The Gen-X factor, Kate Camp

Literature

One of the most pervasive ideas in contemporary culture is that nothing is original. It has become a modern cliché to complain about revivals of the past, and wonder what will come next. We’ve had the sixties, seventies and eighties revivals, and soon, people warn, we’ll be having revivals of last month’s fads and fashions, or the music from last week. Fridays will become merely Thursday revivals. As technology becomes more sophisticated, we may even be able to revive individual hours and minutes, and people will say, “yesterday, 10.43am? If you can remember it then you weren’t really there, man.”

Some people assume this climate of ironic nostalgia is a sign of our contemporary emptiness, of an absence of new ideas and images and refrains; others celebrate it as signalling our inclusiveness and diversity. I’ve been wondering lately if these revivals simply show that we haven’t yet finished with the ideas of those decades. We haven’t given peace a chance or even burned our bras; small wonder then that the trinkets and tunes and tacky accoutrements of the last few decades still appeal to us.

But if “reality” hasn’t moved on, virtual reality certainly has. What differentiates Generation X  from previous generations more than any other factor is that we have spent (and I use the verb advisedly) our entire lives immersed in mass media and globalised popular culture. My first words weren’t “Big Mac”, but I can remember the opening of New Zealand’s first McDonalds, in Porirua, when I was four. (And what a wonderful place it was, with its water fountains in glass boxes, played on by coloured lights. It was the only reason we ever went to Porirua.)

Naturally enough, our literature, and our attitudes to literature, are affected by the constant babble of advertorial infotainment we are exposed to. Globalisation has led to homogenisation, but also to increased diversity: fast food and fizzy drinks may be the same the world over, but the range of music, films, books and magazines now available in New Zealand is dizzying. So called Coca-cola-nisation is in many ways no more pervasive or more limiting than the old-fashioned cocoa-colonisation of yesteryear, and much complaint about “Americanisation” of New Zealand culture is merely nostalgia for our English colonial past.

Generation X might be defined, on one level, as the first generation which instinctively values the culture of the new world over that of the old. Where our parents – and many generations before them – may have had a common currency of imagery and reference drawn from English versions of Christianity, the canon, and the classics, the under-30s have a different shared reserve. Our common language is drawn from the American-dominated domains of contemporary TV, music, and film: for us it’s Sesame Street not the road to Damascus, and the Inferno is Disco, not Dante.

We are often described as a selfish, overly self-conscious, “me” generation, and in many ways we are. Economic rationalism, postmodern distrust of the general, pop-psychological urgings to “speak from our experience”: these and other influences have encouraged us to look at and look after number one. Our much-bemoaned lack of interest in politics is partly the quid pro quo for this highly personalised existence, partly the result of post-Rogernomics disillusionment with the political system. It also pays to remember that the most formative political events of our youth – certainly the only ones I can remember – were the Springbok Tour and the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior. Neither was likely to increase one’s faith in justice, authority, or the democratic process.

One would expect our literature to reflect this world view, and the fiction that has emerged in New Zealand in the last five to ten years, written by or apparently targeted at the “younger generation”, does share some common features: dialogue dominates the text; there is little authorial interpolation; irony is pretty much ubiquitous; the setting is urban; relationships are characterised by a lack of connection; characters are unheroic and often unsympathetic. As with the writing of any “school”, there are lots of exceptions, and the range is wide: the best is funny and insightful, making sharp points about life in an age of anxiety. The worst is self-indulgent and shallow – adolescent fantasy posing as gritty realism.

But while Gen-X fiction does have common stylistic features and common themes which are very much of the moment, it strikes me that the characters in these stories are rather more familiar, old-fashioned, even. Gen-X characters are self-centred and insecure. They worry a lot about what other people think of them, and obsess about their image and appearance. They don’t have a coherent sense of self, fail to define themselves, and feel defined by others. In all sorts of ways the Gen-X character is a victim of their own inner-monologue.

For more of this character type, see A Catcher in the Rye, see Franny and Zooey, or Great Expectations or Hamlet or Emma. In the film Clueless Emma is a high school girl and in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet Mercutio wears drag, but their characters remain the same: jumpy, insecure young people unhealthily obsessed with the trivia of their limited lives.  Perhaps it is a sign of my own latent conservatism, but it seems to me that literary characters – and quite possibly, by extension, people – are very much what they were fifty, a hundred, even two or three hundred years ago.

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One thing that has changed is the way books are promoted: amidst many unfounded rumours about the death of the book, one can detect the resurrection of the author. Perhaps in an attempt to lure in the media-savvy under-30s, books are packaged and sold in the same way as other products, with celebrity. This can be seen in the rise of literary events and festivals, and the popularity of author tours. More than ever, authors are expected to sell their book by appearing on its behalf, and the better the author looks and performs, the better their book will sell.

