Do people get more Right-wing as they get older? The argument is a familiar one – and it’s backed up by voting patterns. With the first cheque you send to the taxman, the scales of socialism start to melt away. As a new generation invents new madnesses, you start to look back to simpler, happier times. While everything you grew up with is natural, and everything developed before middle age is interesting, at a certain point all new innovations become unnecessary interventions in the natural order of things.
We all know this happens, because we’ve see it in others – even if we’re too young to have experienced even twinges of it ourselves. I was reminded of the process as I watched the further descent into grumpy old-manness of Bret Easton Ellis.
The author of American Psycho has been giving interviews to publicise his first non-fiction book, White. This is a full-throated assault on the culture that Millennials have brought into the world. It’s an account of the world of snowflake censoriousness that makes all discussion of almost anything almost impossible. The world of feelings over facts. The world of ‘cancelling’ people if they have ever emitted the wrong view.
But there’s a problem. While we might recognise Ellis’s descent into curmudgeonliness, it cannot be allowed to pass without censure.
The bitter truth about Millennial burnout
Let’s not forget that Ellis did not make his name by writing a succession of polite social comedies. Nobody would have called him the EF Benson of his day. On the contrary, right from one of his earliest novels, The Rules of Attraction, Ellis’s shtick was to give no-holds-barred portrayals of drug-fuelled, empty, hedonist and indeed nihilistic culture, force it between the covers and then shove the results down his readers’ throats.
His commercial success suggests that people loved it. There is, after all, a great market in American literature for a particular form of nihilism, perhaps that form the late Allan Bloom once described as ‘American nihilism’, that is nihilism with a happy ending.
As it happens, Ellis’s career only really hit the stratosphere when he was able to marry precisely this sort of nihilism with a plot. In American Psycho the nihilism was at least propelling the narrative somewhere. The moment someone kills someone, the reader wants to know if that murderer is going to be brought to justice. They want to know if they will kill again. And it is in the nature of violent murder fiction that there is some reward each time for the writer who is willing to take the violence to the next level.
It's no crime to come late to Dostoyevsky
In its day and for its time Ellis did that. He dragged the corpses to places beyond where they would normally be. And with it, was an unmistakeable note of something, which if it wasn’t misogynistic, then was certainly something that enjoyed dancing close to that line.
His audience lapped it up. Indeed, the extremity and the pornography of the violence in American Psycho paved the way for depictions of it elsewhere – on television and film. As a result, people’s attitudes towards it were dulled. And each subsequent iteration had to break a new taboo. Thus did a writer enrich himself as he soiled his audience.
But what, precisely, did Ellis think would follow? Did he presume that the next generation would perform variations on his theme: more novels about sex and drugs with a little meaningless violence occasionally thrown into the mix? Did he think they’d find increasingly imaginative ways to pervert his genre?
No wonder he was disappointed with how they turned out, as he mistakenly failed to note that periods of extreme debauchery and free licence are inevitably followed by counter-movements of puritanism.
The righteous anger of youth
Hence Ellis’s general mood as he does the rounds with his book, busily bemoaning a whole slew of things about the Millennial generation. In her superb interview with him in The Times last weekend, Decca Aitkenhead got him to make a number of excellently perceptive comments, in one of which he pointed out that Millennial culture is really an oxymoron.
“What is it?” He asked. “There’s no writing. None of them read books.”
Some will hold such statements to be useless – because they are too sweeping. But there is a kernel of truth, as well as a grandiosity, to his claim. It’s not that Millennials don’t read books, nor that Millennials don’t write them. But it is true that anyone who believes they are right have no especial need of books. Given that books are – to date – perhaps the most reliable transportation device our species has come up, then Millennials with their clear sense of direction will, therefore, have less need of them.
This generation, destined to rebel against libertinism and nihilism, must develop a very clear sense of purpose. It cannot adopt the luxurious and decadent position of going wherever words and ideas take it. Rather it can go on journeys only if those journeys are likely to take it to the places it has already decided to be the correct destinations.
Why does everyone have it in for the Puritans?
Which brings me back to puritanism. Millennial culture is nothing if not puritanical. It finds people on tracks that they should not be on and castigates them. Conversely, it identifies the true and correct paths that people should be on and praises them for staying there.
I have an enormous amount of sympathy with Ellis’s criticisms of this new generation, its hypersensitivity and boringness. I can stay for these criticisms, and many more. But along the way, a question has to be asked. What is it the younger generation has rebelled against? And who are the cultural figures who have set the stage for precisely this sort of backlash?
Criticism of the new generation is fine and good – and probably quite necessary. But this does have to start with a degree of self-reflection from that generation who – and this is particularly woeful for those of us who thought of them as enfants terribles – we must now describe as the old.