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The emptiness of the millennial world The online generation is still struggling to write a decent book

Taking selfies in Berlin is the stuff of great literature now. Credit: TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP via Getty Images

Taking selfies in Berlin is the stuff of great literature now. Credit: TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP via Getty Images


March 16, 2021   6 mins

The Millennial Literary Voice was always going to have trouble establishing itself. It is, after all, defined by a subject that literature always struggles with, because it lacks a proper verb: being online. Consider the number of Poirot mysteries that would easily be solved with Google, and a life inside tech seems to be without the dimensions required for narrative. Yet the alternative — an anachronistic world in which characters pretend they don’t spend Sunday nights in deflated doom-scrolling — is even worse. As is descending into William Gibson cyber-surfer neural-network blather: in the age of always-on, somehow sci fi has never felt more distant. The thing in the middle will define the Voice — how we use tech and how tech uses us.

In 1997, just after the youngest millennials were born, Damien Hirst accidentally prophesied how that tension would affect their generation, in the title of his art book: “I WANT TO SPEND THE REST OF MY LIFE, EVERYWHERE, WITH EVERYONE, ONE TO ONE, ALWAYS, FOREVER, NOW.” The online world is destructively dual: it creates a delirious dream of boundlessness, while being an open prison; its subjects can see anything, while under total surveillance. These days, the kids who were toddlers when Hirst was pickling his first shark know this so implicitly that they seldom really think about it.  For them, what they screen off — and what they broadcast — has always been a function of being the first generation to undergo the process of identity formation within the feedback loop of a networked world.

And what that gets up-voted above all else, in that world, is emotional disclosure. It is the “stunning and brave” tale of trauma, spliced with a measure of pithy, pungent political agitprop — the essay that can generalise out from “me me me” to any kind of oppressed “we”. The inherent narcissism of the confessional genre is offset by those “we” aspects of the generalising think-piece, while the most shareable articles on social media have that same combination of relatability and a call to arms. In that context, writers like Jia Tolentino are in poll position to be the Voice.

Back in 2014, Tolentino was an editor at Jezebel, the blog site that pioneered a certain kind of personal-is-political feminism, now everywhere, which involves paying women $50 to share painful experiences in their past. Tolentino’s own work never misses the chance to score some minor culture wars point, always peeling back yet more of the soft viscera of her hurts in exchange for kudos.

Like many women who grew up in the 90s, Tolentino feels defined by her very online-ness. At the start of her 2019 essay collection, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, she tracks the technological timeline of her life, from hymning the alien fritz of the 48k dial-up modem to raking over her pre-teen diary on her AngelFire website. For her, it was that early experience of online identity construction that represents that generational break-point. “The self is not a fixed, organic thing, but a dramatic effect that emerges from a performance,” she says. But: “the internet adds a host of other, nightmarish metaphorical structures: the mirror, the echo, the panopticon.”

Life in the internet’s panopticon means you can never screen-off your personality — never engage in the perfectly normal behaviour of being different people in different social settings. It’s a process Tolentino sees as inherently crazymaking, because it means you’re never “off”, you never get to be in a rumpus room of consequence-free engagement. This over-construction, she concludes with the weary inevitability of an ex-Jezebel writer, is worse for women, who have always been socialised that way. She offers a millennial clichĂ© as a solution: be more you. Lean into your saleable self. Tolentino is very good at doing this; she seems to have a native gift for swimming with the digital tides.

The same cannot be said of Roisin Kiberd, who, with a pedigree at VICE and a thing for techno-dystopian Mark Fischer, is another contender for the Voice. True, her new collection of essays, The Disconnect, opens with a remarkably similar catalogue of digital personhood. And the two are almost the same age; Kiberd references many of the same formative moments in the life of the net as Tolentino. But while Tolentino was expertly curating her brand, Kiberd began to come apart. In early 2016, she tells us, she had a breakdown, swallowed a month’s worth of pills and washed them down with cheap rum — taking care to set her Twitter to private, and write down all her online passwords.

