Not since the ‘50s with the likes of Norman Mailer, James Jones, William Styron, John Updike and Philip Roth has a generation of first novelists garnered so much attention.
Vanity Fair calls them “the young and the wasted.” Newsweek refers to them as the “divine decadents.” They’re a new wave of writers soaring to stardom in the ‘80s at startlingly young ages with innovative writing styles and hip subject matter.
But what really sets this new breed apart is their refusal to believe in the old romantic notions about the need for young authors to struggle. Instead, they are demanding to be published, promoted and paid well almost from the start of their careers, thereby changing the cherished rules of the writing game in distinctive and disturbing ways.
‘All Different Writers’
Known informally as the Literary Brat Pack, the group stars Jay McInerney (“Bright Lights, Big City”), Bret Easton Ellis (“Less Than Zero”), David Leavitt (“Family Dancing”) and Tama Janowitz (“Slaves of New York”).
“They’re all very different writers,” points out Adam Moss, deputy editor at Esquire. “The only thing they have in common is they all had the good fortune to have written first books that caught the public imagination at a time when publishers and media were very eager to give young people a chance.”
What they also have in common is that their second books all bombed, at least in the eyes of the critics.
This month, the release of Ellis’ second novel, “The Rules of Attraction,” and Janowitz’ “A Cannibal in Manhattan” were met with more jeers than cheers. Reviews were decidedly mixed, even insultingly negative in some instances, like Vanity Fair, which complained “the stream of consciousness in these novels snakes along the gutters, strictly urine.” (Janowitz actually has written three books, but no one seems to count her first novel, the dud “American Dad.”)
The fact that McInerney’s and Leavitt’s second books--"Ransom” and “The Lost Language of Cranes,” respectively--met with a similar fate points up the difficulty of the “second-book syndrome” in which writers who produce best-selling first books never fulfill the critics’ expectations with their second efforts.
Gary Fisketjon, editorial director at Atlantic Monthly Press and McInerney’s editor, sees it this way: “It’s all sour grapes. Jay could have written the St. James Bible and people would have panned it.”
Still, despite their glaring lack of critical acclaim, Leavitt’s and McInerney’s second books sold extremely well. And expectations are high that Ellis’ and Janowitz’ newest novels may fare even better.
Current Brat Pack thinking seems to be that bad reviews actually help sales. “If I get people really screaming about the book,” says Janowitz, “it’s more to my advantage than a boring review saying, ‘Oh, this is just lovely.’ That would make me want to puke. So my bottom line is I don’t care what people say. I just want them to buy the book.”
The Literary Brat Pack share other similarities as well. They all live in New York and hang out, sometimes even together, at the same nightspots like Nell’s. They get invited to the hottest parties and placed on the most pompous literary panels. They write slim volumes or short stories, the perfect medium for an MTV-nurtured generation with a short attention span. They sell their books to Hollywood in lucrative option deals. They pontificate about life, love and writing for trend-tracking magazines like Esquire, Rolling Stone and Interview. They get offers to hawk Scotch and other products for advertisers.
In short, they are in demand, transformed from mere writers to bona-fide celebrities.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the publishing industry itself. According to editors at several major houses based here, young writers--under 30 years old and sometimes under 20--are now getting agents and publishers with an ease never before seen and at the same time approaching the whole business with a savvy way beyond their years.
“They understand that success can be had through sheer manipulation,” marvels one editor at Alfred A. Knopf. “In other words, you get yourself a powerful agent, get your publisher to throw a lot of promotion money behind your book and get Interview magazine to make-up your face, style your hair and photograph you.”
Banking on these writers’ ability to get their peers into the bookstores and expecting to reap large rewards, many publishers are handing out large advances to young authors who are eager to turn their manuscripts into gold. One editor claims “there’s a preoccupation with making money among this new generation of writers. They all approach writing in some ways like baby stockbrokers.”
But some see this outbreak of avarice as long overdue. “Why should writers be held to a different standard in terms of wanting to make money than any other profession in America?” asks Moss. “Why should they starve?
