A News Generation Likes Pop In Its Books


From Sacramento Bee (March 11, 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 mostly male, twenty-something 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 Mc-Inerney, 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' 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 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.' "

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 . . . making private jokes that only we get."

And according to Emory University senior 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."

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 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: "For the post-baby-boom generation still struggling to define itself."

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

"That's part of the game. 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. There's plenty to write about that's not TV."