A Dubliner, Kiberd had a PR job as the voice of an online cheese brand, then drifted into ill-paid, gig economy work writing about tech and for tech. Meantime, Dublin’s property market trebled in value, meaning that hers is a life of shunting between share-houses, with regular crestfallen returns to the parental nest. Kiberd was supposedly living the dream, a quintessential anywhere, free to jet off at a moment’s notice to live an Emily In Paris-style in a dreamy mittel European city. Yet in truth, all she does is work obsessively, storing up shifts on the treadmill today to make room for some undefined “real life” tomorrow. Anything that could be regarded as progress, the true stuff of life — a decent home, colleagues, regularity, hobbies — hovers just out of reach. Her world has become an infinite scroll, she’s a hare on a wire.

Somewhere, she knows this. But can she stop it? Can she look away? Well, ask yourself: can you?

If Tolentino is The Millennial Voice in 1D — a flatland of on-message self-disclosure — then Kiberd is its 2D upgrade: human, often lyrical, if still prone to cling to the orthodoxies of the consensus culture. But it takes the memoir-as-fiction to really nail the Voice in 3D; for true millennial thought, you need someone who thinks beyond the impact of tech in culture. Who thinks about culture as though it were just another kind of tech.

Lauren Oyler was once a writer in VICE’s Brooklyn offices. I think I saw her there, in late 2015. Her tribe, Broadly — VICE’s women’s pages — were hived off in a single glass-panelled office, about eight of them around a single board room table. Peering in, the vibe did not seem good in their own personal panopticon. To say Oyler’s fantastic new novel Fake Accounts is thinly-veiled is an insult to the diaphanous. It’s literary cling-film, right down to the Peanut Butter M&M dispenser in that Brooklyn HQ. Oyler’s lead — like her, like Tolentino — also writes articles which are “designed to say X is bad for women”, dredged up by fishing the net for similar articles. Just like her heroine, prior to VICE, Oyler “moved to Berlin” in the golden age of the moving-to-Berlin era, around 2012. According to nothing more reliable than internet forum gossip, “she refused to learn any German and made a huge unnecessary fuss about Berghain”, the celebrated club that’s basically impossible to get into. (Oyler apparently claims her German is fine.)

Oyler’s leading woman is a moth drawn to this Mecca of hip globalised youth culture. Actual Germans with actual lives and cultures move around behind her on wires, Non-Player Characters in her personal video game. She speaks none of the language. She invests nothing. Instead, she spends a lot of time of Twitter, babysits for an American woman and goes on shapeless, meaningless internet dates, dishing up a string of fake personas for a string of nice enough men.

To say that Oyler has captured the Millennial Voice would almost be an understatement. She’s nailed that sense in which the surveillance is as much internal as external. Her narrator is perfectly self-aware, yet gets in tussles with herself about politics. Somewhere, there’s a catechism of things she merely thinks she believes, that she should believe — the same decision paralysis you see everywhere. When another character admits to an obsessive desire to get into baking, you get the sense she’s riven between the notion that baking is fantastically Instagrammable, and an ongoing ascetic quest to purge, to forego the net entirely and get back to real, manual work.

The Millennial’s is a binge-purge universe; a neurotically self-optimising one, always looking for the next tweak, the next FODMAP-free diet, or net-abstaining dopamine fast — which will be the one that will finally snap life itself into focus. Meanwhile, panning back, the truth of the matter that people with two Master’s degrees share shabby houses in cities where they don’t belong, well into their thirties, always on dates, always on Twitter, and thus perfectly, sublimely, free. It’s a culture of never truly gaining anything because you never truly commit to anything.

Oyler “divides her time” between New York and Berlin now. Kiberd’s Instagram bio says she’s “Irish, mostly in Berlin”. The climax of the latter’s book comes, where else, at the Berghain (though she never actually names the club). There she is reunited with an apparent true love, in a town with “rents a third of Dublin”. At around the same moment in history, back in fiction, Oyler’s narrator was also trotting past the place, making mindless quips.

Berghain is famous for confiscating your phone on arrival. If Berlin is Mecca, then Berghain is the Black Stone of Kaaba, a big silent rock nothing can penetrate. Somewhere in there is a place where, for just one night, you cannot post anything to your socials. It is the Lost World Of Spontaneity. And while the word spontaneity has a reputation for, y’know, carefree stuff, in truth it requires deliberate choice. It requires putting something down, in order to become undivided. A lesson which none of our real or fake memoirists ever fully absorb.

