Why do GenXers Want to Freeze Culture in Its Tracks?
Clearly, the Washington Post published this book-related op-ed by Mark Athitakis to rile up Millennial readers and writers like me. CLEARLY. I can’t think of another reason it would open and close with Bret Easton Ellis, the literary whipping boy of the moment. Count the article a success in one regard, anyway. I am riled.
On the surface, Athitakis argues that no Great Novelist has emerged from the current class of Millennial authors, many of whom he names: Karen Russell, Ottessa Moshfegh, Yaa Gyasi, even Valeria Luiselli. Athitakis contends that these authors, while doing remarkable work, aren’t “household names, not in the way a David Foster Wallace or a Donna Tartt became…The idea of a literary celebrity, once a part of America’s establishment in the ‘60s and ’70s, became a mildly ironic concept in the ’80s and ‘90s. Today it’s an oxymoron.”
True enough. And I’m gratified that Athitakis has chosen mostly women writers and many writers of color to fill out his field of good Millennial authors. But it’s jarring that he compares this field to mostly male novelists of prior generations: Wallace, Safran Foer, the great erect obelisk of Updike. The problem inside that comparison proves difficult to unwind, because publishers have leveled the playing field so gradually for women writers and writers of color that Athitakis has fewer options for female literary celebrity prior to the Millennial generation. (Erica Jong, maybe, but she didn’t write “doorstoppers.” I find the Donna Tartt choice baffling.)
There’s an itch in there I want to scratch, something about how Great Literary Men seeking to make their mark want to make it as long and thick as possible. About how women so rarely write very long novels, compared to the frequency with which men write them (I discovered that when I was preparing this piece on multi-book projects), and the reasons that might be. Anxiety of authorship? Reticence to take up space? A turn toward minimalism coinciding with a turn toward greater diversity in publishing? Too many variables to say for sure.
Despite the general pattern of twentieth century literature, length isn’t everything when it comes to, uh, books. Great literature can be brief. As ever, Alice Munro is a prime counterexample to maximalist greatness. Length is a red herring, though, in Athitakis’s piece. Mainly, he posits, “millennials can’t point to a widely recognized generational touchstone the way we Xers can.”
I’m getting riled just copy/pasting that. Of course we can’t. Between the generations, culture has fractured, fragmented, splintered into tens of millions of pieces, like a mirror dropped from a great height. Matt Zoller Seitz extracted a portion of this truth in his piece for Vulture about “the end of the era of television as an epic, communal journey.” But he failed to go far enough. Millennials are the first generation without simultaneity in any cultural area, not just television.
There’s no song we can all sing around a fire, no book we’re all reading, no movie we’re all talking about. No news anchors we all recognize. No single way that we remember consuming a major event. Some of us were on Twitter, some of us were on Facebook, some of us read the newspaper or watched CNN. I was in college when the towers fell, but others in my generation were in elementary school. Think about the gap in experience there. Yet somehow, a particular cultural artifact (a generationally representational novel) should be consistent for all of us.
My rilement about Athitakis’s article stems from his inherent assumption that literature is going to go on being the same way it’s always been. He assumes (inherently!) that the massive cultural fracture that began when the oldest Millennials were teenagers will not affect books—the way they’re created, gatekept, consumed.
That’s folly. Of course there is no great Millennial novel! Instead, there are dozens. We tell our story in fragments, from many voices. This shift is not about the form of the novel, or “the terms of engagement for literary culture.” It’s about how all culture works now: as a mosaic that forms the whole, rather than as a monolith that represents, realistically, very few. Call us the Voltron generation. We are large; we contain multitudes.
I’m sorry that Gen X, like an only child tugged between aggressive parents, continues to be caught uncomfortably between the Boomers and the Millennials. But it’s no excuse for earnestly scratching one’s head and asking whyever books aren’t the same as they used to be. It’s not a mystery, dude. Culture has changed completely. We live in a moment with no communal cultural experiences. That’s it. That’s the reason.
We may go back to cultural communality once we all get social media brain implants and can think about all the same things all the time again. But right now, the only mystery is Gen X’s resistance to the new, splintered way of art.