Brat Pack

Today's bright young novelists shun the media-chasing antics of '80s hot shots. Or maybe they've just refined the game.

Topics: Books,

fresh from slinging millions of dollars to unknown movie directors at the
Sundance Film Festival, Lindsay Law, the president of Fox Searchlight, was
quoted in the New York Times as saying: “The filmmaker is the new rock
star.” Ten years ago, however, it was fiction writers who were anointed the
new rock ‘n’ roll stars — back when the literary brat pack ruled and the
tortured poet look was everywhere. Andrew McCarthy’s brooding,
chain-smoking novelist in “Saint Elmo’s Fire” was the ideal man. Fashion
mags had spreads advocating “the writer’s look” — simply add clunky black
nerd glasses and, presto, you’re Arthur Miller about to bag Marilyn Monroe.
The gossip pages were filled with accounts of young literary lights
hobnobbing with models, just like old-time rockers — Hey, look, it’s Jay
with Naomi and Marla at Nells, Bret with Bianca at the Mudd Club, Tama with
Andy and the whole gang at Studio 54. These club-hopping novelists were
getting huge advances, giant publicity pushes and serious Hollywood deals.
It was like Paris in the ’20s or Greenwich Village in the ’50s, only with
blow and paparazzi.

Looking back, though, the ’80s brat pack proved to have had about as much
cultural significance as the lambada — “the forbidden dance.” These writers
may have captured a certain youthful desperation with wit and humor, but
their work hasn’t held up — it’s simply not very complex or deep. These
days, McInerney & Co. keep plugging away, trying to sell themselves as
“survivors.” But there’s something insincere about this pose, particularly
when you consider that their superficial wounds were mostly self-inflicted.
Tama Janowitz now lurks in suburbia; her recently released novel, “By the
Shores of Gitchee Gumee,” sank like a burned bundt cake tossed into a murky,
forgotten pond. Bret Easton Ellis — isn’t he on that sitcom with Brooke
Shields? (Oh, sorry, that’s the ’80s acting brat pack wash-up Judd Nelson.)
And the critics’ favorite whipping boy, Jay McInerney? He has fled to
Nashville, where he still cranks out books despite severe abuse from
reviewers.



Strangely enough, the most enduring legacy these writers left behind may be
the guidance they’ve unintentionally passed on to a new generation of
novelists: all about how not to behave. Some of today’s rising young
writers have observed the carnage wrought by media
overexposure and self-destructive living, and opted for an
almost monastic retreat from the spotlight.

Donald Antrim, author of this month’s devastatingly
dark and hilarious novel “The Hundred Brothers” and 1993′s “Elect Mr.
Robinson for a Better World,” says that many successful young writers today “seem more puritanical” than their ’80s predecessors. Antrim is no stranger to the grindings of the publicity machine: A full-page photo of Antrim
has appeared in The New Yorker — which also recently excerpted the new novel –
and his publisher, Crown, is giving his book a big (for a strictly literary
novel) publicity nudge. Nevertheless, the odds of finding Antrim’s name or
mug in the gossip pages are about as slim as coming upon a Modern Library
Edition of “Slaves of New York.” And you’re much more likely to find him
making reservations for artist retreats like Yaddo and MacDowell than hip
nightspots like Nell’s and Odeon.

Antrim isn’t alone. Many of today’s bright literary lights are personally reclusive, almost obsessive-compulsive about their work. Some are in
Alcoholics Anonymous. And even those who are famous enough to make a viable run at ’80s-style excesses are hiding out in the boonies instead. David Foster
Wallace, for example, author of last year’s much-hyped monster novel “Infinite Jest,” lives
in the aptly-named Normal, Ill. Joanna Scott, author of the riveting novels “The Manikin”
and “Arrogance,” lives in that riotous hot spot, Rochester, N.Y. Last
year’s literary find, Elizabeth McCracken, is up in Massachusetts hammering
away on her follow-up to “The Giant’s House.” And Walter Kirn, given an
incredibly gushy New York Times review for his first collection, “My Hard
Bargain” — “he should be sentenced to a lifetime of writing fiction” –
bolted from Manhattan to the hills of Montana.

Back in Sodom, Antrim is frequently lumped together with fellow New Yorkers
Rick Moody and Jeffrey Eugenides, although they all strenuously resist
being characterized as any kind of movement or “new brat pack.” The three
Brown graduates are good friends, yet you would never confuse their
distinctive styles. Antrim’s work is theatrical in the mode of absurdist playwrights Beckett and Ionesco,
erudite and blackly funny. Eugenides, who was recently named one of the
nation’s best young writers by the influential British lit magazine Granta
and is the author of the much-praised first novel “The Virgin Suicides,” writes prose as smooth as Fitzgerald’s. In April, Moody — whose novel “The Ice Storm” has been
made into a movie by Ang Lee starring Sigourney Weaver — will publish
“Purple America,” a dense, tremendously well-crafted novel, something like
Cheever crossed with Pynchon, a mature work that throws down a
literary gauntlet to all serious young writers.

