Common Good Books and Paper Darts teamed up to host Tao Lin, author of the divisive and gloriously covered Taipei (as well as cult-faves Richard Yates, Eeeee Eee Eeee, and You Are a Little Bit Happier Than I Am, as well as a few others) to the Paper Darts Pop Up last Wednesday, June 26, 2013. Tao Lin is heralded among many for his active online persona (which happens to be a subject of his new novel, though the book isn’t fully autobiographical–merely about a novelist with an active online persona). For all of his many admirers, however, his new book seems to have achieved that odd and bittersweet career milestone of widespread yet often negative critical attention, at least in traditional media outlets like the LA Times, NPR, and even the Millions. This critical attackery was a central theme in Lin’s appearance at the PDPU, which saw him first read a brief excerpt from the book and then take questions from The Tangential‘s Jay Gabler. (Read Gabler’s thoughts on the night at the PDPU blog, here.)
Gabler’s prompts touched upon relatively inviting topics, such as how it felt to be reaching a wider audience with this latest novel and whether he was forced to write differently now that he had a major publisher. In his responses, Tao Lin seemed to struggle not so much with formulating answers as with forming words with his his mouth. When asked why books were his medium of choice, given that he’s dabbled in film and so many digital formats, Lin answered with an un-ironic mumble that “Books are the best way to communicate with people.” He spoke in a consistently dreary monotone that I for one did not anticipate, having taken that old cliche a step further and judged the man by the iridescent cover of his book. He’s a novelist–I expected a skilled wordsmith. He’s clearly creative and adventurous–I expected self-assurance and wit. Not so much–or at least not in the way I’m accustomed to seeing these traits performed.
Oddly, Lin’s humdrum delivery made him all the more fascinating to witness. It wasn’t that his answers weren’t interesting, just that they weren’t interestingly delivered. When Gabler asked what misconceptions people had about him that he would like to correct, Lin responded, slowly, “People think I think I’m good, but I don’t think I’m good, or that my writing’s good. I’ve been called a fame-whore a lot, but I just want to get reviewed so I’ll sell another book. Is that bad?” The statement didn’t come of as self-deprecating or even humble: it sounded like an honest, genuine answer, without forethought or agenda. As if Tao Lin had never considered this question before in his life. That response also highlights the trademark duality of his persona so prevalent in all of his work–though some critics would say his work lacks any thematic content altogether.
His more vapid attributes were on display as well, such as when an audience member asked him how he felt differently after writing Taipei. “I don’t feel any different,” he said. On to the next question. (It should be noted that this was a well-attended event, and nearly everyone in the room seemed familiar with the author’s work.) The next question: asked why he thought a reviewer panned his book, he said, “I just think she doesn’t like me as a person, and wants me to stop writing.”
One moment when he seemed to perk up was when he turned the tables and asked Gabler a couple of questions. “How did you first hear of me?” he asked, to which a somewhat flustered Gabler responded, “On the Internet.”
“You must have read some negative stuff. There’s so much.”
“I think I ‘m like a lot of people here tonight. I read the Tangential, I read Paper Darts. We care more about what HTMLGiant says than The New York Times. So I think I heard the good stuff before I heard the bad stuff.”
“Cool,” said Tao Lin.
And somehow, despite the lethargy of his passion for writing, his apparent disinterest or mere lack of charisma as a performer, Lin did manage to exude “cool.” He sat in front of the window like a mannequin on display, and showed us a model of an artist not often celebrated in today’s literary culture. A shy, uncomfortable writer more at home in the written word than in his own skin, more at home in zeros and ones than in English. “I think it’s an inaccurate assertion that speaking face-to-face is more intimate than typing to each other,” he said at one point. “So much of that interaction is superficial. You react to what you see more than what’s being said.” On this point, I disagree–speaking face-to-face is a more intimate form of interaction because we are at our most vulnerable in person, we aren’t insulated by a medium, or granted the luxury of editing ourselves. But this demonstrates the mentality that Lin brings to his work, and to his persona, and to his “self.” He isn’t just Tao Lin, he’s an example of Tao Lin, an unending string of Tao Lins who all just happen to be in one place at one time. A singularity.
Were you There? Have something to add, or a different take on this event? Chime in on the comments below, or send us an email at LitSeen.Mpls@gmail.com. Be sure to check the schedule to the right to be at the next LitSeen.org attended event.