Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Generation Twee

An extract from my recently-published About a Girl (CB editions £12)


There's a new seriousness in circulation in the arts: a commitment to craft, to tradition and to cultural values that are highbrow but now stripped of elitist connotations. I see it everywhere - in the work of poets and writers and artists still in their thirties who are at home with new media and technologies and exploiting them to the hilt, but not in thrall to them. They share a profound understanding of the modernist tradition and a sceptical take on the gimcrack ironies of post modernism. If there's a future, this is surely the future. This new seriousness is a paradigm shift. What does it replace?

Writing in New Statesman (15 September 2014) the novelist Will Self described a showdown in an LA cafeteria in which he asks the proprietor to turn down the overwhelming music. The proprietor refuses so Self has to eat his breakfast waffles to the sound of trip-hop. This annoys him and when one of his sons shouts something sympathetic over the racket Self says “Really, it’s OK. After all, it’s my generation that’s to blame for this bullshit culture.”

I feel for him, I really do - spoilt waffles in Los Angeles must be hell. But the incident, trivial enough in itself, prompted Self into choleric reflections on his generation, 'the pierced and tattooed, shorts-wearing, skunk-smoking, OxyContin-popping, neurotic dickheads' and their complicity in the commodification of counter culture. Getting into his stride he berated the 'twats' who insisted that there was nothing to choose between high and popular culture, who embraced a doctrine of relativism that placed advertising and fine art on the same level, and finally described cultural criticism of the kind he and his peers perpetrated as - and I'm really sorry for this - 'jetted slurry from our dickhead arseholes'.

Self's rant seems to me a watershed moment in recent literary discourse, marking the belated realisation by a leading writer of his (and my) fifty-something generation that the game is up, and that said game wasn't worth the candle. 

I'm no more a representative of my generation than he is, although I think I'm closer in thought and feeling to the majority who happen to lack the piercings, tattoos, neurotic addictions and costive lexicon of Will Self. My tastes are resolutely unhip and tend more to V. S. Pritchett and  than Ballard and Burroughs. I am irredeemably square, by any Selfish standards.

Just as Self belatedly wakes up to the vain and hateful pointlessness of the crappy 'cultural criticism' undertaken with sullen ferocity for decades by the likes of Will Self, just as he realises that 'the skunk-smoking, OxyContin-popping, neurotic dickheads' of which he is an incarnation have produced nothing, absolutely nothing of value or permanence or even passing interest over the past three decades apart from trashing the established and legitimate hierarchies of taste and judgement that made serious literature navigable and worthwhile, just as he and his sneering coevals dwindle before our gaze squealing shrilly like the liquidated Wicked Witch of Oz, just as he comes to realise that all the prolix redundancy of his threadbare psychobabble amounts to nothing more than a pretext for whining about his spoilt breakfast waffles in a weekly magazine . . . I punch the air with a loud whoop and say: YES!  Now where were we . . .?

Where were we? I remember reading that New Statesman piece and thinking that  beneath ostentatious verbiage (Self more than any big name writer I can think of has never figured out the difference between eloquence and loquacity and invariable opts for the latter) this really was a watershed moment, the point at which a leading writer of my generation throws in the towel.

But there is another and later malign cultural tendency to set against the tattoo'd shorts-wearing waffle-gobbling dickhead like Self. The journalist and cultural commentator Marc Spitz has identified what he calls 'the first great cultural movement since Hip Hop', a new aesthetic that's both old-fashioned and completely modern, created and adopted by teens, twenty and thirty-somethings (and even late Baby Boomers like myself). He calls it 'Twee' and traces its origins to the post-war 1950s in Walt Disney movies and such writers as J. D. Salinger, Sylvia Plath, Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak and Judy Blume. 

Generation Twee has adopted a culture of 'calculated precocity' embodied in (and I take this from Spitz's publisher's website) 'Vampire Weekend, Garden State, Miranda July, Belle and Sebastian, Wes Anderson, Mumblecore, McSweeney’s, Morrissey, beards, artisanal pickles, food trucks, crocheted owls on Etsy, ukuleles, kittens and Zooey Deschanel.'

I've heard of Morrissey of course. Everybody's heard of Morrissey. Wes Anderson rings bells,  Beards and 'artisanal pickles' suggest to the hipster quarters of Hoxton and Shoreditch, both well off my radar. Crocheted owls on Etsy ('a peer-to-peer e-commerce website focused on handmade or vintage items') sound cute if inessential (and I'll confess to owning a crocheted finger puppet of James Joyce, on my desk beside me as I type. It was a gift.). 'Ukuleles, kittens and Zooey Deschanel all seem mimsy enough and I've just learned to my horror that Zooey Deschanel, aged 35, runs a website called giggles.com and says things like 'I wish everyone looked like a kitten'.

There's not much to choose between Zooey Deschanel and Will Self, is there?

'Generation Twee' - infantilised, incurious, silly, peace-loving  -  resemble the Eloi, those elegant childlike adults in H. G. Wells's The Time Machine. The Eloi are, you'll remember, reared and slaughtered for food by the subterranean Morlocks, brutish creatures descended, surely, from Will Self and his fellow dickheads. Generation Twee may be remembered fondly and no doubt ironically by its adherents as they lapse into middle age, but it is so heavily commodified, so related to the acquisition of material stuff rather than human experience, that it will hold no residual value, offer no consolation, no assurance.

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