Sunday, January 19, 2014

Whatever Happened to the "Repetitive Beat Generation"?

I picked up "Repetitive Beat Generation" in London. Its a book of interviews - on Rebel Inc./Canongate - by Manchester academic Steve Redhead with the writers who appeared in the wake of Irvine Welsh's success with "Trainspotting."

For younger readers, its worth a bit of a recap. In the early 1990s British fiction was in one of its regular troughs. The most lauded "younger" writers - the generation of Rushdie, Crace, Amis, Barnes, McEwan - were getting on a bit, yet were still far edgier than the rest of British fiction, which, with the odd countercultural exception (Martin Millar, Iain Banks) had very little of the verve of younger American writers like Brett Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney. Fiction seemed particularly slow to respond to the contemporary experience, and those books that maybe did (such as Pete Davis's satirical novel "The Last Election" (1986), Douglas Adams' ostensibly SF but often hilariously mundane Hitchhikers novels, (1979-1992) Sue Townsend's "Secret Diary of Adrian Mole" (1982) Ben Elton's "Stark" (1989)) owed more to the British sitcom and skit show than any literary precursors. After "Money" and "London Fields" even Martin Amis had left behind twentysomething readers with the bourgeois middle life crisis of "The Information". Anger at Thatcher came out in music, TV shows and stand-up comedy, but rarely in the gentrified fields of contemporary fiction.

Yet earnest English graduates weren't reading Anita Brookner and A.S. Byatt, but genre writers like Stephen King, Harlan Ellison and Micheal Moorcock or "cult books" like "A Clockwork Orange", "1984" and "Catch 22" or world writers such as Kundera or Marquez. There was a verve here that was missing in British fiction. Where was the punk fiction? The new wave fiction? The hip hop fiction? The clubbing fiction? Youth culture as fed by older writers like McEwan and Amis was invariably out of step.

The shock of the new came for me in a few books - 1985's "The Wasp Factory" which despite its isolated location on a Scottish island was clearly set in a contemporary space; and how much more isolated it was it than my Midlands commuter village anyway? Then there was Will Self's 1991 debut collection "The Quantity Theory of Insanity" and, not far behind, Irvine Welsh's 1993 novel  "Trainspotting." These were books that seemed to have been published not that far from the time in which they were set, and which were written in a very different style than the majority of contemporary novels. Perhaps less important personally, were early 1990s Booker winners by Roddy Doyle and James Kelman, and Nick Hornby's football memoir "Fever Pitch."

What happened next was that literature briefly had its punk rock moment. When "Trainspotting" was made into a film it was soundtracked by a mix of techno and Britpop. Even though Oasis's Noel Gallagher can still to do this harp on about never reading fiction, he seemed to be the only one; and suddenly new books with a heady mix of sex, drugs and clubbing were appearing with a rapid frequency. A collection of these chemically enhanced writers "Disco Biscuits" (named after one of the slang terms for E), was hastily put together by journalist Sarah Champion in 1997, and books like Welsh's "The Acid House" (1994), Alex Garland's 1990's beat novel "The Beach"(1996) and Alan Warner's "Morvern Callar"(1995) became hip bestsellers. More remarkably, book readings moved from the bookshop or literary festival to the nightclub, and the Canadian author of 1991's "Generation X" Douglas Coupland, or Welsh or Easton Ellis were as much "event" bookings as hip bands or DJ Fatboy Slim.

The urban nature of many of these books went beyond clubland. Jeff Noon's Manchester SF "Vurt"(1993) and "Pollen"(1994), John King's hooligan odysseys  "The Football Factory" (1997), even Nick Hornby's record shop novel "High Fidelity" (1994), or James Hawes' thriller "White Merc With Fins" (1996) soon occupied a corner of every bookshop. If this was cult fiction, it was now attached to large advances, and colour spreads in lads mags like "Loaded" as well as the broadsheets.

It was a strange time to be trying to be a writer - as many of these books were already in the shops whilst I was struggling to write a first novel. I'd written a clubbing story as far back as 1988, but its style wasn't as chemically enhanced as those that would follow, rather, it was a more gentle coming-of-age piece. These writers were my generation - but usually, crucially - a few years older. Also, though I had to admire some of the writing, over the course of a whole novel they often felt under-edited and over-wrought, like stretched out magazine pieces. And where, one wondered, were the female writers? The Donna Tartt's to these Brett Easton Ellis bad boys?

Crucially, I was also thirty in 1997, and many of these books were targetted at a late teen/early 20s audience. Having read "Last Exit to Brooklyn" or "Naked Lunch" years before, I wasn't particularly impressed by drug tales or wide-boy crime capers, though Self's stories, Iain Banks first few novels, "Morvern Callar" and parts of "The Acid House" struck me as excellent. More exciting in many ways was that small presses like Pulp Faction, Serpent's Tail and Rebel Inc/Canongate were the imprints where some of this new writing was now appearing. As I aimed to get my own stories into print, I tried unsuccessfully to write more urban tales, before a few quirkier stories appeared in small magazines.  Rather than open the doors to new fiction, it seemed that the brief success of this chemical generation had closed things down again for anyone who wasn't writing an edgier fiction. At the same time - the pop cultural novel had morphed into the "chick lit" and "lad lit" of Helen Fielding and Mike Gayle, pleasantly funny soap opera novels, that had little counter cultural edge to them and even less politics.