Turns out the voice of the millennial isn’t so much that of the Anywhere as the exhausted Everywhere: a generation who simultaneously wish to have the kudos of the rat race, the hyper-socialisation of the big city, and yet also the simple parsimony, the mental clarity and basic stability, that comes from families and small towns; and the sacrifice inherent in choosing. You cannot live the rest of a life everywhere, with everyone, one to one, always and forever — now can you?


Gavin Haynes is a journalist and former editor-at-large at Vice.

@gavhaynes

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Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

‘The Millennial Literary Voice was always going to have trouble establishing itself.’
Well, yes, probably because none of them has ever read a serious book. You can’t write if you don’t read.
Moreover, to the extent that I encounter them, I find young people/Millennials to be very pleasant and hard working. But they seem to disturbingly credulous when it comes to authority, witness the response to the demented and draconian Covid restriction, and they just don’t seem to know anything. This is hardly likely to produce good or great literature.

Last edited 3 years ago by Fraser Bailey
Christopher Gage
Christopher Gage
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I read two to three serious books per week. Please don’t broadstroke millions of people.
Every generation suffers the same criticism when young. The older generation always thinks of itself as superior to the one following.

Last edited 3 years ago by Christopher Gage
Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Yes, sorry, that’s a bit unfair. The truth is that very few people of any age read, as I outline in another post below.

Bits Nibbles
Bits Nibbles
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Nah, book sales are setting records. I don’t know of a single person that doesn’t read books. Also know many writers of books, poetry, comics, music. I’m just barely a millennial. I admit, I don’t read nearly as much as my 14 and 12 year olds do, but I’m a very slow reader. Sometimes I have to read the same sentence 10-20 times before I understand it fully. In my defense, English is a second language.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Bits Nibbles

I know a lot of people who start books, or read bits of them, but often not the whole thing. And I constantly pick up books from street-libraries etc wherein I will find the bookmark still at page 30, or the corner of the page turned over for the last time at page 43. And these tend not to be very difficult books.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago

I agree with you and it needed to be said. I feel but don’t know that the average age of people commenting on UnHerd is quite high. Therefore, quite a lot of the comments are as you said – the old criticising the young.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago

if I had a nickel for every time an older person spoke of walking to school in waist-deep snow, both ways, and twice on Sundays…..

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Well the fact is that I did once walk three miles to school and back waist deep in snow…

Joe Smith
Joe Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

But was it closed when you got there? 🙂

Last edited 3 years ago by Joe Smith
Bits Nibbles
Bits Nibbles
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Same here. Even once through a tornado. But, I’m a millenial.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
3 years ago

I personally don’t think a book is “serious” if it can be read in 2-3 days.
A decent, challenging, thought provoking book is going to take a week or two to read a least.

Bits Nibbles
Bits Nibbles
3 years ago

I agree, but I’m a slow reader, so I would, wouldn’t I? My wife knocks out a 300-400 page book in 4-8 hours depending. Amazing how differently our brains function.

Toby Josh
Toby Josh
3 years ago

You don’t know how fast the guy can read. Or how much time he has to devote to the pastime, at the present.

Simon Baggley
Simon Baggley
3 years ago

Not as far as millennials are concerned – you may be an exception to the rule – but most I know are vacuous , self obsessed social media addicts

Andrew Lale
Andrew Lale
3 years ago

Are you kidding? The absence of reading as a hobby is just a plain fact. Everybody older than thirty five had no computer games to play, nor social media. We had books or hanging out with actual people. You might read three serious books a week, but that makes you vanishingly rare and unusual.

Jethro Bodine
Jethro Bodine
3 years ago

Are they e-books? Do you “deep read” them? Nicholas Carr says what is called “reading” today is neurologically different than what it used to be. It’s spot reading and skimming. I’m not saying deep reading isn’t something millennials don’t or can’t do, but is it rarer among them than it was among pre-Internet generations?

