“Lit!” is what writer and publisher Mallory Smart says more often than not. I don’t always know what she means, but I think it’s a good thing.
What or who is Maudlin House? Smart can’t easily say—or perhaps she just doesn’t want to pin it down. Smart started Maudlin House, an online literary journal and small press, eight years ago when she felt like the places that she was submitting her poems and prose to were often poorly designed and ugly to look at. She thought she could do better.
Smart primarily publishes fiction and poetry with Maudlin House. There’s not a strict adherence to a particular genre or style that I can isolate, aside from a general accessibility and informality to a lot of the work. I read nothing so esoteric or obtuse that further reading was necessary to get the writer’s drift. The contributors come from a wide range of ages and backgrounds, but skew millennial.
Smart, 30, is part of a loose community of young writers and artists who are making their mark at a time when most traditional gatekeepers of culture are terrified to take chances. Smart’s cohort knows the Internet like the back of their hands because they’ve lived online their entire lives. They’re not motivated by fame or money as much as a need to create their own structures and venues to support their work. They seek an expression that will break through the endless doomscroll that fills so many of our days.
I first heard of Smart when she interviewed Giacomo Pope (the founder of the literary website Neutral Spaces) for her podcast. Smart’s podcast is called Textual Healing, which makes me laugh, but Smart tells me few listeners or guests get the Marvin Gaye pun. She was inspired to start the show to allow fellow writers to talk about how music inspires their work. Smart herself says she either has headphones in or a record on most of the time she’s awake. After listening to all the episodes, I reached out, and a week later Smart and her boyfriend, Bulent Mourad (who co-runs Maudlin House), were at my door to pick up some books ahead of my appearance on her show.
Smart is not the product of a creative writing MFA program, unlike many mainstream writers and editors. She holds a degree in history and first planned to focus on film after graduating, but has written most of her life. After publishing several short books of poetry through various small presses, she’s about to put out her first piece of long-form prose via Colorado-based Trident Press this August. The Only Living Girl in Chicago is a collection of linked stories about Zoe, a young woman trying to find her place in an unstable world, defined more by corporate brand names than tangible locations. Because Zoe spends much of her waking hours online, whether she’s on the west coast or back home in Chicago, it’s hard for her or her friends to find a tether. But the longing for more palpable connection courses over every page. Smart and her generation are simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.
When I visit her Mount Prospect home, Smart says she’s canceling her tickets to this year’s Riot Fest because My Chemical Romance will not perform as scheduled. She’s seen every other reunion band slated to play—as nostalgia plays a large part in her generation’s musical choices. The Internet has created an atmosphere that celebrates every one-hit wonder and also-ran so they end up with the chance at a second or third act more lucrative, but rarely as creatively compelling, as their first. This “cash-in” essence of events like Riot Fest doesn’t bother Smart the way it bothers me. This is partly because the virtual world has made ties to particular eras or places fuzzy, if not irrelevant. And Smart also feels that most of the best stuff was made long before her time. She’s impressed when I mention walking out on the White Stripes at the Empty Bottle, but I assure her that Gen Z and Alpha kids will be just as envious of what she dismisses or takes for granted. I have to hope that some aspects of aging will survive the post-historical steamroller effect of screen life.
A network of lit magazines, presses, sites, and podcasts are giving millennials like Smart places to hone their voices. I’m new to this world, but can list the presses House of Vlad and Clash Books, the Selected Prose podcast, the Blue Arrangements publishing project, Neutral Spaces, Writing the Rapids podcast, the Hello America Stereo Cassette recording label, and 1storypod podcast among its leading lights. Whatever their particular focus, these and many other platforms feature work that forges a path out of the inchoate bog of cyberspace.
Smart wants to call the style “meta-modernist” for the way her and her friends’ writing so often comments ironically on itself, but few others have signed on to that rubric. Poet Zac Smith says it’s “cyber-writing,” but that sounds like dystopian sci-fi. A healthy dose of doomed fatalism characterizes a lot of the work, but it’s leavened by humor and a kind of low-key acceptance of less than ideal conditions. There is also a sense of continuity with previous literary communities. Maudlin House has published books by Bud Smith and Michael J. Seidlinger, both mainstays of what used to be known as alt-lit. Reciprocally, Zac Smith’s forthcoming book from Tao Lin’s Muumuu House is its first book in ten years: a sure sign that the new kids are making their predecessors take notice.
The host of 1storypod asks his guests regularly whether books have a future and whether they’ll survive. It’s up to young people like Smart and her friends to find out. They think the dinosaurs in New York and Los Angeles won’t keep books, music, and movies alive, because they worry too much about their bank accounts and whom they’re seen by at dinosaur parties. Splintering and niche environments wrought by the Internet make the idea of universal acclaim or even common experience laughable. The things that break through to whatever passes as top tier now are inevitably generic, crude, and quickly forgotten in favor of the next portion or serving. The Marvel universe and competing reality-show conglomerates are all empty calories.
When I ask Smart what pie-in-the-sky ideal future she envisions, she pauses to think. There are other kinds of writing she loves but doesn’t share at Maudlin House or in her published poems, essays, and books. She loves sci-fi and fantasy, but doesn’t think it would be accepted on the platforms she’s currently part of. It’s strange that she worries about crossing genres when so much of the scene she’s part of erases traditional marketing distinctions. But maybe it’s not possible to burn down all the bad old rules. She’s also not married to literature. She thinks aloud about going back to making movies someday.
Whatever she ends up doing, there will be references to coffee and sadness and horror movies. There will be multiple playlists customized for any task or mood. She thinks her audience isn’t millennials like herself, but Gen Z kids like her nieces. She says the shade of yellow she chose for the Textual Healing website is a nod to their tastes. She’s also been trying to change up her lingo. Lit is out, but she’s not ready for gucci or steez quite yet. Rad will have to do for now. v