No one is serious at seventeen.
– Arthur Rimbaud
LIKE MANY CHILDREN born in the 1980s, I grew up mostly with the aid of the one-eyed babysitter. In those days, "cuddly" was the driving word in children's television. Well, to be honest, there were two driving words – "cuddly" and "money" – but we didn't hear the second one, we just begged our parents for the figurines.
That was a decade when we let greeting-card companies and toy-makers have a go at animation: they transformed their most popular lines into cartoon characters, worked from sure products and made quick returns. For the first time in the history of children's television, the merchandise preceded the show. But if the companies produced record turnovers in the short term, they under-estimated the long-term effects of their programming. Children of the '80s are now an extremely prickly bunch of customers – stroke them in the right way and you reap big rewards, rub them up the wrong way and the fallout can be disastrous.
Take a look at the writing our new writers are producing and you'll see the effects of this pre-teen brainwashing. A young hospital intern pimps coma patients in the dark hours of the morning, his brain addled by every drug this side of Woodstock; he can't overcome the feeling that his life is slipping away from him. The fly on the wall "life as ..." stories: life as a war veteran; life as a suicide bomber; life in a rehab clinic; life as a junkie; life as a dealer; life as a sex addict ...
The media tell us that children born in the '80s have seen more television violence in their short lives than Generation Xers or Baby Boomers have witnessed in their entire lives. I would argue the opposite – that a lack of violence and an overload of sentimentality in the cartoons of our youth, mean the children of the '80s reject all things idealistic, moralistic or sentimental.
WHAT, THEN, SHOULD we expect of twenty-first century literature? What will be the dominant style for Generation Y writers? Gritty realism? Diet melodrama? It's too early to tell – we shouldn't expect to see Generation Y writers making many waves before 2020. I say this as a frustrated writer and as a realist.
The French literature magazine Lire recently published a list of fifty writers to look out for – a sort of "who will be who" for the coming decade. Amongst the English, Korean, Japanese, American, German and Turkish writers earmarked for future success was one plucky young Aussie: Tim Winton.
Tim Winton ... eighteen books to his name, three Miles Franklin Awards, two Booker Prize nominations, one wife, a gaggle of grommets. I haven't been looking out for him; I've been looking up to him. I know that we are living longer these days, but a young writer at forty-five? Non, mais je rêve? I flick through the magazine at page-tearing speed. Surely there is someone in their twenties in this list. All I want is a name ... just a name ... any name ... and a face ... unwrinkled ... youthful to reassure me that it is possible, that my dream of becoming the enfant terrible of Australian letters is achievable. Then suddenly I find her: Zadie Smith.
Twenty-nine years, eleven months, twenty-three hours, fifty-nine minutes and the second hand going ever faster. She can smile at me with every one of her white teeth, but I won't accept that the brainy Brit continues to be called a young writer until the age of forty-seven.
So why is it that the "old hands" are so often sold to us as "new voices"? Because, worldwide, publishers are cutting down their fiction lists, and the first casualties are the risky buys, the no names – the young writers. Rosemary Neill noted in the Weekend Australian that, since the mid-1990s, Australian publishers have almost halved their production of homegrown novels. When it comes to new literary sensations, Australian publishers are keen to import discoveries rather than to fossick through their slush piles for hidden talent.
For a while I admired the writing of Etgar Keret, the "new voice" of Israeli literature. I thought, here's a writer to my own heart, he's bright, young, witty, adventurous ... Then I made a horrible discovery – he was born in 1967. "He's not a young writer at all," I shouted, disturbing neighbouring magazine browsers. "He's old enough to be my dad!"
I felt dirty. I felt lied to. I felt Oedipal. I'd been sold a Generation X writer when the packaging promised Generation Y. I was the 1980s-child customer scorned: "What do you mean batteries not included? Muuuuum!"
I MUST ADMIT I do like Etgar Keret's writing – and, to be fair, he really would have had to make an early start if he'd wanted to father me, but there's a principle at stake here: In any other artistic discipline, "young" implies at least some sense of youthfulness. A young actress may be nineteen or twenty, a young artist perhaps twenty-five or twenty-six. But a young writer? Well they may still have their own hair ... if they're lucky.
Maybe I am being too harsh on publishers by suggesting that the shortage of genuinely young writers is simply a matter of money. After all, it does take time to craft a good read, and a rush to be published can just as easily be a kiss of death if the desire to cash in on the "next big thing" comes at the cost of perfection.
My older writer friends, who've taken the time and learnt the hard lessons, accuse me of impatience: "Listen, you're what? Twenty-three? You can't expect to be doing 40,000 copy print-runs. Writing takes time."
"Yeah but what about Truman Capote? He was working for The New Yorker at seventeen? And Tim Winton? First book on the shelves at twenty-one. Arthur Rimbaud?"
"Ah, yes, Rimbaud," they tut, "the boy who wanted to be Baudelaire ..."
"Wanted to be bigger than Baudelaire."
"Listen, I don't want to be Baudelaire ... I don't even want to ..."
"Yeah ... that's it, isn't it? You've got a Rimbaud thing. A Rimbaud complex. Need to be a child prodigy if it kills you. I'll give you two years and then you'll put a match to every one of your manuscripts ..."
I KNOW I should heed their advice. Patience is a virtue – one that I should have learnt from the moralising cartoons of my youth, but alas, that message fell on deaf ears. For when it comes to rejection, '80s children refuse to take "no" for an answer. We won't hear that short story collections are unmarketable. We're too world-weary. We've been sold every brainless bauble from Pog to Pokémon cards; we've seen the high times of the hula-hoop, twice, and we know that there is no use for a Slinky when you live in a low-set home, but still have one in a drawer somewhere. So, in a move that would seem somewhat uncharacteristic for the "me" generation, '80s-born writers are banding together to make their own publishing opportunities, on their own terms.
In Melbourne, youth self-publishing is fast becoming a boom industry. Two collectives have emerged in the last five years alone. Founded by former RMIT students, the independent presses, Cardigan and Sleepers, have each produced well-received anthologies of short fiction from virtual "unknowns".
In light of these initiatives – publishers set up for emerging authors by emerging authors – the future may not appear so bleak. After all, any one of us at any time could win that manuscript prize, attract the attention of an established author generous enough to take on an apprentice or to offer some words of advice. There is that chance, slim as it may be, that one day one of us may be selected – discovered – by the people upstairs.
In the meantime, we've got e-zines and writers' blogs, slam poetry and street press, and – perhaps most importantly – second jobs. Yes, writing may be the mistress who keeps me, but hospitality is the whore who pays my way. I'm always surprised by how many fellow moonlighters I meet in my search for a buck. Not all writers, necessarily, but a lot. More writers than actors, I would argue.
"Yeah I've been thinking about writing a book about it," a workmate says, after she has finished recounting the story of her year as a roadhouse cook on the Nullarbor.
I feel like slapping her and yelling: "Are you insane? Learn to love money and get out while you still can. It's all frustration and breakfast menus 'cause the world changed over while you were working your fingers to the bone for nothing, nothing. Nothing!"
But instead I find myself saying: "Yeah, you should."
Tables are set and the first customers filter in. I spend most of the evening draining a bottle of Penfold's older than I am through a napkin so the bastards on 23 can drink silt-free wine 'til the wee hours. We're practically sweeping under their feet by the time they make for their coats.
When I get home, I prepare myself an absinth and my Verlaine gives me a backrub. "Don't worry Rimbe," he says, "there's hope for us yet ... You'll see."