Ed B
Ed B
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

OK boomer etc

steve eaton
steve eaton
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

The thing that I notice most about the generations that have grown up online is the lack of confidence and the seeming inability to act with conviction. I am an engineer who has been on-line since 1984 and who has had a cell phone since 1988, so I am not a technophobe by any means. And I teach these younger folks in a Telecom engineering realm. And mostly I like them.
It seems to me that the people who grew up online suffer from too much information. When I was coming up, I learned to consult the sources I had, namely the Library, maybe an acceptable expert and experienced aquantances. That is a limited pool of resources that once exhausted left me to figure out my plan of action and then execute.
The online generations however never run out of possibilities. They Google almost any subject and are supplied with hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of possible information links.It must be very hard to commit to anything when you can never feel like you’ve researched something completely and you know that the link that could turn what you currently believe on it’s head may well be the next one after the one where you stopped clicking. And never completely able to trust the sources of your info. Always risking being a laughing stock by the next guy up who receives a different algorithmic search and so a better search result than you did.
These folks have my pity, it’s very difficult in their world I think, and many have developed neuroses f4rom the mental stress of what I describe.

R Malarkey
R Malarkey
3 years ago
Reply to  steve eaton

As a software developer right now I do wonder how on earth people survived in the days before Stack Overflow!

Bits Nibbles
Bits Nibbles
3 years ago
Reply to  R Malarkey

Experimentation, and understanding bosses.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
3 years ago
Reply to  steve eaton

I had never considered “the endless search”. Most of my most technical data is rarely available via search. Manufacturer tear sheets, specifications are typically tucked away behind their walls. On-line helps me find vendors and access to app notes, but real data comes through conversations. The younger people I’ve worked with and mentored remain highly creative and don’t seem distracted by endless search. We rarely have that sort of time.

Bits Nibbles
Bits Nibbles
3 years ago
Reply to  steve eaton

Analysis paralysis.

Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
3 years ago
Reply to  steve eaton

The education system discourages conviction or strong opinions of any sort. I get it in a way: students are supposed to be on a quest for knowledge unfiltered by personal biases; unfortunately woke-nonsense has filled the gaps that a Christian value system used to occupy. What I’m trying to say here is ‘when you stand for nothing, you fall for everything’.

Nick M
Nick M
3 years ago
Reply to  steve eaton

I think you make a very good point here!!! One solution will be refined AI to help us pin-point the information we need. But then so much will come down to the bias of the AI algorithm.

D3 SH
D3 SH
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

You can’t write if you don’t read.

Nonsense. I read an awful lot because my commute from the suburbs of London to my job in the centre of town always took so damn long on the crumbling Victorian railways and buses!

ian.walker12
ian.walker12
3 years ago
Reply to  D3 SH

And how does that contradict Fraser’s point?

D3 SH
D3 SH
3 years ago

A former Vice contributor reviews work by other former Vice contributors and thinks the work is stellar. Hmmm. Perhaps someone with a little more distance would have been better to judge these works?

Even as a Millennial I disagree with a lot of the conclusions from both reviewer and those reviewed here.

I am roughly the same age as Tolentino and in no way do I feel defined by my “very online-ness”. Being online in the age of dial-up, when you had to hog the phone line so no-one else could use it and were rooted to your desktop PC, was a world away from the “online-ness” of today. It wasn’t until smartphones that the online really started to creep into the every day – and by that stage Tolentino should have been graduating university and an adult. I can only conclude, based on my own experiences, she’s writing the above prattle for dramatic effect, some “stunning and brave” trauma about growing up in a techno dystopia, which I fail to recognise.

Haynes’ assertion, “Life in the internet’s panopticon means you can never screen-off your personality — never engage in the perfectly normal behaviour of being different people in different social settings,” is also codswallop. If he escaped the social media bubble/prison, he’d realise it’s really quite easy to screen-off one’s personality as in the “old days” of the Internet.

“For true millennial thought, you need someone who thinks beyond the impact of tech in culture. Who thinks about culture as though it were just another kind of tech.”

Another statement that I can’t echo – but perhaps this is more a failure of the overarching “millennial” tag itself than the writer’s own. If Millennials span from 1981-1996 then the online experience of early versus late Millenials will be entirely different. I certainly don’t think of culture as another kind of tech and none of my similarly aged friends do either – though I can imagine it being different for Gen-Z.

“She’s nailed that sense in which the surveillance is as much internal as external.” Now, c’mon. If the reviewer really thinks introspection (here puffed up as “surveillance”) is something unique to Millenials, he needs to read more.

