zero-sum game. 90% of the institution fails, literature is defunded overall while the business school thrives, and the administrators responsible have secured their bag while gifting the far right more ammunition.
The structural humanities have shrunk, or collapsed, outside elite channels for literature, cultural value is exchanged almost exclusively within ivy league English Programs like that of Stanford or Yale University; Harvard and New York University may be the only departments minting tenure track philosophers anymore; the biggest content farm in the American empire, the Iowa Writers Workshop, remains the primary kingmaker for creative writing credentials. These universities largely decide who gets to study or write books.
The mid-century battles of the novel versus television are over, television won, and then TV was quickly beheaded and consumed by the internet. However far the act of reading has fallen in cultural relevance, novels retain the power to shift ways of thinking. There is a strong argument, which I hope I contributed to here, that novels are still important because they are a respite from the attention economy—part of going outside and touching grass. One of /lit/’s saints, David Foster Wallace, pointed out the obvious: “Reading is very, very difficult. It requires sitting alone by yourself in a quiet room, and that’s very hard for some people.” Reading is not as passive as television; it feeds an active, empathetic part of us that is otherwise starved at every point in late capitalism. It’s good to train your brain to think about something for a half an hour instead of thirty seconds, but it requires time and energy, and that needs to be paid for by somebody.