Yet reading through that list of titles, there's quite a few interesting novels that came out in the late 80s and throughout the 90s. Yet reading Redhead's badly named "Repetitive Beat Generation" I'm struck by how quickly this generation suddenly stopped dead at the millennium. A further book from Champion - "Disco 2000" spread its net wider bringing American writers into the mix of this millenial collection named after a Pulp song. Welsh remains a bestseller, but he's been increasingly revisiting the characters of his debut "Trainspotting." Roddy Doyle, who like Welsh was born in the 1950s, has continued to build on the fan base that came with his wryly comic Barrytown trilogy, and the more serious books that followed - though he too has revisited his classic characters lately. Alan Warner, a reluctant interviewee here, and never keen on being tagged as a "chemical generation" writer (based on a few clubbing scenes in his first keenly observed novels), continues to write well received novels. Outside of those three, other names like Nicholas Blincoe, Duncan Mclean, John King and Gordon Legge seem to have virtually disappeared, whilst Jeff Noon only recently returned after a long absence. Perhaps any list is going to be like this. But considering how big a deal was made for these writers at the time it seems strange how this popular nineties fiction never really lasted - though you'll still see kids reading "The Beach" or "Trainspotting". Alex Garland (missing from these interviews) now writes films. Stewart Home (also not interviewed) continues to be a cult iconoclast.

A new generation of novelists did arrive just before or after the millennium. Writers like A.L. Kennedy, Nicola Barker, David Mitchell, David Peace, Magnus Mills, Ali Smith, Toby Litt, Gwendoline Riley, Zadie Smith, Jon McGregor and others have often had some of the same verve of the chem-gen writers, yet their subject matters are more diverse, their literary styles less biddable, and their careers showing more diversity. I'm sure some of the excitement of eighties fiction (as well as some of the money from "Trainspotting" and "The Beach") helped some of these get deals, and I imagine that seeing such home grown contemporary novels was more inspiring than the poor crop a decade before.

The Steve Redhead book is published by Canongate who are still very much with us as a key independent; and there's obviously a bias towards some of the Scottish and Irish writers that they picked up as a counterbalance to a London-centric publishing world. Most of the books above are pre-internet novels as well - and there was a brief flurry of digitally enhanced dot com novels such as Matt Beaumont's "E the novel" and Coupland's  "J-Pod". More recently there's been a bit of a revival, I think of the Bildungsroman, and again novelists from outside of London, such as Gwendoline Riley, Chris Killen and Joe Stretch have written promising contemporary novels set in a post-millennial Britain of call centres, temp work and 24-hour drinking. Reality TV and social media has probably filled the space that briefly saw writers as media celebrities; and an early generation of Amis-Barnes-Kureishi-McEwan etc. are still churning out novels of varying qualities. I wonder if the readers of "Trainspotting" all got married, had kids, and spent the next decade reading the childhood fantasias of J.K. Rowling - if so then maybe there'll be a ready audience in a few years for 90s nostalgia novels.

Being a "struggling writer" in the late 90s was weird - because on the one hand I felt I'd missed the boat, as yet another streetwise urban novel came out, and I was still struggling to escape (in life and in my fiction) the suburbs; on the other hand it felt there was a lifeline of possibility in that these books weren't exactly a million miles away from what I was writing. Though my relationship to the chem-gen was very tangentional at best. I reviewed Stewart Home's "Suspect Device" anthology for PROP magazine; and had my story "The Four Hills of Manchester" in Ra Page's City Life Manchester Stories 2 (Noon and Blincoe were in Manchester Stories 1); collection that gets a brief mention in Repetitive Beat Generation. I studied with Mark Powell who had two late "chem gen" novels in the gritty urban crime stories "Snap" and "Box" and Lee Rourke who gathered around him a similar 21st century "offbeat generation" in online magazines before leading to his debut "The Canal." I'm wondering whether Salt's call for novellas of "modern dreams" - urban fiction for 18-25 year old - to be published electronically - is an attempt to kickstart a similar edgier fiction movement to the 90s one.

If there were few great writers to come out of this generation, I'm at least glad that there was this brief period when British fiction embraced a crude, chemically-fuelled urbanism in its fiction. Like the stock market rising to new heights just before the millennium before crashing to earth, or a one off firework display on millennium's eve, it meant that the 20th century didn't just end with good old British complacency, but with a few paperbacks that tucked in boxes in people's lofts, or passed on to charity shops or lying unloved in family bookshelves, will be a memory of a time when drug fiction briefly went as mainstream as the Ecstacy pills that fuelled the stories.

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