Is being the 'voice of a generation' a curse or an honour for novelists?

From F Scott Fitzgerald to JD Salinger, Bret Easton Ellis to Sally Rooney, this label has been applied to countless zeitgeisty coming-of-age novels. But is it helpful?

Sally Rooney doesn’t come across as someone who spends a lot of time on Snapchat. There is no scene in her 2018 novel Normal People where her protagonists Marianne and Connell bond over the camera filter that turns your face into a dog. The characters in her debut, Conversations With Friends (2017), mostly communicate by text. Nevertheless, the label “Salinger for the Snapchat generation” – apparently dreamed up by an editor at Faber – surfaces in every article about the Irish author. Including this one.

It would be dishonest to pretend it doesn’t serve a purpose. Addictive apps are associated with millennials, much in the same way as scary drugs or outlandish musical genres were with earlier generations. JD Salinger’s coming-of-age novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951) made him the archetypal “voice of a generation” – and even if the coolly detached prose of Normal People seems at odds with Holden Caulfield’s overt anger, Rooney’s characters are no less preoccupied with phoniness. Connell, the idealised working-class hero, studies English because “there it is: literature moves him”. Only, when he arrives at Trinity College, Dublin, he discovers that his richer classmates use books primarily as a way of appearing cultured. “Even if the writer himself was a good person, and even if his book really was insightful, all books were ultimately marketed as status symbols, and all writers participated to some degree in this marketing. Presumably this was how the industry made money.”

Normal People has been greeted by readers, critics and booksellers alike as one of those novels that captures something ineffable about its age. The forthcoming BBC adaptation stretches its 266 pages to a decadent 12 episodes, a pages-to-minutes ratio that recalls the famous 1981 version of Brideshead Revisited, which spent as much time on the apparently incidental scenes in Evelyn Waugh’s novel (the whisky and water business on the ocean liner, for example) as it did on the central plot. Normal People is also a novel of tiny details and the beats of pleasure that come from noticing them: “Life offers up these moments of joy despite everything.”

From 1953 until his death in 2010, Salinger hid in his cottage in rural New Hampshire. He submitted nothing more to his publisher after 1965. Which suggests that the “voice of a generation” label might be as much of a curse as an honour. As Rooney herself said in a Guardian interview: “I certainly never intended to speak for anyone other than myself. Even myself I find it difficult to speak for. My books may well fail as artistic endeavours but I don’t want them to fail for failing to speak for a generation for which I never intended to speak in the first place.”

The generation-defining label has been applied to books as various as F Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise (1920), Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), Joan Didion’s The White Album (1979), Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero (1986), Douglas Coupland’s Generation X (1991), Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1996) and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000).

Then there are the books that slipped between the historical cracks. Sid Chaplin’s The Day of the Sardine (1961), about a disaffected young man coming of age in the coal-mining north-east, was typical of the 1950s-60s wave of “Angry Young Man” novels. Ann Quin’s mordant, creepy novel Berg (1964) was praised in its day as presenting “a working-class voice from England quite unlike any other” – but Quin was too avant garde for mainstream acceptance. Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls (1960) gave voice to an emerging Irish sensibility – but O’Brien was usually pressed into representing her country rather than her generation. At least Rooney has managed to evade that responsibility.

“Let’s assume,” says the literary agent Karolina Sutton, “we are talking about debut writers who write about the realities of modern life in a way that breaks away from what came immediately before them. They assert a new set of values in response – and often in opposition – to the values they inherited from the previous generation. I think voice is a key word. Perhaps it’s defiance or urgency or a political stance, even if it is not overtly expressed, something that feels bold, relevant and uncompromising. And it has an emotional truth to it that speaks to a specific generation.”

Among contemporary novelists, you might point to Ottessa Moshfegh, Hanya Yanagihara, Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner and Candice Carty-Williams. But is the novel where we should be looking? How about non-fiction writers: Jia Tolentino, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Emilie Pine? Or screenwriters such as Phoebe Waller-Bridge? But as Sutton notes, each of these candidates would surely detest the label. “They rightly challenge the narrative of universal perspectives as it makes no sense in the context of race, economic background, gender, sexuality.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt that there was a common sensibility among emerging writers,” says Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of the New Yorker, reflecting on the 200 to 300 story submissions she has received each week since 1997. “Writers emerge, by definition, because they’re not like everyone else.” She notes that current events – the #MeToo movement, the Trump presidency, the climate crisis, social media – are taking less time to percolate into fiction than they once did. “But fiction writers stand out not because of the events or cultural waves they’re inspired by but because of what they do with that material.”

Lena Dunham made a good joke about all this in her TV series, Girls. “I think I might be the voice of my generation” says Hannah, an aspiring writer (played by Dunham), before backpedalling: “Or at least a voice of a generation.”

Lena Dunham in Girls (2017).
Lena Dunham in Girls (2012-2017). Photograph: HBO

Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist, has argued that Dunham really does merit the description. “What is a voice of a generation, really? The phrase offers a seductive rhetorical flourish that speaks, at its core, to a yearning. We are forever in search of someone who will speak not only to us but for us.” On the evidence of Dunham’s essay collection, Not That Kind of Girl (2014), Gay found that she was just such a person: “gutsy, audacious, willing to stand up and shout.”

