Yuppie Lit: Publicize or Perish

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If a handful of writers fall in together at a downtown-Manhattan nightclub, do they make a literary noise if there is no journalist around to hear them?

Of course -- because the joint is bound to be packed with publicists, photo opportunists and blaring life-stylists. The manufacture of quick and disposable illusions is an overwhelming reality in an era when the concept of image is replacing the value of reputation. What Historian Daniel J. Boorstin called pseudo events 25 fleeting years ago are now accepted as genuine occurrences that shape politics, economics, culture and the way individuals experience the world or, more important, choose not to.

Book publishing was relatively late in adopting the flummery of mass marketing. But rising costs, corporate takeovers and the short shelf life of new titles at the book chains have accelerated the conversion of authors into fashionable commodities. This is especially true for writers who can be plugged into the latest trends. Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, Jill Eisenstadt and other young novelists who currently rouse the bid-lust of Manhattan publishers were raised on pseudo events. Particularly flamboyant evidence of this can be seen in the self-promotions of their colleague Tama Janowitz, author of Slaves of New York.

Barrages of mass-produced sounds and images targeted to weaken consumer resistance and sway opinion have made the new literary generation knowing observers of style and class. Most share affluent backgrounds and a sense of being entitled to the best brand names, higher education, sex, drugs and psychotherapy. Their casual sophistication is worn two sizes too big. The best characters in their fiction are invariably white, bright and dangerous to know, like the autobiographical narrator of McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City and his sidekick Tad Allagash, a stripling adman and Manhattan party animal with inexhaustible supplies of Bolivian Marching Powder (coy for cocaine).

With the publication of his first novel in 1984, McInerney became the big brother of what Editor and Critic Ted Solotaroff calls the life-style fiction of the '80s. Bright Lights has sold 300,000 copies; it was hailed as the modern Catcher in the Rye, has been filmed with Michael J. Fox and Phoebe Cates, and is a bit of instant folklore in the book industry. Published as a paperback original by Random House's Vintage Contemporaries series, McInerney's romp gave readers a fast look at a young man's entry-level Manhattan. Bright Lights also put a glamorous shine on Vintage's soft-cover format and helped similar ventures at Scribner's (Signature), Penguin (Contemporary American Fiction) and Bantam (New Fiction). Artfully designed and inexpensive, these books have partially answered the question of how to get new writers published.

McInerney's was the first fresh literary voice to attract national attention since John Irving finally arrived with The World According to Garp in 1978. McInerney made it faster, with less talent, by being in the right place at the right time. He also had a personal life that ran parallel to his fiction. Bright Lights caused a small stir by caricaturing a magazine that resembled the author's former employer, The New Yorker. The novel's more capitalizing feature was that its hero and his pals were regulars at Odeon and other lower- Manhattan spots that were trendy at the time. The book was witty and well paced, yet neon and clouds of expensive white powder tended to obscure the fact that the work was as slick as a disco dance floor and about as deep as a Jacuzzi bath. In short, it had everything a publicist could ask for, including the right demographics.

So did Bret Easton Ellis' Less than Zero, a timely bit of voyeurism about the sordid lives of rich Los Angeles youth. As the title suggests, the characters are intellectual and emotional ciphers. Ellis' documentary intentions are clear, but his laconic descriptions of numb fornications, pharmacological excesses and teenage nihilism come dangerously close to violating Mark Twain's third rule of writing: "That the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others."

The same applies to his new novel, The Rules of Attraction, in which the village of the damned goes East. The setting is a New Hampshire college that resembles Bennington, the 23-year-old author's expensive alma mater. Ellis is proof that a best-selling writer can be downbeat as long as he is upscale. Had his subject been the degrading activities of East Los Angeles Chicanos or Newark blacks, he would have been branded an unfeeling racist and would have forfeited the privilege of being seen by millions on the Today show.

The success of McInerney and Ellis was a para-publishing phenomenon. Though each undoubtedly thinks of himself as a writer alone with his thoughts and technical problems, they are literary celebrities and, from the vantage of their handlers, basic parts of an entertainment package. And it does not hurt if their editors can tie a bow. "Bright Lights had a winning quality, and it had it in spades, more than any book I have ever read," says Gary Fisketjon, leaving the impression that even casual acquaintance with the novel (a 250- year-old art form) is unnecessary baggage in today's paper chase. Fisketjon, 33, McInerney's close friend at Williams College in the mid-'70s, pushed Bright Lights when he worked at Random House. He is now editorial director of Atlantic Monthly Press and, as yuppie-fiction's most visible impresario, a celebrity in his own right.