“The will to categorization is always reductive, to make the complex
simple,” Moody told me upon hearing himself being rounded up in a literary
sampler with his friends. “It’s the same logic,” he argues, “that let Jill
Eisenstadt and Donna Tartt get categorized as ’80s brat packers, simply
because they attended Bennington College around the same time as Bret
Ellis.” But Antrim, Moody and Eugenides — let’s call them “the three
amigos” for the sake of reductive simplicity — do have one thing in common: a rejection of the live-fast-die-young literary credo of the original brat pack.
The amigos all published their first books after they were 30. “I subscribe
to the long, slow progress model,” Moody says, and “in retrospect I’m happy
that it took years for me to sell ‘Garden State’” (his first novel).

In his 1975 polemic against art speak, “The Painted Word,” Tom Wolfe described “the boho dance” that
young artists engage in before they either become famous or hang themselves
in their garrets. In this ritual, the bohemian wannabe leaves his bourgeois
home and moves to Sodom (Manhattan), where he finds a suitably squalid hole in which to
produce his art, the entire time flaunting his contempt for the bourgeois
media and buyers of his art while letting them pay his bills.

This venerable two-step of seduction and contempt will probably always exist in pop culture — witness the formulaic chant of “sell-out” that rises up every time an “underground” band signs with a major label — but the literary dance has become more refined. The original brat-packers did the humpty with every establishment pimp
for a dime a dance; today’s young writers, when they tango at all, are a lot more careful about whom they do it with.

I found this out myself a few years ago, when I attempted to interview Antrim for a magazine profile before “Elect Mr. Robinson For a Better World”
came out. We spent the entire two hours discussing why we were doing this interview
to begin with. “Since my book isn’t even out and there’s no work in the
public, what is there to talk about?” Antrim asked. He didn’t
want to talk about himself, or in any way hint at giving himself over to
the hype machine.

Of course, not giving oneself over to the hype machine can be the most sophisticated form of literary careerism of all. If there’s a suspicion that a writer is selling out –
that is, not acting “serious” — the perception of his work can also be
damaged. As pomo fiction giant Ronald Sukenik recently argued on the Web site
Alt.X, “you become a commodity as soon as you
start trying to sell your work … the product
becomes your trademark, and you become its brand name. In other words, it’s
you in your market identity, your ‘image’ … Since you’re doomed to
commodification you might as well start paying attention to the way you’re
sold.”

Last year, when “Infinite Jest” was getting a loud and building
pre-publication buzz, David Foster Wallace decided to give only a few
interviews and stick with writing the occasional high-profile essay for
Harper’s and the like, further cementing his image as a reclusive
genius bent to the word-processing grindstone. He turned down People
and all TV.

Rick Moody is similarly exacting about which media he will permit to taint his image. His high-road publicity tactics collapsed, however, when he agreed to be in a New
York Times Magazine photo shoot of cool downtown literary types at the
earnest hipster hangout Cafe Limbo. “I could kick myself,” Moody says about
his naiveti. Before he realized what was happening, expensive black
faux-boho clothing was handed around and he was suddenly in a group shot
with Lower East Side poseurs. The resulting Gap-ad-like photo ran — the horror! — in the
magazine’s fashion section.

Fashion! The very word strikes fear into the heart of today’s young
writers. To not be taken seriously, to be lumped in with vapid media whores
like Elizabeth (“Prozac Nation”) Wurtzel would be nearly as bad as penning
a facile ditty like Ellis’ “Rules of Attraction.”

Even if they wanted to, however, the trhs sirieux young writers of today might not be able to have much fun. In a recent, much-talked-about New Yorker essay, “The Fall of Fun,” James Atlas argued that
the once-riotous New York literary scene has become as dull as dirt.
Publishing parties are businesslike affairs with scant chances for
intrigue. The drunken, adulterous brawls that Atlas wistfully evokes are long gone, and the excess of the ’80s is
“ancient history by now, exotica recorded in some yellowed Jay McInerney
novel that’s gathering dust on the shelf.” Atlas somberly suggests that “now literature is a career choice, a minor branch of the
content-provider industry.” These sober literary
workers aren’t going to get bent in public and vomit on their editor’s
shoes, lest they get dropped a rung in the unforgiving new corporate
publishing ladder.

