Burying The Lead

July 18th, 2006 · 5 Comments
by Booksquare

We have been alternately amused and saddened by the Lev Grossman article in Time magazine — he is desperately seeking the voice of a generation. First off, let us make one thing absolutely clear: forty is the new thirty. Therefore, authors who are in their forties are really like authors of a previous generation in their thirties.

That being said, it is rare that a young author has sufficient life experience, awareness, to transcend youth and create a work that lasts. There are exceptions — Zadie Smith appears capable of longevity. A voice of a generation needs longevity because it’s not the one generation being spoken for — it is the generations to follow.

Grossman goes a long time into his article before he ends up where we started:

Note also that every single one of the writers to bear the title has been both white and male. Whose generation are they speaking for, exactly? “When people say generation, they’re usually not including, say, people who live in Africa, Asia and people without bank accounts,” [Douglas] Coupland says tartly. “It’s an exclusionary and delusional concept.”

Just like the fiction we read in school is primarily white and male, these so-called voices are anointed by a jury of their peers (or perhaps mentors). That is not to say their works are not deserving, though we never warmed to Catcher in the Rye the way we adored other works by J.D. Salinger. Such is the way personal taste goes.

You cannot have a voice of a generation until you have a generation that can be defined on some level. We are, as a culture, rethinking what it means to be young and old — youth stays immature far too long these days, old seems remarkably youthful compared to the generation of our parents. Slicing and dicing by the year of birth seems almost abitrary — it’s something actuaries do, not artists.

Perhaps it is necessary that the voice of a generation emerge when he or she or it is needed most. Or perhaps Grossman’s love of the novel blinds him (“…a private, potent means of sharing the unspeakableness of daily life with one another…”) to the idea that the generation he’s desperately seeking a voice for is not only tied to one medium. Perhaps the key to finding the voice of a generation is to look at the sum total of the art being produced.

[tags]zadie smith, lev grossman, time, books, publishing[/tags]

File Under: Square Pegs

5 responses so far ↓

  • SusanGable // Jul 18, 2006 at 10:53 am

    Yeah, forty is the new thirty, dammit! (g)

    Personal favorite youthful author: S.E. Hinton. That was a voice of a generation. And since my 14-year-old son, the non-reader, just read and loved one of her books in school, her stuff also speaks to the new generation.

  • Joan Kelly // Jul 18, 2006 at 11:10 am

    Thanks for making the point about how hard it is to define an actual generation, let alone for one white man to speak for it. No hard feelings to one white man.

  • Lorra Laven // Jul 18, 2006 at 5:25 pm

    Adventures or misadvantures that we call “defining life experiences” can happen at any age, although the longer we live, the more likely it is that we will have one or more of these run-ins with fate.

    Expressing those experiences in writing is another matter all together. I believe the more years we spend on this earth, the more we understand the interactions, be they good or evil, between human beings. Isn’t that what most books are about?

  • Booksquare // Jul 18, 2006 at 9:29 pm

    The one white man (and by white, I mean, well, white) in the BS household accepts your presumed apologies. So many things define a generation, and the more I look around me, I find it’s hard to define a peer group, much less a generation. My mother was old when she was my current age — but she was also the coolest person my friends ever knew. Moreso than me. It strikes me as funny that we are clinging to the voice of a generation as a zeitgeist. But I’m old.

    Which leads to Lorra’s comment.

    None of us (except Susan and me, but that’s because she celebrated the latest b-day with me last week) know how old the other person is. And even if we discover that Joan’s a mere child (I know, I know), does that change her life experience or Lorra’s response to her experience? Generation is like time.

    And, yeah, old age makes me all weepy and nostalgic.

    PS – Joan, I though I commented, but I only laughed. Your response several ‘Squares ago about, er, self-punishment was right on the mark.

  • Joan Kelly // Jul 19, 2006 at 7:07 pm

    I am old enough to have trouble remembering what I wrote a few ‘Squares back, but thank you! And I’m 38.