The Breakfast Club

Were you one of the popular ones? Does your hair look good today? And, which table does your clique sit at?

No, we’re not talking about high school. We’re talking about the literary scene of the 1980s, when Tama Janowitz, Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney were the biggest things around.

It was a wacky decade to begin with. The Hippie Age was long over and basically forgotten. Junk bonds and arbitrage were huge, there was a lot of money floating around, and publishing companies were increasingly caught up in the merger mania that swept Wall Street and the investors of the world. There were a lot of publishing execs going to lunch with stockbrokers, and it wasn’t a great decade for experimental literature. It was a good decade for writers who photographed well.

A quick look at the “yearbook” isn’t encouraging. Tama Janowitz was the basket case, and Susan Minot was the princess. Jay McInerney was class president, T. Coraghessan Boyle was the troubled slacker, John Irving was the scrappy jock, and Bret Easton Ellis was the weird well-dressed kid who some girls wanted to date but others were creeped out by.

Years later, some of these writers are going strong. John Irving was always good and still is. Ellis, who got a lot of bad press from serious book critics along with all the media adulation, seems strangely relevant today, and two of his early books (“American Psycho” and “Rules of Attraction”) have been successfully filmed. Lorrie Moore (who would have played the “basket case” role if Janowitz hadn’t already occupied it) is increasingly well-regarded.

Clever, high-concept literary styles (present tense, second person, etc.) were fashionable during these years, as if they somehow approximated the importance of earlier narrative-style experiments like James Joyce’s “stream of consciousness”. They didn’t, but perhaps the most important legacy of this period is a style that became known as “Minimalism”. Writers like Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie wrote sparse, undecorated bursts of narrative prose that began and ended without warning, capturing the emotional lives of ordinary people in surprising ways. In the case of Carver, who stands in my mind as the most important writer of this time, these blunt, odd stories would suddenly explode on the page with unexpected force. Beattie’s stories did not transform in the way that Carver’s did, but would slowly emerge as beautiful, alien objects to hold in your hand and gaze at. Both writers got a lot of attention in this celebrity-crazed decade, and there were probably times when it looked like even these truly experimental authors were going to get their pictures on the cover of Spy Magazine like the more popular kids in school.

They didn’t, but they kept writing well and became increasingly influential. The term “Minimalism” has lost the controversial edge it used to have, and the Carver/Beattie brand of extreme sparseness is now a familiar tool in the short story writer’s toolbox. But Minimalism was one of the most important legacies of the 80’s literary scene. Along with the big hair and the sushi lunchboxes. “Don’t you … forget about me …”

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