Not everyone buys Atlas’ mournful view of a leering, divorce-and-smoke-filled literary Paradise Lost. George Plimpton, who has seen his share of martini-chugging writers, and
whose Paris Review published the early-career work of McInerney, Janowitz,
Eugenides, Antrim and Moody (among others), reports that his favorite old
literary hangout, Elaine’s, is “just as fun as it has always been,” although he admits that “there are a lot more Hollywood types and celebrities mixed in with the
literati.”

According to Plimpton, the literary parties Atlas referred to have “always
been dull, official publicity functions where writers talk agents and
advances — and gossip like crazy. The real fun,” Plimpton ruefully
asserts, “is being had by the unpublished writers.” The young Paris Review
staffers, traditionally made up of post-collegiate poets and writers, “are
just as hedonistic as previous generations” (which include the
now-successful writers Mona Simpson and Jonathan Dee). Among his junior
staffers, according to Plimpton, “the literary drinking game du jour
involves memorizing long, complex poems like ‘The Waste Land’ and obscure
Gaelic rhymes, then drinking pints of beer, rounds of pints, and with each
round testing one’s memory.”

That particular pastime may not sound too threatening to marital stability. But at Plimpton’s own Upper East Side townhouse, where his legendary literary
parties still rage, the place is still crammed with generic drunken nubiles and littirateurs puffing away like Parisians. And at the periphery of every stultifying book
party, you’ll still find struggling young writers, gaunt hipsters working
shit-paying entry-level publishing jobs, greedily sucking down the free
booze and canapis, much like this Random House drone did 10 years
ago.

It’s true, however, that there was a lot more free booze back then. At the height of the original brat pack’s fame, every Tom, Dick
and Kristen McCloy would get a big, boozy publishing party. Now only the
really big names get the crates of bubbly. Carol Schneider, Random House
vice president and head of publicity, says that “because of straitened
circumstances due to business not being that good, publishers are closely
watching what they spend.” She now targets publicity money more carefully
by having more publicity “luncheons” for a few select book review editors.
These days the wilder book parties are generally thrown by friends of the
authors. Money for young writers is also tight. Rarely do you find literary
first novelists getting six-figure advances. The big first-novel money increasingly goes to film-ready
thrillers like the upcoming Douglas Kennedy book, “The Big Picture,” whose
galley boasts of a “$750,000 Major National Marketing Campaign.”

To promote young literary authors nowadays, publicists crave an angle, a
press-hooking image. Unfortunately, Moody, Antrim, Eugenides and Wallace are all
upper-middle-class white guys who resist easy media shrinkwrapping. (Although Wallace’s publicists must have gamboled for joy when they got their hands on that photograph in which Wallace, unshaven, appears with a Deion Sanders-like doo-rag on his head.) More
tidily packaged are writers like flavor-of-the-fall Junot Diaz, whose first
collection of short stories, “Drown,” netted a hefty advance and received
considerable ink — mostly due to its thinly veiled autobiographical
material regarding Diaz’s hardscrabble youth in the impoverished Dominican
Republic and the housing projects of urban New Jersey. Thom Jones, the
Vietnam vet prizefighter who worked as a janitor until he was discovered in
a New Yorker slush pile, also makes for great copy (his visceral writing
might also, but that’s not the publicist’s job to promote).

It used to be that you read between the lines in novels, searching for
telling moments that rang autobiographical. These provided our image of the
author. Now publishers aren’t that patient or trusting of readers. It’s
much easier to eliminate the intermediate steps and publish “literary”
memoirs instead. What else could explain the recent glut of these
confessions? Entire literary lives are summed up in single words and
phrases: Caroline Knapp’s “Drinking: A Love Story” — alcoholism; Elizabeth Wurtzel’s “Prozac Nation” — depression; Kathryn
Harrison’s much-hyped April release of “The Kiss” — incest.

Of course, no writer can completely control his image. And Sukenik notwithstanding, it’s probably not an attempt that’s worth much of an artist’s time. In a Harper’s essay called “Perchance
To Dream,” novelist Jonathan Franzen argued that
novels themselves offer the best refuge from reductionism and sound bites, from the
point-and-click culture of instant gratification. He insisted that readers still long for complex stories, whole worlds that live
solely in the imagination.
In the end, the work itself is the only place where a writer can succeed or fail completely on his own terms. Today’s young writers, as they continue their
long, private climb to mastery and renown, seem to have grasped that truth.

Rob Spillman is editor of Tin House magazine.

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