The writers themselves point out that they are not the ones asking for unprecedented large advances, it’s their agents. Interestingly, three of the four Brat Packers--McInerney, Ellis and Janowitz--are represented by high-powered ICM literary agent Amanda “Binky” Urban. And the industry is still talking about Leavitt’s recent jump from Alfred A. Knopf to Weidenfeld & Nicolson because of hard-nosed bargaining by his agent, Andrew Wylie.
After Leavitt produced two moderately good-selling books, Wylie reportedly demanded a two-book contract worth in the neighborhood of $250,000-$275,000, a sum that Knopf flatly refused to pay. “The money bore no relation to the sales history of the first two books,” according to a source close to the negotiations. Weidenfeld’s president, Ann Getty, jumped into the negotiations and agreed to the sum. But the British-based firm was soundly criticized by rival publishers who accused it of “throwing money” at American writers.
Says Fisketjon: “The competition is more intense and expensive now than it was. It’s crazy, but everybody’s a party to this. As someone I know said, ‘Who ever heard of just one lemming going over a cliff?’ ” These days editors increasingly want to find writers while they’re still young and still fresh--and find them first. Like college athletes tracked by the talent scouts of professional ballclubs, authors Ellis, McInerney, and Leavitt were all spotted while still on university campuses.
As a result, an informal but highly effective “old boy” network connecting universities with the publishing firms. One editor has compared the process of building a successful career this way to a game of Lego. Forget about A’s. These days, the best reward a gifted student can hope to get is to have his teacher introduce him to agents and editors.
For example, author Joe McGinniss (“Fatal Vision”) taught Ellis in a writing class at Bennington and then went on to become his mentor by providing him with an introduction to Simon & Schuster. Leavitt was spotted at Yale while Janowitz made her best connections at Columbia’s graduate writing program. And McInerney’s and Fisketjon’s friendship dating back to Williams is now a legend in the publishing business.
Once these young talents are targeted, publishers wind up bidding against one another right away for the privilege of putting out the “next” McInerney, or Ellis or Janowitz or Leavitt--sometimes even before the writers have produced anything worth publishing.
‘A Gun ... to Head’
“It’s like having a gun held to your head,” one editor explains. “It used to be you’d look at someone’s proposed first novel and say, ‘Let’s work on it for awhile and then I’ll see if I can give you a contract.’ Now one realizes one has to snap up these people with what is in front of you, essentially.”
That loss of a close writer-editor relationship may also help to explain why the Brat Pack’s second novels weren’t as good as they could have been.
Ellis, for one, boasts about how he doesn’t allow his work to be edited. “An editor for me is someone who can correct my grammar more than anything else,” he says. “I don’t like to look upon it as a collaborative effort.” And Janowitz readily admits that her publicist at Crown Publishing, and not her editor, is her best friend.
When they want help from their publisher, the Brat Packers expect it to be in the form of a fat promotional budget. In return, the writers are more than willing, even downright eager, to personally publicize their books, whether it’s an appearance on the “Today” show, a fashion layout for US magazine or attendance at a party that’s sure to make the gossip columns.
Janowitz especially has been criticized for becoming a multi-media celebrity with Madison Avenue-like sophistication and diligence. She has made an MTV video, appeared on talk shows with Joan Rivers and David Letterman, hawked liquor and lime juice in slick magazine ads and candidly talked about marketing herself “like a brand of toothpaste.”
“I would do any publicity that came my way. I just see it as a chance to sell the book,” she explains. But it’s also risky business. Esquire’s Moss, for one, snickers that “probably the most influential thing she’s done is appear in those Rose’s lime juice ads.” But Moss also admires Janowitz’ penchant for self-parody. “Everything she does in the exploitation of her fame is done with a wink. And I appreciate that,” he adds.
Ellis, who likens the attention to becoming the media’s “Flavor of the Month,” feels self-promotion is part of being a writer these days. “‘The company invests money and time in publishing your book, so there is a part of me that says, ‘OK, you do owe them to go out and hustle around and sell some books for them so they can make back their advance,’ ” he says.
