WHY DOESN'T GEN Y HAVE A LITERARY SPOKESPERSON?
... a MobyLives guest column
by Caren Lissner
9 December 2003 — There's one for every generation—at least, there used to be. The Baby Boomers had John Updike to chronicle the maturing of that generation through fiction. Generation X had Doug Coupland, who popularized the term, not to mention, early on, Bret Easton Ellis and, later, pop culture observer Ian Williams' contributions to the seminal nonfiction tome "13th Gen." Earlier generations had Fitzgerald and Hemingway.
But Generation Y, the teens and early twenty–somethings who are said to represent the biggest chunk of pop culture marketing power, have no one who has encapsulated their generation in their writing so far. Sure, there are some authors their age—Jonathan Safran Foer, at 26, is on the top of the range—but they haven't produced a work meant to encapsulate the generation. Nor has one of them been called upon to become the chief essayist, chronicler or spokesperson for their peers, as Coupland and Williams often were.
So where are they?
"This isn't a literary generation," says 20–year–old essayist Marty Beckerman, who also acknowledges that it's still early for Gen Y spokespeople to come to the forefront. "It's the MTV/high–speed Internet generation."
But there are a few Gen Y writers who are emerging, some of whom, like Beckerman, appear to covet the title of generational spokesman, while others may get it whether they like it or not, and some would like to duck it.
Beckerman's website proclaims that he "is the 20–year–old spokesman for his generation raised in tropical Anchorage, Alaska and presently living in Washington, D.C. His occasionally controversial writing has appeared most notably in The Anchorage Daily News, The New York Press, Disinformation, Ain't It Cool News and Penthouse Online."
His book "Generation S.L.U.T." (MTV Books) premieres in February. Like most of his past writing, it's in–your–face, categorizing the generation in a dark way and not showing much of the other side. His prose is artful but stacks the deck in favor of the more promiscuous teens, who, according to Beckerman, have all but given up on love. Like some of the Gen X books that came out in the early 1990s, "Generation SLUT" includes supporting statistics, art, quotations, and personal essays, all of which are interspersed with Beckerman's stereotypical but satirical novella of high school sluts and seducers.
"Generation SLUT," like many books about teens, paints a bleak picture. Young author Zoe Trope, 17, whose acclaimed chapbook about high school life, "Please Don't Kill the Freshman," was published in hardcover in October by HarperCollins, says that books like "SLUT" and Nick McDonnell's "Twelve" paint her generation in a negative light, sometimes for shock value. She doesn't believe her own book epitomizes most of her generation, either.
"If someone is stepping forward to be the voice of this generation, it sure as fuck isn't going to be me," says Trope, who graduated from high school in Oregon a year early and will apply to college next year. "And it's not necessarily because I don't want the role or I don't think I'm good enough for it. I refuse to believe I represent my generation at all. I'm a minority, I'm queer, I'm very loud, I have offensive views. I know there are a lot of other kids like me, independent thinkers into the arts, but when I look around at people my age, I don't relate to them very well. What I published is a diary. I'm not heralding it as the novel of my generation."
Even if Gen Y is worried about books such as "Twelve," they aren't the first generation to have their dark side emphasized. Films like "Slacker" and "River's Edge" and the novel "Less Than Zero" portrayed Generation X'ers as emotionless or drug–addled, too.
But Beckerman's "Generation SLUT" does have a point. No other generation inspired news reports of "oral sex rings" in schools, and as Beckerman notes, the Columbine shootings were a defining event for his peers.
However, there is another side to Generation Y.
New York–based writer Ned Vizzini, 22, will debut his novel Be More Chill (Hyperion) in June, about a high school nerd who buys a pill that tells him what to say in order to be cool. The novel has enough generational references, insight and observation to make it a must–read for the generation, and yet it is well–crafted and humorous enough to transcend its demographic.
Vizzini made his mark in alternative weekly New York Press when he was 15 in the 1990s by sending in essays about being a computer geek at New York City's competitive Stuyvesant High School. His book of essays, "Teen Angst? Naaah. . . ," was first published in 2000 by Free Spirit Publishing and then reissued by Random House.
But how would Vizzini feel if granted the role of spokesman? "If the media started saying I was the spokesperson for Generation Y," he says, "I'd be happy, of course, [because] it would sell more books and I'd get more fun e–mails from around the world. But I know from being a writer that being anointed Œspokesman' has less to do with your abilities and more to do with someone's angle."
Vizzini said that even though Beckerman takes a different approach, "Generation SLUT" is worthwhile. "'Generation SLUT' is, like all great satire, less about representing people accurately and more about using grotesque to show us what we are inside," he says. "I don't know anyone who has as much sex as the kids in 'Generation SLUT.' The people I know can't get laid. But it's a good reflection of how we're perceived and sold to."
Says Beckerman, "Our icons are worthless, meaningless scum–sucking swine like Britney, Justin and Christina, whose Œart' will never change a single life or affect anyone on a single emotional level. Even the literature that Generation Y celebrates is mediocre swill, like Nick McDonnell's horrendous failure Twelve."
But Vizzini liked "Twelve." And Beckerman said that Generation Y has discovered non–Gen Y authors, too, like Stephen Chbosky ("Perks of Being a Wallflower"), Susanna Kaysen ("Girl, Interrupted"), and Hunter S. Thompson.
There are, of course, other talented young writers who have long careers ahead of them. J.T. Leroy, 23, will have his third novel published by Viking next year. Zoe Trope said she believes that if any writer's work represents her generation, it will be Leroy's. She also admires wordriot.org Editor–in–Chief Jackie Corley, 21, who has written fiction and published other authors' chapbooks in her short career.
There are also Nick Antosca, David Amsden, Christopher Paolini ("Eragon"), Heru Ptah, and the aforementioned Foer.
But perhaps it's better that none of them have been anointed yet. They all deserve the chance to develop.
And maybe it's also better for Generation Y if they have a smattering of diverse voices rather than letting the media anoint just one. For every Gen Y'er who is a S.L.U.T., there is still another who is more like Ned Vizzini's protagonist Jeremy, a teen who just wants the courage to ask out the girl in the school play. Between those two extremes are the kids in the middle, all with their own hopes, dreams and dilemmas.
"Gen Y should have literary spokespeople,"said Vizzini. "It would be . . . great for me to not be the only schmuck who wants to talk about books. But I don't think anyone can personify this generation the way Hemingway did the Lost Generation, at least not with books; it's too small a market. The world has changed. So we're stuck with Britney Spears until we change it back."
Caren Lissner is the editor of The Hoboken Reporter. Her first novel, "Carrie Pilby," about a 19–year–old genius, was published in June by Red Dress Ink. Her next novel, "Starting from Square Two," will be published in March. She can be reached at her website, CarenLissner.com.
©2003 Caren Lissner
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