The context, then, in which we may place the literature written by, and/or apparently targeted at the under-30s, is a society no longer engaged with the English literary or cultural tradition but dominated by American-influenced visual media and popular music. Mine is an individualist, consumerist, secular and largely apolitical generation: it’s a generation of contradiction, wearing “Made in China” Nikes to Seven Years in Tibet, a generation whose literature – and whose response to literature – is often characterised by an apathetic “whatever”.

But “literature” is probably not the best word to describe the written culture of the under-30s, because we tend to think of literature as the word written for the reader. Yet so much powerful, intelligent, wonderful writing today is not intended for the page but is found in screenplays or scripts, in our flourishing fringe theatre and acclaimed short films; it is the word written for the audience, the viewer. Certainly, the impact of film in our wider culture is much more far-reaching than that of even the most successful book. Among my contemporaries, film and television have a huge impact on whatever collective consciousness we may lay claim to in this atomised society.

I have always believed that to write well, one must read well, but I am having to revise this opinion. It seems to me that this rule holds true only if one is writing for a reader. If one is writing films or plays or television scripts, then one writes for a viewer, and viewing these media is surely more important and relevant. In a recent British art award, all four finalists were film or video entries. Part of me wants to dismiss this as merely a faddish interest in new technology, a gimmick. And the same part of me has resisted the notion of film or video as literature. Perhaps, because of their association with homogenised entertainment of the lowest common denominator, I think these media can never accommodate the complexity and difficult-ness of true art. But somewhere in the back of my mind is a vague memory of learning that that’s what they said about the novel, too. Perhaps visual literature is set to overtake written literature in the same way the written word usurped oral tradition only a few hundred years ago.

At a recent debate at Te Papa – that great Gen-X institution – one speaker suggested that we always overestimate the amount of change which will happen in the next five years, and underestimate the change which will occur in the next 20. I’m sure he’s right: it’s easy to be disappointed that hovercraft still haven’t become the main mode of transport, while at the same time taking the modern miracle of EFT-POS entirely for granted. (And EFT-POS is a paradigm shift. How odd it would have seemed ten years ago for a shopkeeper to ask if you wanted any cash with your ice cream!) I expect that the next five years won’t see much change in literature, or the way it is promoted and promulgated.  Perhaps one thing that is reassuring about the book is that its fashions are less fickle and short-lived than those of music or clothing. My rash predictions – really my wish list – take the 20-year view.

In 2020 the novel will remain the leading form of written fiction, but short prose will be increasingly popular. These will not be short stories per se, but will more closely resemble scenes from movies, newspaper or magazine columns, or transcripts of stand-up comedy. Dialogue will be the most important element of all fiction, but conventional layout of direct speech will become obsolete, with dialogue being laid out as it is in scripts. Paragraphs will be separated by white space, not marked by indents; in fact, punctuation and layout generally will become simpler as people become increasingly used to reading text from screens, not pages. This will suit the Gen-X-ers, whose education was short on topics like grammar and punctuation.

One of the secrets of the novel’s ongoing popularity will be the return of serialisation, with chapters appearing in magazines and e-zines on a weekly or monthly basis. In this way, literature will mimic television serials, enabling people to feel a sense of connection with others as they move through a narrative at the same pace. One of the huge advantages of TV, film, and theatre over literature is that they are group activities; they occur at a particular time for a particular group of people. Serialisation of novels will increase the sense of literature as an experience shared between people, rather than an activity practised alone.

I’d like to predict that poetry will become wildly popular, with poets mobbed in the streets and earning as much as movie stars, but it seems more likely that poetry will retain its privileged status as the non-commercial branch of literature. But poems will become widely available aurally on the Internet, with “singles” of poets reading their work being released to coincide with the publication of books. Rhyme and formal structure will have a widespread resurgence in response to the long reign of unrhymed free verse, and as a backlash against the sloppiness of much writing on the Internet.

It seems likely that, due to its limited commercial potential, literature will never attract the attention of global gluttons like Rupert Murdoch. I hope it doesn’t. It would be sad to see the same kind of product placement in books that we see in TV and movies: “Is this a Wilkinson Sword dagger I see before me?” just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Besides, libraries virtually give away the product for free, and hundreds of people can read the same book when only one has paid the cover price. I hope and predict that, as the fictions (and factions) we see and hear in commercial media are increasingly controlled by small numbers of powerful corporations, literature’s role as the blood test of the human spirit will be even more important than it is today.

Kate Camp is a Wellington poet and writer. Her collection Unfamiliar Legends of the Stars won this year’s Jessie Mackay Best First Book for Poetry Award.

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