Oh joy, a controversy! 78 million people now comprise, and millions more are close to, a demographic category several million others wish would just shut up. The 78 million-plus are Baby Boomers. Late forties and up. The third stage of life. Some Boomers are insisting that third-stage experience will give rise to its own literary genre, while detractors are certain that nothing interesting can possibly happen after 46 and thus no literature can emerge from the Boomer demographic. Stories, after all, require conflict, drama, interesting stuff about which to write. Hmmm.
All literature is about change, about transition. A king dies, conflict ensues, new king happens. Boy meets girl, conflict ensues, both are changed (usually into parents). Aliens/serial killers/heartless corporations threaten, conflict ensues, salvation lies in characters who change under threat in order to slay the beasts. Transition, which cannot occur without conflict, is the first cause and beating heart of stories.
Life involves four major transitions, of which two (birth and death) do not produce literature. These two are silent, since we cannot remember our births and cannot write books while dead. The second transition, child-to-adult (innocence to experience), has given us countless myths and the currently wildly popular YA genre.
Claude Nougat, a Rome-based novelist and economist, notes that sheer Boomer numbers created YA forty or fifty years ago. Those same numbers, now mature, are creating a new genre reflecting the third transition – adult-to-sage (experience to wisdom). But is the third transition sufficiently rife with conflict and drama to make literature?
Oh boy, is it ever!
It always was. While a failed child-to-adult transition results in nothing more than a large, lumbering child whose existence is both puzzling and tedious, a failed adult-to-sage transition is a profound and hideous disaster! Remember the nasty Boomer so obsessed with maintaining her youthful allure that she tried three times to murder her beautiful stepdaughter in order to remain “the fairest in all the land”? Time, of course, cannot be stopped, and all attempts to do so are doomed. But the punishment for failing to make the third-stage transition is dire. Snow White’s stepmother must dance, screaming, in red-hot iron shoes until she dies. In a more recent story, a Boomer named Willy Loman (Death of a Salesman) commits suicide rather than relinquish his now-delusional adult-stage images of himself and the world.
We are only too familiar with the agonizing penalty for failure at the third-stage transition because there is already an archetypal body of literature documenting it. But these archetypal tales aren’t Boomer Literature. The genre is new, largely because although there have always been individuals who lived long and well, only now have medical advances, diet and a non-scarcity environment allowed enormous numbers to approach the third-stage transition bright-eyed, healthy and looking for roadmaps to successful navigation of these heretofore uncharted waters. IE: “Wow, I’m not dead! I’m not even sick. Apparently I’m going to live quite a bit longer than popular ideas have led me to expect. What now?”
Boomer Lit is about making it, about defining that shadowy divide and crossing it with style. Boomers are beginning to write and read books about themselves in every genre, although Hollywood, ever sensitive to sources of impressive profit, got there first. The Descendants (George Clooney), The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Maggie Smith, Judi Dench) and Hope Springs (Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones), to name only three of about fifteen in 2012, are box-office hits. Many more Boomer movies are in the pipeline, Boomerism is a hot topic in the media and there are too many Boomer blogs to count. But Boomer Literature is the turtle in this race, scrambling to catch up.
Why? Not because young people think older people are hopelessly stupid and out of it; that’s perfectly normal. Every generation must define itself in opposition to what has (recently) gone before. The life-threatening leap to wisdom from the precipice of experience cannot interest those still trying to accumulate experience. The attitudes of the young are of no significance here, and cannot be blamed for the dearth of good Boomer literature.
What can be blamed is a two-headed sloth. One head is a publishing industry that somehow managed to overlook the tsunami of readers in an age demographic Hollywood is only too happy to please. Heads of literary agencies, senior editors and publishing CEOs are themselves Boomers-and-up, but the dissolution of the traditional publishing world has shaken them so badly that they can’t read an actuarial table. The other head belongs to an army of interesting, educated and articulate Boomer writers who (a) have internalized the concept that their stories aren’t interesting, and/or (b) are unwilling to dive into the admittedly trying realm of digital publishing technology.
That’s changing, slowly. An early phalanx of Boomer authors has launched itself. So, savagely trashing the convention that authors may not write book reviews, I’m going to devote a bunch of subsequent blogs to reviewing, or at least listing, new Boomer novels.