Writing for Generation X


From The Atlanta Journal and Constitution (March 7, 1994)

by Elizabeth Lenhard

Douglas Coupland is in a Washington, D.C., hotel room, the first stop on an 11-city tour hyping his new book - a miniature volume of sparse, philosophical stories complete with drawings of office cubicles and Golden Arches called "Life After God." In a smooth, rumbling voice, the man who created "Generation X:

Tales for an Accelerated Culture," a novel many have dubbed the "twentysomething bible," denies that he is the prophet of his causeless generation.

"It's presumptuous," he declares. "I've never said anything except that I write."

A moment later, the now 32-year-old, interview-weary author trails off, losing his train of thought.

"Do you work on a Macintosh? You know when you get a system error and a bomb shows up on the screen?" he inquires sheepishly. "That's what just happened to me, so can we just, reboot?"

And there it is. The poppy jargon of our slacking, whining, eco- conscious, boomer-loathing, children-of-The-Gap generation.

In the words of Vanity Fair's Bruce Handy, Coupland's "pop culture manifesto . . . heralded the arrival of a new genre: half Bildungsroman [coming-of-age novel], half magazine trend piece."

Lumped into the currently anointed coterie of young and self- consciously clever scribes are such folks as Banana Yoshimoto, Hugh Gallagher, Bruce Craven, Mark Leyner and K.S. Haddock.

The only quality these largely male, mostly twentysomething writers share is a passion for pop - their prose is rife with references to everything from Converse to Cuervo, Depeche Mode to Concrete Blonde - and a sense of irony that can only emerge from the Powerbooks of card- carrying members of the MTV generation.

"I think they have as much and as little in common as the people in the Brat Pack," says New York playwright/book critic Mindi Dickstein, referring to the Xers' `80s predecessors - Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz, et al. - whose protagonists' coke-snorting, clubbing ways have already lost their luster for today's young readers.

In fact, tossing the hippest voices-of-the-moment into a literary "generation" has been a practice since Gertrude Stein said Hemingway and Fitzgerald belonged to a "lost generation." McInerney and Ellis's predecessors in the `60s included Merry Pranksters and New Journalists such as Ken Kesey and Tom Wolfe. Now, however, some believe the spontaneous "generations" of writers may have devolved from uncontrived circumstance into publishers' hype.

"I don't think it's a new phenomenon," says Robert Sherrill, who was an editor at Esquire when Wolfe and Gay Talese were first hot properties. "But I think they deserved it, to tell the truth. You ain't going to find writers like those anymore, though . . . They were more fun and less forced."

It's true that "riffs about `Family Feud,' and `Jeopardy' and junk culture," as Coupland refers to the literary Xers favorite fallbacks (plot substitutes, many critics say) don't seem to have the staying power of "A Farewell to Arms."

"I think certainly if someone like Douglas Coupland weren't trying so hard to be clever, he would go deeper," says Dickstein. "What are you writing about? You hold up a mirror and say, `These are the times. You bump into things. You wander. This is what you're doing.' "

But publishers desperate to hook young readers infatuated with MTV and "Reality Bites" say X literature is the way to do it.

"It's in sync with what you're doing and thinking," observes St. Martin's Press editor, Eric Wybenga, 24. "I've always felt a little too young or too old for what's being fed me. Suddenly, something's directed at us, making private jokes that only we get."

And according to Emory senior and aspiring novelist Mohammed Sulaiman, generation-defining fiction can have a scary impact on some consumers. "The whole Generation X deal is a self-fulfilling prophecy. [Twentysomethings] are trying to figure out what they are, and these writers tell them. My friends hang out in Little Five Points and be Generation X."

Wybenga - whose publishing house is responsible for Coupland's breakthrough book - edited K.S. Haddock's "The Patricidal Bedside Companion." A back-cover blurb on the small, slick paperback - a deliberately melodramatic trip out of hell, complete with corporate oppression and mosh-pit passion - reads: "Noir Fiction for the X Generation."

Wybenga contends that young readers can identify with narrator Riley O'Donnough - an occasionally drug-using, just-out-of-college, dad- loathing Nietzsche fiend. But just to make sure, "Companion's" publicity material pushes every niche-marketing button it can: "Twenty-something . . . slacker . . . Xer . . . Patricidal?" and "For the post-baby-boom generation still struggling to define itself (and struggling under others' efforts to define them), no one label has sufficed. Now a talented young writer offers yet another moniker - one that hints at the darker side of this generation that has been accused of not caring about anything . . ."

Haddock, a desktop publisher, identifies himself as "the original product of a broken home," a former 7-Eleven manager and a "DTP renegade" who wrote his novel on employers' computers - perfectly fitting the Xer archetype.

"You can no longer be a writer and nothing else. You have to be a celebrity," laments Sherrill, who is now an Esquire contributing editor and has an essay on aging in "Best American Essays 1993."

"That's part of the game really. I don't think they have to use gimmicks, but unfortunately, that's the way it is."

For now. Three years after "Generation X" made its first splash, a backlash is simmering among twentysomethings who resent their angstful, do-nothing image.

"Snorts of derision!" declares James Poulakos, a 28-year-old poet in Georgia State's master of fine arts program. "Mention Douglas Coupland and the whole writing class will roll their eyes."

"I make a lot of fun of those guys," says Sulaiman, 20. "The whole epoch of writing right now sort of sucks. I guess pop culture is part of the reason. I think there's plenty to write about that's not TV. It doesn't have to be bullfights."

Even the writers themselves are ready to break out of the mold.

"I never wrote with a group [of readers] in mind," says Hugh Gallagher, a New York University senior with his own spoken-word album. "I just kind of write. My writing will change as I change."

"A few years back, there was a supposed movement in horror fiction, Splatterpunk. The writers supposed to be in this movement weren't associated with each other - it stared as a joke," recalls 26-year-old horror writer Poppy Z. Brite, an up-and-comer who admits to never turning down an interview. "But it's stayed with them throughout their careers. I think shoving writers under an umbrella like that is mostly a pretty stupid thing to do."

Haddock, a 27-year-old San Franciscan, says he finished writing "Companion" around the time "Generation X" was published. The twentysomething marketing was tacked on later. "On one hand, it makes me sick, on the other, I understand it," he says.

He'll also have to live with it. Only two weeks after his book's publication, Haddock has been pegged as an Xer - comparisons with Coupland are already abounding.

"It's too bad that we have to pigeonhole the whole generation. [The marketing] in a way is manipulating the younger generation to buy it," he sighs. "At the same time, if we have to strong-arm this X generation to read, maybe it's worth it to play on trends.