I’m beginning (!) to waffle myself, but I feel Haynes’ ought to do more than read and review work by fellow Vice contributors. If he got outside of his goldfish bowl he (and those reviewed here, too) might find something more universal, that many more of us recognise.

Aestivator .
Aestivator .
3 years ago
Reply to  D3 SH

Totally agree – most millenials (and I’m one, just about) don’t live the same kind of narcissistic, rootless lives as Vice journalists. Most of us are actually pretty boring and normal. But it’s the Vice journalist types that make the most noise and therefore get to ‘define’ a generation.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  Aestivator .

Well said. You are in fact what has been there since the beginning of time, ‘the silent majority’.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
3 years ago
Reply to  Aestivator .

The fact that Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker used Vice magazine as the basis for the fictional ‘Sugar Ape’ in Nathan Barley is pretty revealing as the origin of many of these people. That show is more prophetic than the otherwise bruited Black Mirror.
So now they get to write long opinion pieces bemoaning their own narcissism as a way of juicing up more attention for themselves. This sadly is the state of modern ‘journalists’.

Last edited 3 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
3 years ago
Reply to  D3 SH

If he escaped the social media bubble/prison, he’d realise it’s really quite easy to screen-off one’s personality as in the “old days” of the Internet.
I’m not sure. It is easy to do some superficially, yes. But you’ll soon find people in real life will start repeating the shibolleths and slogans of the online world to you in real life. And without being online it makes it all the madder as you have no context to tie it to.
That said, the broadsides against millennial narcissism from ex-Vice contributors show hilarious levels of self-unawareness.

Last edited 3 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

That was an exhausting read. I could not even really fallow it, but got images of moods which seemed almost Dante’s ninth circle, like the old sifi tv shows of someone pushing through some alien forest of ropey vines and muddy ground and heavy fog with outlandish creature sounds and possibly never an end.

I have never owned a cell phone and would have no idea how to even work a smart phone as I completely distrust them, they will alter your brain, and you will never get your old one back again once habituated to a phone. I spent a great deal of my younger time in solitary, remote, places, no electronics, or no electricity mostly, just alone or with one other, months, years, alone or almost, usually with a dog though, or not. Extreme solitude really does weird things to your mind, it always has been two things, the ultimate punishment, and the place mystics retreat to to find the ultimate. A weird coin, two sides. Boredom was always the second strongest feel out there, first was aloneness, and then you do become very aware of nature, there is only that and your thoughts, nothing else but daily tasks. It is not fun at all, but I always seeked remote places for some reason, I have a passion for nature.

The thought of always waiting, always thinking, of some message to send, or receive, always looking at some action or data on the screen, all the time, when ever you stop activity, the banishment of boredom, I just cannot imagine it. To live connected, it seems like an addiction that takes too much, always distracted by this phone, it always there with a message to send or get, or to look at. I can no more know how you phone people think than I could an Elizabethan farmer, we live in totally different realities, and my kind are dying out, the phone will win in the end, and soon.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Smartphones are fine tools – even for those like me that require extensive periods of solitude – as long as they are accompanied by personal discipline.
The trick is to do the upfront (and ongoing) work, to make sure you configure it to be non-intrusive.
If someone later chooses to hunt for messages and conversation, then they clearly also need “connected time”.

Last edited 3 years ago by Ian Barton
Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

I am often asked for directions to such and such a place by young people. Quite often they show me an address that has been printed out in the form of a booking for a hotel or AirBnB. I tell them they have more computing power in their pocket than the whole of NASA in 1969, and encourage them to learn how to at least read Google maps.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Their phone will probably read the information to them!

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

The smartphone addicts probably haven’t committed any sins serious enough to merit consignment to the ninth circle. They are probably going to end up with the futile in the vestibule of hell! I think of Inferno, Canto 3 quite often as I reflect on the dizzying and transitory squabbles of social media.
“Fama di loro il mondo esser non lassa;
misericordia e giustizia li sdegna:
non ragioniam di lor, ma guarda e passa”.

Last edited 3 years ago by Basil Chamberlain
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago

I would prefer:
Questi sciaurati, che mai non fur vivi,

erano ignudi e stimolati molto

da mosconi e da vespe ch’eran ivi.

