I’m a child of the late 1960s, which – if you do the math of generational pigeonholing – puts me squarely among what has historically been referred to as Generation X. Because we can with some clarity recall live in the final 30 years of the 1900s, we are the last of the true 20th century boys and girls.
The Generation X moniker comes in large part from the novel/short story collection Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture by Douglas Coupland, and has since been used as both a term of derision/proud banner by those who view this demographic from the outside and those who belong to it.
My good friend and the head of Codorus Press, Wayne Lockwood, also encapsulated the perspective of our generation in his fine essay collection, Acid Indigestion Eyes: Collected Essays and Musings on Generation X, reflecting in the moment he was experiencing them the challenges, hopes and dreams of those born between the late 1960s and the late 1970s.
I could go on for a few thousand more words about my own experiences coming of age in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but that’s not my goal here. My purpose in bringing up my own generational label is to remind all you writers out there that, when it comes to time, it is pretty much guaranteed that the previous generations – regardless of what labels they apply to themselves – will find something to complain about regarding those that come after them.
For as much crap as the Baby Boomers gave the Gen X folks, you can see the same thing happening right now regarding the Gen X opinion of those coming up after us.
As for me, I try to apply the same philosophy to generational differences as I do to new music: Don’t assume that everything that came after “your” generation or era of music is automatically worse, and as a writer, don’t assume that because of your age you don’t have something to say.
Remember, at one time the rowdy Prohibition-era party animals of The Great Gatsby were considered directionless and morally corrupt by the Victorians who came before them. The Beat writers of the 1950s were looked down on as lowlifes and perverts because they diverged from the false perfection of Eisenhower-era America, but they eventually influenced what would become the counter-culture movement of the 1960s (also looked down upon by the “straight” society of their parents’ generation of World War II and Korean War vets) and authors like Tom Robbins and Hunter S. Thompson.
But before we can hold too much against those who we’ve dubbed The Greatest Generation, remember that they had their own voices to raise. It’s from this demographic, notoriously silent about saving the entire friggin’ world from Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, that we got Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. And it was in 1951 that young J.D. Salinger laid the first modern novel of teen angst on us with The Catcher in the Rye.
I mention Catcher specifically, because it reminds me of a conversation I had with my then 15-year-old cousin, who was assigned the novel as part of her summer reading list. Why, she asked, do we read this? It’s so dorky and dated, especially the language.
Because, I said, it was the first novel to even attempt to realistically relate what was going on inside the head of a teen going through the specific challenges of the late 1940s and early 1950s. And if you try, you might find something in it that relates to your own life as a 21st century teenage girl.
So, while it’s easy for older folks to dismiss each subsequent group of young folks coming of age and finding their own literary voice, I’m of the opinion that it’s always a mistake. If you disagree, recall your own experiences as a teen or young adult and how foreign they might seem to a young person today. While someone who might find your talk about having the first Atari game system on the block quaint and a little boring (“Back in my day we just had Space Invaders and we were happy with it!”), placing it the context of the times might help them better understand how far we’ve come technologically in just 30 years.
At the same time, it’s important to listen to young writers and try to understand what they’re trying to convey, both to put you own world into context and to inform your writing (particularly if you’re trying to write younger characters). I can only pretend to imagine what it must be like to have come of age in the shadow of 9/11 and the subsequent surveillance state, economic collapse and oversharing society, and I remain curious to hear what this generations – and those that come after it – have to say.