Thirty years ago today, Vintage Books published Bright Lights, Big City, a semi-autobiographical, cocaine-fueled journey through ‘80s New York written by a 29-year-old Jay McInerney. Three years later, McInerney was famously anointed (or condemned) by the Village Voice as part of the “literary brat pack,” alongside Bret Easton Ellis and Tama Janowitz and a selection of other orbiting talents.
McInerney’s brat pack has a special place in the collective consciousness. They were the literary it-clique, brash and good-looking and wildly popular. As one Nikke Finke described them in a September ’87 edition of the LA Times,
They all live in New York and hang out, sometimes even together, at the same nightspots like Nell’s. They get invited to the hottest parties and placed on the most pompous literary panels. They write slim volumes or short stories, the perfect medium for an MTV-nurtured generation with a short attention span. They sell their books to Hollywood in lucrative option deals. They pontificate about life, love and writing for trend-tracking magazines like Esquire, Rolling Stone and Interview. They get offers to hawk Scotch and other products for advertisers.
Well, what do you want? It was the ‘80s.
In the ‘90s, the literary world was graced with another “brat pack” of sorts — less commercialized and less trashy to be sure, their books much better, their legacy more enduring — but another young, good-looking friend-group of writers crowned in the press as their generation’s literary oligarchy. This was, of course, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Mary Karr, whose group origin story was the subject of a 2011 New York Magazine article titled “Just Kids.”
It’s no big surprise. As in nearly every industry, particularly creative ones, the book world fetishizes youth. It makes sense, after all — any achievement is more impressive if attained ahead of schedule, and young, attractive people are so much easier to market. But the idea of the brat pack — a group of precocious geniuses who are also friends, representing their generation in bars together! — holds a certain extra mystique for readers, and especially those readers who also happen to be aspiring writers. There’s something romantic about it, something comforting, something that seems elemental. And yet, we haven’t seen one in years.
Why not? Certainly there’s no lack of young writers working and being published, and even being hyped like there’s no tomorrow, and those young writers are still friends with each other, sometimes intensely and/or competitively so, like their predecessors. But more and more, it seems that writers are both hyper-connected and splintered at once, likely a function, at least in part, of social media. They don’t have to be in the same place to connect, and so there are fewer opportunities to snap photos of them at KGB. So movements and groups are diffused or localized or sometimes both — it’s possible to identify cliques, but less possible to point to one and dub it the collective voice of the current generation.
On the one hand, it may be a good thing that we are brat-pack-less. In And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture, Bill Wasik wrote that the media’s treatment of proclaimed it-writers is “utterly fatal to how a reading public will apprehend their work over time.” Maybe yes, maybe no — for Bret Easton Ellis, probably. For David Foster Wallace, less so. Perhaps it’s better not to focus on one group of young writers over the others, especially if what’s really driving the attention is marketability over literary prowess. Perhaps the media circus surrounding excellence in youth is a distraction, the idea of the literary brat pack a fantasy. Still, retweets feel so much less romantic than coffee-shop meetups.
Plus, there’s the fact that literary brat pack-dom sells books, especially to the folks who might not buy just any young writer’s novel, or any novel at all, but want to feel that they’ve got a finger on the pulse, once it’s been located for them by the Village Voice or New York Magazine. In the same LA Times article, Finke points out that even when Ellis and McInerney’s books were getting bad reviews, they were selling like, well, hot-writer cakes.
And, well, literary brat packs are kind of fun. Call me a romantic, but I love the idea of a young group of writer-friends who all happen to be geniuses (or thereabouts) and who burst onto the scene at roughly the same time. It makes the world of writing — and the world of reading — seem less alienating, less cave-ish, more community-based, more real, somehow. Isn’t that, in our world of increasingly shiny and unreal connections, what we all crave? So I say, bookish brat packs, reveal yourselves. We could always use a few more DFWs in our midst.