Charles Rense
Charles Rense
3 years ago

How can you write a decent book when all of your downtime is wasted online? That’s the time past authors spent, you know, writing. It’s either write books or write tweets. Pick one.

Richard E
Richard E
3 years ago
Reply to  Charles Rense

They don’t read much, so it’s difficult to learn what good writing is.
They also live more shallow online lives, so they don’t have so much to write about.
They also live in a generation that has surrounded itself with many politically correct mine fields and no go areas, so it restricts what they feel safe to write about.
Writing takes time, concentration and focus. The interruptions of the modern online world, do not help with this.
Think how many of the greatest writers were writing by hand 200, 100, 50 years ago. They didn’t have the benefits of word processors, that helped them edit and rearrange their work, but despite this big disadvantage they still wrote some amazing pieces of work that often stand head and shoulders above much of what’s written today.
Is it a coincidence, that they not only had no online world or smartphones to interrupt them, they didn’t have radio, records, cds, tv, cinema or telephones to interrupt them either. They spent most of their time reading, and talking and listening to other people, who had interesting lives and stories to talk about.

Last edited 3 years ago by Richard E
Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Richard E

To be fair, the vast majority of people from all age groups don’t read much, and have never done so. I was chatting to a friend yesterday who lamented that I was just about the only person he knows who reads – and this guy knows loads of relatively intelligent and curious people because he organises underground cinema screenings and has a mailing list of about 5,000 people.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Reading nuts need to create small communities for themselves. One nice side effect of social media is being able to create WhatsApp/Messenger groups to talk about things like books with other like-minded people. Currently hacking my way through “My Brilliant Friend” by Elena Ferrante which I have to say I am disappointed by.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Isn’t that part of saga set in and around Naples? I don’t know why you would have expected it to be be anything other than, at best, a good story.

Richard E
Richard E
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Fraser – actually I wasn’t having a go at people who choose not to read much. I was thinking more about the fact that it is well known that you will not be a good writer unless you read yourself. Which links to the article – the lack of great millennials who are writers..

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
3 years ago
Reply to  Richard E

Were there that many boomers who could be considered ‘great writers’ either though? Most of the great writers of the modern era that I can think of were either just about boomers or from the previous generation that was born in the 20’s and 30’s.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago

The generation born in the 1920s and 1930s had the inestimable advantage of being young in an age before television. Reading was the activity to which one naturally turned when at home.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Well there are very few writers of any age who can be considered ‘great’. And there are no millennials who are yet old enough to be considered as such.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

The majority of people for most of history didn’t know how to read, let alone write. It went up and down – in Ancient Rome in urban areas it was higher but still dreadful by modern standard. Which is worth bearing in mind when you consider by whom and for whom the books before the late-19th century were directed at, and that writing to a small audience in the era before paperbacks could be more profitable given the exorbitant cost of hard bound books.
When mass literacy became a thing in the late 19th century, partially due to industrialisation of the paper and book industries, partly due to mass primary education there was a spate of jeremiads against the quality of the literature of the time. Terrible, pulpy nonsense that has long been forgotten and was regarded as a cultural and moral scandal at the time such as the penny dreadfuls. Even works such as H.G. Wells or Jules Verne were considered rather dĂ©classĂ©. There was a similar sense of the degradation of literature and writing, of hack journalisms producing unsophisticated yellow tabloid copy, novels that demanded neither culture nor learning etc. In the end TV, and now the internet (in the form of Netflix) just provides the same level of entertainment and makes about the same level of intellectual demand as popular entertainment – c.f. the illiterate the joys of the music hall – has always among 90% of humanity. Even Victorian literature such as Dickens or Dumas was barely considered literature in its own day.
Probably the bigger factor is that technical and scientific education now plays a bigger part of elite education now than did literature in the past and so there is no longer the social cachet associated with being an erudite writer, indeed, there is more and more competition and fewer and fewer people interested.

