Alexis Massie: narrative, vog novels, and related drafty material
Articles » November 2001

The power of looking at any given generation as a starting point for literature is the ease with which one can tap into one of the basic qualifications of "literature," that the narrative must reflect or provide insight into the human condition. Despite our diversity, everyone comes of age, everyone tends to question his or her predecessors' decisions, and everyone attempts to define the meaning of their life, a commonality that can appeal to a wide audience, and an easy distinction between an artistic work of merit and an entertaining paperback one might buy in an airport to pass the time. "Voice of a generation" novels will remain relevant to the generation it purports to represent because it recalls the extenuating circumstances and culture in which they, as a child, independently assessed and reacted to society. In addition, they remain relevant even to those outside the generation for any number of reasons, one being the unfortunate possibility that it provides a potentially erroneous reflection of the world view of someone they might know but not understand, another being the very fact that it is possibly a different perspective from one's own and is educational in that regard.

Humans like categories and generalization, and hate to be categorized or generalized. It helps us in stitching together composites from minimal information, and reduces us to a mere shadow of the unique soul we are. No single voice could ever offer the true experience of more than a single person, yet the insights derived about the influences upon it can often rule out any weaknesses in the form and serve as a representational scenario of how one individual dealt with a world that many confront. We derive solace from seeing those suffer as we do, even in fiction, even if the outcome or resolution differs significantly from our own. In this manner, the books stand on their own merits. The difficulty comes when a culture embraces a book as truly categorical, a true representation not just of a character and their conflict-resolution, but of any and all persons in that characters age range.

Categorical assumptions are dangerous because they are so simple to transmit, one scenario often being developed into another, in a chain of media presentations. Let's take one comparatively placid combination: "Gen X," "daughter," and "drop out." Chances are, a fairly well rounded composite of a person could be developed from those three words, especially if one is looking at it from the perspective of a (just for fun) "Baby Boomer," "parent."

The "Baby Boomer" finds the daughter apathetic, self-destructive, and bewildering. Baby Boomers associate happiness predominantly with financial security and material possession, morally justified by some level of token "progressive" political thinking. "Gen X daughter dropout" wants to be happy, but does not necessarily associate happiness with financial security alone, particularly as illustrated by the consequences of their parents' lifestyle: the divorce(s), the afternoons she spent alone watching TV and the moving away from their childhood home to at least one other location. Gen X'ers are politically passive, prone to using pop psychology to justify their decisions, and philosophy to justify their self-absorption. Gen X'ers don't know what they're doing or what they're looking for, are too lazy or spoiled to resolve their desires, and usually too stoned to figure out what really matters. Add a rite of passage (college graduation is a favorite). Stir.

The characters and their foibles above are all categorical assumptions, and are reflected and reinforced by many different forms of media, from the editorials in your local newspaper to novels, to movies such as "Reality Bites." They also may or may not, in part or wholly, reflect the experiences of any given person labeled as either a "Baby Boomer" or "Gen X'er." Of course it's old news now, but it served as the foundation from which Douglas Coupland's novel "Gen X" was launched, just as those generalizations about generations served to fuel Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" and Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye."

Those that consume them usually interpret "voice of a generation" novels, like any other media, as intentionally categorical in nature, reflecting a particular phase of development in any contemporary's lifetime. In actuality, they reflect one of countless possible experiences and are probably not representative of the viewpoints of even a majority. Nonetheless, if a reader finds a representation to be true, or at least containing some merit or perspective he or she can relate to, then chances are they will think the novel is worthwhile. If not, they will probably become angry and offended by it.

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