Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Truth about writing today and the Expectant Generation

Looking through the books and essays at a local store it hit home that people around my age are now coming out with novels and contributing short stories to anthologies. It's a very strange feeling, to have people who are your exact contemporaries out there expressing a kind of world view and take on society and life. Especially for this generation. Generation might be too strong of a word to describe it, but there really aren't any terms that get at something smaller than a generation. What I'm talking about are people born after Generation X as it's defined by just about anyone who doesn't have an interest in stretching the term farther than it really applies, but who aren't really part of this other generation, Generation Y, which itself is a really broad category. I'm thinking people basically born in the late seventies up until maybe the first years of the eighties. Call it the bratty little brother (or sister) of Generation X.

These people, myself included, have been the beneficiaries of the biggest thrust in progressive childhood education ever in the United States. Resources and resources were devoted to their development into compassionate human beings who could be anything that they wanted to be, followed by a collective pause as they grew up waiting for what exactly they would do. I refer to them as the Expectant Generation, not the generation of Expectations or the generation that Expects things but the generation that's supposed to be expectant in the sense of in the fullness of time bringing something forward, advancing the world in some way beyond what might have been possible for people before them, at least in the eyes of their parents.

The collective pause of expectation is letting up now and people are finding themselves not as individuals preparing for this glorious future but as people now expected to bring home the bacon as it were, to transform potential value into actual value, or potential value into cash value. I found myself becoming an adult by accident, although chronologically it should already have happened, by virtue of all the preparation that could possibly be done being exhausted. Which is why reading the writing of people my age is so interesting.

The truth of what they're coming out with, at least at this stage, is a little bit unexpected.
People who haven't lived in the world suddenly coming out with pseudo-profound stories about people leading big boys and girls lives that bear almost no relation to reality but instead recycle common themes popular with people of their social class and understanding, not really adding anything, just shifting the components around to make something that they think is in fact new and exciting but which really is just the same old same old, and not even that: the same old same old as uncreatively reexpressed by people trying to imitate it.

I hate McSweeny's. I think it prints bad fiction masquerading as hip fiction (although I like Neal Pollack). Combine that with the persistant whine of David Eggers and you have a perfect combination of talentlessness and self indulgence. Talentlessness might not be exactly the right term: these people have basic talent or else they wouldn't be able to put together short stories. But using that talent to rise above cliches? They really don't get it. You have to have a basic quantity of experience to draw on before you can right convincingly about anything, which is why people who haven't had that fall back on the good old saw of writing about their experience as highschoolers or college aged kids, and why people who don't have it fake it.

That's the sad truth about writing today. I expected a revolution, a kind of blossoming of a hundred flowers, in a non-ironic way, a great profusion of different types, creative insights, and points of view. Instead, it's just the same reprocessed writing. No doubt exacerbated by the rise of the MFA program and the creative writing programs at the undergraduate level. Other people have written about them so I'll keep it brief: how are you supposed to write if you've studied writing or English in college, then have transferred to a graduate program but have never really even lived outside of an institutional context? It's great to think about writing and practice it but how exactly does that translate into being able to describe the world around you in anything but a sort of hackneyed way if you haven't actually done anything? This isn't a kind of neo-beat plea to get back to the vitality of life in writing, but instead to suggest that people at least need to write things that at least have life of some kind beyond regurgitated stereotypes. It's called creativity.

I hope that this Expectant Generation will follow through and that we won't just be facing the remainders of what some professor taught these people for the next thirty or so years. Because that would truly suck. And besides, in that time these people may actually have had some life experiences which will prompt them to get beyond the hackneyed and into the real.

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