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In Which Your Guide To Fine Realist Literature Is Tao Lin

As if you didn't already have enough, summer reading week on TR continues...

Tao Lin Guide to K-Mart Realism

by Tao Lin

“K-Mart Realism” is a term a New York Times journalist or I think probably Tom Wolfe made up to group a lot of writers together in a shit-talking way. I think the main people in “K-Mart Realism” are Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Joy Williams, Frederick Barthelme, Mary Robison, Bobbie Ann Mason. I think Larry Brown isn’t really included since he was perceived as poor and so had real problems. He was also a fireman which means he contributed to society, I think, which I think disqualifies him from being a “K-Mart Realist,” and he wrote about war sometimes I think, which also disqualifies Barry Hannah and some other people. I would not include Amy Hempel, Diane Williams, Sam Lipsyte, or most of the people who had taken some instruction, or something, from Gordon Lish (more below) as “K-Mart Realism” people because to me their writing does not have the same tone. Amy Hempel is often called a “minimalist” though.

lipsyte and ben marcus

“K-Mart Realism” has also been called “minimalism,” “dirty realism,” and something with diet coke in the term, I cannot remember. “K-Mart Realism” has been shit-talked by Tom Wolfe, Madison Smartt Bell (he said “less is less”), Frederick Busch, and other people. Raymond Carver was friends with Don DeLillo who is probably almost the opposite of a “K-Mart Realist” excluding non-realism things. Don DeLillo has dialogue that is like “K-Mart Realism” dialogue I think sometimes. I think Don DeLillo was friends with Raymond Carver or something because he was friends with Gordon Lish, who edited Raymond Carver and also published many “K-Mart Realism” writers in Esquire.

kendra malone and tao

“K-Mart Realism” was at its “height” maybe in the mid to late-80’s. Frederick Barthelme had 20-30 stories published in the New Yorker, Mary Robison also had many stories in The New Yorker, and Gordon Lish was publishing other people’s books and stories as an editor at Knopf and Esquire around then. I wrote a blog post about “K-Mart Realism” in 2005, it received no commentary.

The funniest and most detached and existential “K-Mart Realism” person to me is Joy Williams I think. They are all funny and capable of controlling themselves from using dialogue tags not “said,” sarcasm (or just describing something without judgment), and a sense of hopelessness beyond what is acceptable in the mainstream today, I believe, I just looked at the list of names. I believe that none of those people are religious. Frederick Barthelme has stated that he enjoys reading Jean Rhys and Jane Bowles. I think the people who wrote similar things to the “K-Mart Realism” people, but earlier, are James Purdy (“Color of Darkness”), Jean Rhys, Jane Bowles, Ernest Hemingway (“The Sun Also Rises” and some short stories), and Richard Yates (his later stories).

I didn’t do research for this article, some things might be wrong. To me only Ann Beattie’s first three or four books were “K-Mart Realism-like.” I like “K-Mart Realism.” In the memoir “Double Down” (about losing two hundred thousand dollars or so at casinos) by Frederick Barthelme and Steven Barthelme they said they did not think of themselves as “writers” or even “professors” (they have both been teaching for over 20 years, Frederick Barthelme is the director of the MFA creative writing program at University of Southern Mississippi), which is something that seems true to some extent to all “K-Mart Realism” people based on me reading their writing and thinking about them. I think my writing is most influenced by “K-Mart Realism” though also it has been influenced by “Tea Towel Fiction” (someone called Lorrie Moore that, I think) and Matthew Rohrer.

Tao Lin is a writer living in Brooklyn. This is his first appearance in these pages. His blog is here. He has written more about Joy Williams here.



"Everybody Nose (remix)" - N.E.R.D., Kanye, Lupe Fiasco (mp3)

"Number One (Yayo dub mix)" - Pharrell & Kanye (mp3)

"American Boy (Passport dub mix)" - Kanye West & Estelle (mp3)


cognitive-behavioral therapy:

tao interviews noah cicero

interview at bookslut







from the book:



joy williams


You have to be lucky enough to find someone who appreciates you.

This person could be Molly Lambert.

Unless of course she's in a knife fight with her doppleganger.

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Reader Comments (25)

I don't understand why people print or read this crap. I know Tao Lin's a lightening rod for criticism and generates page views, but seriously -- is anything about this "good?"

July 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMike

Fuck you, "Mike."