Though isn’t this gutsiness more characteristic of Generation X (ie Gay’s generation) than it is of millennials? Millennials do have common experiences that transcend identity – the financial crash, the shadow of climate change, growing up on the internet – but they are also acutely aware of the problems of speaking for other people. And if they are not aware of it when they set out, they will soon be made aware of it.

Sian Norris, director of the Bristol Women’s Literature festival, believes the label should be retired immediately. “Which generation? Who gets to decide?” she wonders. “There should be some self‑awareness of who is excluded from these narratives.” She also notes that pretty much all the current voice-of-a-generation candidates are female. “We have this tendency to lump all women writers together,” she says. “When a young woman comes out, she’s not seen as representing her own story. She’s seen as somehow representing all women. None of that is to detract from Sally Rooney’s brilliance – she explores a whole range of issues that are relevant to young people today. But it means she then becomes a target for all criticisms aimed at millennials.”

Still, it’s notable that the zeitgeisty coming-of-age novels lauded in the 1980s and 90s were usually by young men. Extreme drug-taking, degrading sex, casual violence and parodic consumerism were hallmarks – but so too was a flat, affectless tone that rendered the excess all the more shocking. Take this postcoital moment from Ellis’s Less Than Zero, set among the sort of dead-eyed rich kids he grew up with in 1980s Los Angeles:

I lie there, naked, sunglasses still on and she hands me a box of Kleenex. I wipe myself off then look through a Vogue that’s lying by the side of the bed. She puts a robe on and stares at me. I can hear thunder in the distance and it begins to rain harder.

“I guess I was trying to capture a kind of book I hadn’t read before,” Ellis recalls. “I wanted to strip the coming-of-age novel of any kind of conventionality – kids good/parents bad – and eliminate the aspirational quality that fiction about young people usually possesses. I wanted to capture a state of numbness as a feeling through a very neutral voice.”

Robert Downey Junior in the 2002 film adaptation of Less Than Zero.
Robert Downey Jr in the 2002 film adaptation of Less Than Zero. Photograph: Entertainment Pictures/Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy

He reread it recently and “it was OK”, he says. “I’m always struck by the control which gives the book a tension even when nothing’s happening – impressive, I suppose. But then I want to rewrite everything so I closed the covers and placed it on my shelf. But if we are having this back and forth right now, 35 years after it was published, I guess it was successful, regardless of what I think.”

Ellis’s subsequent fiction sought ever more extreme subject matter (1991’s American Psycho has a special place in the heart of generations of bankers) and he has been sharply critical of “Millennial Culture” for failing to take up the baton. In a recent interview to promote his essay collection White he complained: “They don’t care about literature. None of them read books. Where is the great millennial novel? There isn’t one.” When the interviewer suggested Sally Rooney, he said: “Er, remind me who Sally Rooney is?”

When we speak he is a little more even-tempered. He says he admired Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, about a woman who takes prescription drugs in a New York apartment for a year as a way of numbing her feelings. “I think each generation naturally rebels against the one that preceded them. It’s just the natural process. The zillennials or the zoomers are going to be rebelling against the aspirational values of millennials and that is going to be a very interesting moment.”

Channel 4’s White Teeth (2002).
Channel 4’s White Teeth (2002). Photograph: Channel 4 Picture Publicity

Still, it strikes me that the common points between Ellis and Rooney are as interesting as the points of divergence. Rooney’s style is often described as spare, elegant, minimalist: “Her paragraphs are built for the Instagram age,” noted Christine Smallwood in the New Republic. “They are plain as white walls, empty rooms with one beautiful accent, like a potted fern.”

And the way that Rooney assesses feelings recalls the dispassion with which Ellis describes material reality. In Rooney’s essay about her years as a teenage debating champion, she writes about a horror of appearing passionate: “I didn’t want to debate in order to express passion: I wanted to be aloof and cerebral like the speakers I most admired.” Note the aloofness with which Marianne considers her own compulsion towards abusive relationships:

How strange to feel herself so completely under the control of another person, but also how ordinary. No one can be independent of other people completely, so why not give up the attempt, she thought, go running in the other direction, depend on people for everything, allow them to depend on you, why not.

Part of the clamour that surrounds Rooney, that surrounds any exciting new literary voice, is really a sort of relief that the novel can find new forms, that it doesn’t end here. Francesca Wade, co-editor of the White Review, recalls publishing an early story by Rooney, “At the Clinic”, which featured characters named Connell and Marianne, before Conversations With Friends was published. “I was immediately struck by the directness of her writing and how subtly she’d evoked the nuanced and very moving dynamic between her two characters. But in many ways what she does so well isn’t anything especially ‘new’ or ‘millennial’ – her attention to relationships, power and the ways we (mis)communicate is all there in 19th-century novels too, except that her characters might more naturally iMessage rather than write letters.”

Perhaps one of the defining features of our age is amnesia. We have collectively outsourced memory function to the internet. We are like goldfish, assuming everything is brand new – despite the data that shows that actually, the spectrum of human emotion is just the same as it ever was.

But then, it’s always new to the person feeling it for the first time. As Marianne reflects when Connell tells her he loves her: “She has never believed herself fit to be loved by any person. But now she has a new life, of which this is the first moment, and even after many years have passed she will still think: Yes, that was it, the beginning of my life.”


Richard Godwin

The GuardianTramp

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