Who's the Voice of this Generation?

Hemingway's rose like the sun. Kerouac found his on the road. So why can't today's young novelists express the essence of their era?

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    You could argue that the current crop of writers is still ripening. But how long does it take? Ellis was still in college when he wrote Less than Zero, a vivid, anhedonic portrait of wasted (in every sense) youth on the L.A. party circuit. Hemingway was only 27 when he published The Sun Also Rises. Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby at 28; Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, 32. (Not that it really matters, but Goethe was just 25 when he published The Sorrows of Young Werther, one of the first voice-of-a-generation novels, in 1774. It's not really the done thing now, but back then throughout Europe it was very hip to dress up like Werther in a blue coat and yellow trousers.)

    It's quite possible that nobody wants to be the Voice anymore. It's "a great aggravation for anybody who has been selected," says Gary Fisketjon, vice president and editor at large at Knopf, who edits both Ellis and McInerney. "Writers are always speaking for themselves and not for a generation. I don't know if they want that responsibility. I think it's something that nobody would feel comfortable with unless the ego was completely untrammeled." At least one Voice emeritus has nothing but relief that his term is over. "I think the very idea is narcissistic," says Coupland, whose most recent novel (his 11th), JPod, is set at a video-game company. "I got stuck with the ridiculous label for a while because Generation X had the word generation in the title."

    Are we simply living through a downturn, one of those periodic dead spots wherein the muses take a smoke break? Has the country's artistic talent been siphoned off by sexier, better-paying media with bigger audiences? (TV has been suspiciously good lately.) Or could the professionalization of "creative writing," in the form of scores of M.F.A. programs, actually be retarding the progress of contemporary literature--hammering eccentric geniuses into workshop-style conformity, then drowning them out by handing diplomas to their mediocre peers by the bushel?

    Or maybe there never was such an animal in the first place. The voice of a generation could just be a convenient fiction, propagated by academics looking for dissertation topics, publicists looking for publicity and (surely not) book critics looking for a headline. On some level it has always been an absurdity. Look at the heroes of the iconic books of those previous eras: Jake Barnes, Holden Caulfield, Dean Moriarty--bad seeds and square pegs, all of them. The paradox of every Voice novel is that it brings a generation of readers together around the idea that they alone are the single badass misfit truth teller in a world full of phonies.

    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," Coupland says tartly. "It's an exclusionary and delusional concept."

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