Ellis made his way on more conventional ground, although the speed with which he went from unknown first novelist with a $5,000 advance to the voice of the New Lost Generation with a rumored $200,000 advance for his second book owes much to the strategies of the modern-media blitzkrieg. To begin with, his own story was invitingly exploitable. An 18-year-old Bennington freshman from California submits his essays on Los Angeles youth to his writing instructor, Joe McGinniss, author of the 1983 best seller Fatal Vision. They wind up on the desk of Robert Asahina, an editor who rejects the manuscript as promising but unpublishable. Young writer and college mentor then cut the pages from 400 to 200, change the narrative from third person to the more intimate first and resubmit. The publisher now recognizes a salable product, or as Asahina says with an understated obviousness that is rare in this age of hype, "Bret came along at a time when there was great interest in what young people were up to. It was young people he was writing about, and he was young himself."

Indeed, the author was barely old enough to order an alcoholic drink at Limelight, the aptly named Manhattan night spot where Less than Zero was promoted with a jam-packed party, and by that time publishers and producers were already desperately seeking the next Bret Easton Ellis. Youth pays, not only at the bookrack but also at the movies, in which form Zero will appear in November.

The latest candidate for a multimedia tie-in is also a Bennington product, Jill Eisenstadt, a creaky 24 but fresh faced enough to command a $20,000 advance for her first novel, From Rockaway (Knopf; 214 pages; $15.95), and a $50,000 film option. For the record, From Rockaway reads like a neatly crafted knock-off of Less than Zero set in a middle-class Queens, N.Y., beach community. It has less plot than the "daring" young-adult novels of the '60s and '70s but naughtier parts. They should suffice.

Last month Eisenstadt was chatted up on the Today show prior to her book's official publication date; in fact, the first printing of From Rockaway (17,500 copies) was already in stores and reportedly selling well. Official publication dates are routine pseudo events that publishers schedule in the hope that reviews of a work will bunch around the same week, thus achieving a critical mass that may sustain excitement. It is nice if you can get it, but in truth, publishers trying to turn authors into consumer products long ago downgraded reviewers as nonessential. Says Crown Publicist Susan Magrino of her efforts to launch Tama Janowitz's new novel, A Cannibal in Manhattan (Crown; 287 pages; $17.95): "I did not even go to the book people. She was too fabulous to waste on the book pages."

This is no exaggeration. As a literary hustler, Janowitz, 30, represents the state of the artifice. She attracted attention in 1986 when she crashed the Four Seasons restaurant with handouts promoting her story collection Slaves of New York. She was asked to leave, but not before power lunchers were imprinted with the Janowitz look: bizarre but cute, a combination of punk and old- fashioned spaghetti-and-Chianti bohemian topped off by a swath of dark hair whose cultivated wildness puts one in mind of a pampered yak. Tama is, as her editor Betty Prashker puts it, "mediagenic."

She is also closing in on ubiquity. Janowitz has appeared in magazine advertisements for Amaretto and Rose's Lime Juice. Her face pops up with increasing frequency in newspapers and magazines, and she has given the MTV generation its first performance-writer by making videotapes to plug Slaves as well as Cannibal. The latter is the story of a well-read tribal chief who becomes the toast of the asphalt jungle and accidentally eats his wife at a barbecue. Janowitz has a catchy style and achieves her satiric effects with a sly Valley Girl delivery. Slaves cartoons the downtown-Manhattan art scene, where Janowitz, like her friend the late Andy Warhol, understands that people will look at anything rather than nothing: artlike artifacts if there is no art, and booklike objects if there is no literature.

Self-promotion and celebrity may not bring down Western civilization, though they have harmed writers with considerably more to show and say than Janowitz and other young bright lights of the moment. F. Scott Fitzgerald paid the price of fame, but, says the critic and memoirist Alfred Kazin, "he wanted to be the best. I don't hear anyone talking of being the best today. Books are now made as movies are. There is no belief that a book has a long life. Writers have abandoned the idea of making a masterpiece. Now they are Hollywood venture capitalists and accomplices in all that is happening."

That includes a premium on visual effects and an emphasis on rudimentary characterization, both earmarks of immature writing and feature films, where the bulk of the audience is under 25. Only the future can tell which young writers will be ready to bleed for their art and which will continue to write with ice-cold Perrier in their veins. But current evidence indicates a considerable potential for a fiction of arrested development. Says Thomas Bender, head of the history department of New York University and author of the recent cultural history New York Intellect: "If the world is willing to pay you fortunes for anything you write, why try to polish your work?" Especially, it might be added, if there is an entire industry eager to polish your image.