"I wrote a blog post about “K-Mart Realism” in 2005, it received no commentary."


July 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTumbledore

...and he has a legion of troll minions.

I mean seriously. He is the emperor who has no clothes.

July 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMike

I'm no minion, I don't even like AZNs (JK!). And I'm definitely not a troll, please see my picture on the sidebar of this bl0g.

July 8, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterdaziz

Your point almost made a point because it's almost a point, Mike.

July 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTed

I really liked this post but fair warning Frederick Barthelme is terrible. For a laugh, skim to the end of "Second Marriage"

July 8, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterjoanne mcneil

daziz/Tumbledore: I like this blog. I subscribe to it on my Google reader. I saw this post and thought maybe I'd give Tao another chance -- and all I saw was the same stream-of-consciousness dada.

Is there some Lin somewhere I can read that might change my mind?

July 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMike

good job, tao

July 8, 2008 | Unregistered Commentercolin bassett

What might be interesting and pep it up a bit,
would be compiling international versions of the term.
In Brit we have "Kitchen Sink Drama" of course but I am trying to think of an exact K-Mart equivalent in vain.

July 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDr. Mum

mike july, email me your address i'll send you one of my books

binky.tabby [at] gmail.com

i have written four books

July 8, 2008 | Unregistered Commentertao lin

i think 'tea towel fiction' started in britain

there is also wal-mart realism or something, i think some internet person made that up recently

July 8, 2008 | Unregistered Commentertao lin

i looked up "wal-mart realism" on google and realised that it was me who called it that. but i also call it "amazon.com realism".
take your pick or pick none.
doesn't "kitchen sink drama" in britain relate to film: like the films of john cassavetes?

July 8, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterconn tomas o'brien

Kitchen Sink Dramas are specifically English, like "Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner," "Look Back In Anger," or "A Taste Of Honey." Usually working-class, sometimes also about race relations, related to "angry young men," almost always tremendously depressing, sometimes also called British New Wave. My fave is "Georgy Girl", which while not strictly canon is definitely sad enough to count.

July 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMolly Lambert

(whoops john cassavettes is american. of course. but i consider "a woman under the influence" by cassavettes to be 'kitchen sink drama'.)

July 9, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterconn tomas o'brien

why is there a picture of me in this article?

my cat is watching me eat an egg.

good job tao.

July 9, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterkendra grant malone

Because you're so freaking hot

July 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDudebrah

Tao is sending me a book and I'm excited to read it.

July 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMike


July 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterErin

[...] In Which Your Guide To Fine Realist Literature Is Tao Lin [...]

this is pretty funny tao. how s it going?

August 20, 2008 | Unregistered Commentercolin bones

[...] Lin is a contributor to This Recording. His blog is here. He last wrote in these pages about K-Mart Realism. His new book, Shoplifting From American Apparel is forthcoming from Melville House in Fall of [...]

Can I agree with Mike? I want a free book.

December 23, 2008 | Unregistered Commentere. moya

Help me out here. Why do you keep saying/ writing "I think?"
Is that supposed to be cute, or funny, or cleaver or your little "thing" you do?

I support you, keep writing and if you have a following good for you, but if this is indicative of your writing you should relax more and find your voice. Your writing here is clunky, and plops along like a car with a flat tire, you've got movement but you're not going to get far like this. It's clunky and cute, and too self-aware, bad combination.

I read the whole article hoping to see some sign that the whole thing was a swarmy joke that your real voice would come out behind this contrivance that you created but no, there was nothing there.

Is this what your book is like?

Maybe this isn't a good indicator of your abilities but then if it isn't you should ask to have this post removed.

I'm not trying to offend you. But someone has to be honest with you and not just pat you on the head like a dog.

August 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDupuy

I defended K-Mart realism when it was trashed by Tom Wolfe, and I wrote a letter to the editors of Harpers (they actually published it) to tell them that I went to K-Mart to look for the K-Mart realists, but all I found were shelves and shelves of Bonfires of Vanities. I find Tao Lin's take on life 'refreshing.' But then, I am allergic to the cultural fabric-softener and the cultural Febreze that permeates almost all book-size cultural objects.

October 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMarie Ant

I did the same thing. I like K-Mart realists. I don't like the smell of Febreze. I do like Tao Lin.

October 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMarie Ant 2

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