Over-exposure remains a very real problem, especially given the media’s rush to cash in on the Brat Pack’s celebrity. “Everything moves faster now, and exposure happens more,” says David Groff, Janowitz’ editor at Crown. Bob Asahina, vice-president of Simon & Schuster and Ellis’ editor, complains about “the media’s overreaction in all four cases. What this kind of media attention does is make it very difficult to appreciate or criticize the books on their own terms.”
But Robert Wallace, managing editor of Rolling Stone, is not alone in thinking that the media hype that has accompanied the Brat Pack’s success “really goes above and beyond the quality of the work they’re producing.”
The reason for that may well be the way the Literary Brat Pack has become the darlings of the media. Interview, usually the first publication to lavish attention on such wunderkind , profiled and photographed every Brat Pack charter member early on.
But it was Esquire, which prides itself on introducing hot writers into the mainstream, that cemented the reputations of McInerney and Leavitt when Lee Isenberg, writing in a May, 1985 editor’s note, described them as spokesmen for their generation.
Assists from Magazines
“I think we’re always looking for new smart voices,” Moss explains. “Also, there’s not a whole lot of people who are youngish like David and Jay and unusually articulate.”
Indeed, many more thousands of people would read Leavitt’s essay about “The New Lost Generation” than both of his books put together. Moss maintains the piece was so successful “that unfortunately David had to live with being the spokesman for his generation longer than he liked. Probably, he’s one-quarter sorry he did it.” Yet Leavitt followed it up with a major piece in the New York Times Book Review about his new generation of young writers.
In the same Esquire issue McInerney was handed a “plum assignment"--Moss’ words--to interview Mick Jagger, even though McInerney had never worked as a journalist. “That’s one of the things Esquire does. They’ll go for the name,” says a former editor with the magazine.
Rolling Stone also went for a name when in 1985 it published an article by Ellis on his generation of college kids. New York magazine put Janowitz on its July, 1986 cover under the headline, “She’ll Take Manhattan.” The New York Times Magazine asked her to interview Bette Midler in Hollywood. Vanity Fair, Vogue, even Time and Newsweek all have assisted the Brat Pack’s rise to stardom.
What can be lost in the midst of their phenomenal success is the reason for it--their style and subject matter.
“They have really brought a new subject matter into popular fiction,” says Ron Loewinsohn, professor of English and creative writing at Berkeley. “They all write about marginal subcultures--the L.A. punk scene in Ellis’ case, East Village artists in Janowitz’, underground club-crawling in McInerney’s and homosexuality in Leavitt’s.”
Their writing styles are marked by innovation: McInerney pens “Bright Lights, Big City” entirely in the second person; Ellis describes events with an anti-emotional detachment; Janowitz uses brand names and trends to drive home her point about her characters’ life-style obsessions; and Leavitt uses a conventionality of style to make his theme of homosexuality almost commonplace.
One thing is certain. The Brat Packers aren’t going to stop publishing--at least not in the foreseeable future. Janowitz is working on a new novel which is not slated to come out before 1989. McInerney’s next book, as yet untitled, will probably be published in 1988, and he holed up at the Yaddo writer’s colony in Upstate New York most of this summer to get away from the media attention that dogs his every move.
Leavitt is working on another novel, tentatively titled “Down to Earth,” slated to be published next fall. And Ellis says his third novel will be a narrative about a mass murderer.
In the meantime, Hollywood, always on the lookout for what’s hot, is greedily buying up their books almost as quickly as they can write them. “Slaves of New York,” “Family Dancing” and “Ransom” all have been optioned, and deals are pending for other titles. “Less Than Zero” opens as a film in late October starring Andrew McCarthy, while “Bright Lights, Big City,” featuring Michael J. Fox, comes to screens in December.
It’s all heady stuff. The adulation, the remuneration and the opportunities for creative expression. Where does it all end? Or maybe it doesn’t. After all, many from the ‘50s--Mailer, Styron, Updike and Roth--are still as celebrated as ever.