Friday, June 26, 2009

Who was ours?

My wife has the sense that famous people die in clumps of three. Nothing proves her idea, but here come Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, and Ed McMahon to suggest again its possibility. Much has been made in the media over Farrah and The King of Pop having been so iconic for my generation, the generation that followed the baby boomers and came of age in the mid-1970s through the 1980s.

Add David Carradine of Kung Fu fame to that bunch, and you have a trio of recently departed celebrities who influenced a generation. What do they have in common? Television. Farrah on Charlie's Angels, Michael Jackson and his Thriller videos. When I realized that TV was the common denominator, I felt a little sad and a little stupid. The generation before mine had lots of literary writers as icons: Sylvia Plath, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac. These writers influenced people's ideas, put phrases and characters into the collective consciousness. So I wondered, which writers truly influenced my generation? Which writers would our generation call iconic?

And none came to mind.

Who influenced my generation's culture? Was it only the producers of movies and TV and music, Spielberg and Lucas and Aaron Spelling and Quincy Jones? Is that how our culture was shaped?

Who did I read? Lot of writers from other generations. I read the writers who influenced the boomers. Also I read comic books. Frank Miller's Dark Knight. And lots of genre writing.

But who did we read? I could come up with only a few names. Stephen King was one. From Carrie through Salem's Lot, he was the most literary popular writer we read. But who else? Jay McInerney got lots of acclaim, but in the end had little influence. Toni Morrison? Doesn't she belong more to the boomers? Raymond Carver?

Readers of this blog, I'd like to hear your answers. In the late 1970s through the 1980s, who did people read? What writers will that generation mourn one day saying, yes, she was ours. Yes, he was ours.


tamara said...

Sad to say, i had to google 1980s writers. Not many names that weren't "pop," like Stephen King or Danielle Steele. Bummer. Alice Walker was mentioned, so maybe she's a possibility, though i wonder if The Color Purple would have gotten as much notice without Spielberg.

Downs said...

So might it be true that Gen X is the first American generation to revere the visual image above the written word? Or is it only that television and cinema is a much more powerful form of mass media than books?

My worst fear is that people just weren't writing enough that mattered to a general populace, but then I remember that Tim O'Brien published THE THINGS THEY CARRIED around 1990, and IRONWEED, one of my favorite novels, was published in 1984. Leslie Silko's CEREMONY (1977) and STORYTELLER (1981) made great impacts on me as a person and writer, but I can't say they had widespread cultural impact the way THE INVISIBLE MAN by Ralph Ellison did.

Even the generations that followed had their David Foster Wallace's and David Eggers and David Sedaris' (a trio of Dave's?).

I'm going to go back to Toni Morrison. BELOVED won the P Prize in 1988. She might be the only one to have a widespread readership and a large influence on the culture. She might be the only one whose death would warrant a front page NYTimes obit.

tamara said...

i think you're right about Toni Morrison's influence, but, again, would she have gotten the attention she has if not for Oprah? i bet a lot of people had never even heard of Beloved before Oprah turned it into a movie. It seems to me, though, that our society seems to go from one extreme to the other, and fashions come back around, so maybe in the next few years we'll see a backlash against the Visual King, and people will start craving really good writing again. Maybe we'll realize that we need a better defining story for our time than we have now, and someone will step up and deliver.

Downs said...

I share that hope. Thanks for expressing it so well.

tamara said...

Maybe you'll be that someone . . .

Downs said...

Thanks for the suggestion. So much for summer vacation.

tamara said...

You could always combine the two, kind of like Hemingway and the bulls.

Wade said...

I'm late to the show on this one, but I've thought alot about this question and similar ones. I think the premise of the question is maybe no longer valid, in that I don't know that generational identity any longer exists, if it ever did. Now there are niche markets for everybody, and they're vertical--i.e., independent of age, socio-demographics, etc.

I also question whether prior generations really had the literary influences we assume. My dad probably couldn't recognize Norman Mailer in any context at all and may have never heard the name. He's probably not unusual in his generation or any other generation in that regard. If we're talking about a certain class of people--people who read books--then it really doesn't matter what generation they occupy. The question becomes: are there any more iconic writers left? Once Phillip Roth is dead, the big successors to the mnodernist trio of Hem-Faulk-Fitz will be gone. So, no, I don't think novelists will hold sway over the public consciousness the way they once did (or the way we think they once did). And after Dylan's dead, there probably won't be any more iconic poets/bards. We have an a la carte world now. Like all a la carte situations, it looks like you're saving money, but you wind up paying more in the end.