RALL: The Gen X Inferiority Complex
"What is it about our generation," my friend Liz asked me over organic beer, "that we haven't accomplished anything? Why haven't any of us written a great novel? Where are the notable artists? Why haven't we produced a Hemingway, a Billy Wilder, a Bach?"Liz's question haunts the 40 million Americans born in the 1960s that Madison Avenue marketers call Generation X. After all, the Baby Boomers who preceded them accomplished great things back in the '60s and '70s, when they were the same age as Xers are now.Today's progressive social movements, from modern feminism to gay rights, were launched by Baby Boomer overachievers like Gloria Steinem, Mario Savio and Abbie Hoffman. A few decades ago, twenty- and thirtysomethings who liked the social order just the way it was (but saw themselves at its pinnacle) founded companies like Nike and Microsoft. As for the rest of the Boomers, they wielded their phenomenal economic and political power to alter every aspect of popular culture -- film, advertising, music, theater -- to suit their tastes.My bete noire is Polly Styrene, the former lead singer of X-Ray Spex. Here's a woman who, at 13 years of age, was writing and recording brilliant pop-punk anthems about commercialism and alienation while living on the streets of London. This was in 1977. At the same age, I was preoccupied with playing baseball and setting dumpsters on fire. Until very recently, my existence involved toiling at brainless tasks for soulless corporations to earn money which I spent on books and records produced by Boomer authors and musicians. Of course, there wasn't much around by people my age to consume, but that doesn't change the fact that I was wasting my life.So why are us Xers such a bunch of losers?Partly we're doomed by circumstance by coming of age during a period of cultural exhaustion. Baby Boomer creators have abandoned the once-vibrant trends they began as they fade away into elderly oblivion, usually without cultivating proteges among their younger peers. Moreover, the traditional public outlets for creativity -- book publishers, magazines, art galleries, film studios, music companies -- share other corporations' risk-averse obsession with maximizing shareholder return.Today's 26-to-36-year-olds came of age during a period of shrinking funding for education, resulting in a vast pool of people who can't write sentences containing both nouns and verbs. Is it any wonder that Bret Easton Ellis is our answer to William Faulkner?Another problem is that certain fields of the creative arts were moribund before Xers ever came along. Jonathan Larsen may have scored a posthumous hit with Rent, but nothing can change the fact that musical theater is a dead art form. Gifted 29-year-olds working as architects or fine artists must choose between seeking success as hacks or producing brilliance in obscurity.Still, this generation of young adults has already produced notable monuments to artistic genius. Unfortunately, no one -- including Xers themselves -- seems to have noticed. Xer films like Pulp Fiction and albums like Never Mind stand up to comparisons with the best of the '60s and '70s, but somehow the facts that Quentin Tarantino is a one-hit wonder and that Kurt Cobain committed suicide allow many to dismiss these achievements.Americans in their 20s and 30s are producing scores of excellent records, poems and novels. The difference is that they're not as good at self-promotion as the Boomers were. As a result, their CDs languish in the cut-out bin and their books are remaindered.In the past, Americans knew that genius wasn't usually recognized in its time. One of my favorite writers, Sherwood Anderson, got rich on a mediocre novel (Dark Laughter) while his now-classic collection of short stories Winesburg, Ohio bombed. The Velvet Underground, now universally acknowledged as altie-rock gods, were a commercial failure. Now, however, we equate financial success with artistic achievement. In the perfect culmination of the triumph of corporatism, all art is product. Who needs critics when you have sales figures? Since it may take decades before the products of this generation's muses to sell, they'll be considered worthless in the meantime.To a large extent, though, Xers have only themselves to blame for their rep as no-talent slackers. This generation has no generational consciousness. In fact, most of them deny the very idea that generations exist at all! Like battered women who begin to believe their husbands' insults, they've absorbed three decades of Boomers looking down on them. Having missed the '60s, they view their own lives as a cultural afterthought, a mere historical footnote to the tremendous achievements of their elders. They fill theaters to see films by Richard Linklater almost unconsciously; sure, there's a Gen X culture, but it's cursed by an inferiority complex. Whatever we have, we think, it ain't much. After all, They said so.There's also an element of reaction at work. Disgusted by fortysomething smugness, Xers feel any hint of pride in the work of their peers to be untoward. The trouble with this demographically deferential behavior is that artists need overt praise more than quiet appreciation. I've watched a number of my peers (cartoonists, playwrights and painters) become rapidly discouraged by trying to speak for people who don't want to be spoken for -- and older people just don't get what they do. They've dropped back into the straight world, reducing an already scarce supply of Gen X luminaries.These days, modesty kills.