When reading the Arts section of the Times I came across a term relating to a new comedy emphasis called alt-comedy. I read on, expecting the term to be defined for me, but nothing in the following paragraphs gave me a clue as to what the word meant.
It took some research, but eventually I discovered that alt- is a prefix which is used to identify newly-emerging patterns of alternate reality, whether it be in the arts, politics, economics, education, or whatever. Much in the same way that neo is used as a prefix to identify revised, renewed, or re-configured reality (as in neo-conservative), alt can be applied to existing nouns or adjectives to indicate that we are looking at a newly-conceptualized way of visualizing something or creating it.
Alternate has been used frequently in recent times to refer to new genres in the arts, particularly in the realm of fiction. Alternate fiction tends to twist reality and present it in a way that is sometimes shocking or jarring. When Stephen King has his main character step into time travel in 11/22/63, it takes the reader a few minutes of reading and shaking the head to realize exactly what has happened. Similarly, when, in The Green Mile, the character played by Michael Clarke Duncan grabs Tom Hanks’ character and holds him as green flies swarm from his mouth, it may be the first time that the viewer has realized that this is a Stephen King story. Reality has changed in a milli-second. Things like that just don’t happen in conventional reality. But in alt-reality it may be shocking, but anticipated to some degree.
Alt-comedy, it would seem, is that contemporary, sought-after form of stand-up which has rules, standards, and expectations that defy previous eras of comedy as an entertainment form. We who were jolted by George Carlin’s use of previously banned four-letter words as regular fare in his routines, have now been forced to shrug our shoulders and say “that’s the way it is.” 21st century audiences are bored when such graphic language and topics are not part of the routine. It is an alternate, or alt-comedy, which deals with reality in society in a way that is unique to current times. Not all alt-comedy is crude or includes foul language, but it may well be the feature that most clearly defines the genre.
As a writer of fiction, it is important to be aware of the characteristics of alt-fiction without necessarily embracing them. In surveying the resources for alt-fiction I come across references to cannibalism, werewolves, zombies, and other counter-reality creatures and situations. It may have started with vampires, who have been around literature for centuries. But in the 21st century they are almost given driver’s licenses and voting registration cards, they are so common.
As a writer of MG (middle grade) fiction for kids in the 9-14 age range, it is my preference to remember that not all kids are looking for this alt-reality in their reading. I seek to write for the kid (particularly the boy) who wants to read about normal boys in his own age range whose stories can be identified as possible and real. There isn’t a lot of that kind of literature out there for boys. There’s plenty for girls, but alt-fiction for tweens is the norm. I’ll leave the horror and gore for someone else to write.
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