Sunday, September 8, 2019

Novelists & the "Voice of a Generation"

When I was in college in 1991 and discovered this new funny-looking novel by Douglas Coupland called Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, I was intrigued and became a fan, even going as far as writing my Master's thesis on the early works of Coupland in 2002. However, I was also surprised after finishing the book to read on the back that some reviewer had offered the blurb: "A Modern day Catcher in the Rye." That just seemed wrong. Coupland was the first to agree and to reject the notion that he was the "voice of Generation X," and he even went as far as declaring the "death of Generation X" in an article for Details. While Coupland's novel was certainly a zeitgeist novel that captured a moment in time and reflected the general ennui of people in their 20s in the early post-Reagan years, the comparison to an iconic generation-spanning novel like Salinger's work, which has sold roughly 65 million copies, just seemed absurd.

So, what exactly do we mean by the voice of a generation? That's been on my mind since encountering the work of Irish novelist Sally Rooney. It just seems odd to anoint a writer as the "Salinger of the Snapchat generation" when her books have sold roughly 60,000 copies, and the whopping majority -- I'm guessing 95% -- of people under the age of thirty-five have never heard of her and will never read her book. So, can we really say she "speaks for a generation"? What does that really mean anyway. Certainly, it is possible to speak in a voice that reflects a collective experience without the need to be famous, popular, and recognized by the entire group. Truly, the same can be said of Coupland, for it's a safe bet that most Gen Xers never read the novel, don't know how their label originated, and couldn't even identify the author.

In thinking about the generational voice idea for Millennials and Gen Z (or Generation neXt as I like to call them), I've also encountered the insight and literary work of writer/novelist Tony Tulathimutte, who has the distinction of writing what the New York press termed "the first great Millennial novel," while also penning an insightful bit of cultural commentary for the New York times where he posited "Why There's No Millennial Novel." The English teacher and sardonic literary critic in me loves the ironic dichotomy of those two pieces, and it helps extend my interest in the idea of a novel as the voice of a generation.

So, what do you think?

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