Last edited 3 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago

The Roman Army appears to have been considerably more literate than many today. The main evidence is from Egypt and Vindolanda.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
3 years ago

The Roman army at that time represented a generally better educated subsection of the population that the Romans ruled over.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
3 years ago
Reply to  Charles Rense

Spending downtime just thinking and wondering about the world would also create positive conditions for writing something good. But if your phone is always there to give you an instant hit of mindless entertainment, why think? (I say this as someone who frequently finds themselves spending way too much time on a Smartphone).

Last edited 3 years ago by Katharine Eyre
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Throw it away, be honest with yourself, you don’t need it.

Ed B
Ed B
3 years ago
Reply to  Charles Rense

Comments on UnHerd are fine though, are they?

steve eaton
steve eaton
3 years ago
Reply to  Ed B

Sure they are OK. Don’t you think your posts here are OK?
Your snark is misdirected I think. Unless of course you have some inside knowledge that Mr. Rense is having a difficult time writing a book because he is spending too much time posting here….I’m guessing that you will have no idea of the point I’m making.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  Ed B

No they are not because of the dreadful new UnHerd system, which makes it impossible to have any discourse!
Come back Disqus!

Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
3 years ago

I know millennials who work in charity shops. Enduring abuse by customers. Up at 6am. No online laziness for them!

Unfortunately they aren’t rich and therefore cannot define a generation.

Narcissistic journalists versus narcissistic millennials. Yawn.

Anyways, at least some of us didn’t go on stupid CND marches or try to destroy Western civilisation for “the revolution”, unlike “fearless” Burchill, Hitchens and co.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Ha ha, yes. I generally agree with Hitchens, but the fact that he was a revolutionary Marxist in his youth, having had a relatively privileged middle class upbringing, does sometimes undermine his credibility.

mike otter
mike otter
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Pretty normal to grow out of socialism. I’ve had Uni reunions where former Bakunites, Marxists and Khmer Rouge sympathisers unite on the key issues of how to mitigate IHT and partition school fees to get at least some tax relief. I doub’t we’d have done so well if we’d stayed lefties, and might have done better had we been YCs, but then only through contacts and graft and that’s no route to healthy self worth.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
3 years ago

I’d say quite a large factor in being unable to write a book is having a short attention span. This is something I notice a lot with younger millennials who grew up with the constant distraction of the internet. If you can’t think for more than 5 minutes without having to check your social media, then sustained writing exercises become that much harder to accomplish.
The art of actual, real, human conversation seems to have taken a hit too. Online conversations are still interactions (otherwise none of us would be here on the Unherd comments section) and offer literary potential (see “Gut gegen Nordwind”, a lovely book by the Austrian author Daniel Glattauer if any of you read German). But it’s one-dimensional, lacking the full range of human experience because you’re looking at a screen and not an actual person. That, inevitably is going to have an effect on the writing that generation produces.
While millennials have gained mobility and the boundless possibilities of virtual existence, that may have been at the expense of a piece of their humanity.

Last edited 3 years ago by Katharine Eyre
Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
3 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Isn’t a lot of it a function of demand though? If there was a lot of demand for long, sprawling books, then you can be sure that rare subset of humanity made those temperamentally suited to such labour would find a way regardless of smartphones, or whatever for fame and profit.
The fact that people don’t want to buy or purchase books that might be challenging, or time consuming (for a variety of reason, some good, some bad) seems to me to be the main factor here.

Christopher Gage
Christopher Gage
3 years ago

We are the children of corporate capitalism. Planet Starbucks. Of course we have little to say. Everything is sanitised and selfsame.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago

That, in itself, is a story.

mike otter
mike otter
3 years ago

Please, please rebel – angel dust, heroin, black metal, anarchism, fascism, anything up to and including Buddhism as long as you do something to stick it to the man whilst you’re young enough to have the energy and not too old to face the consequences.

Last edited 3 years ago by mike otter
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  mike otter

Hear, hear, bravo, well said indeed Sir!

Mike Boosh
Mike Boosh
3 years ago

Sounds like an utterly miserable experience. Someone needs to teach them how the ‘off’ switch works.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
3 years ago

This should be renamed ‘The emptiness of a washed up Vice hack’s existence’.

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
3 years ago

This article totally misses the Millennials’ interest in spirituality which at its broadest is a reaching out to a transcendent reality which you believe is there and you want to discover. After reading this article which portrays an inwardly tortured group of people I’m not surprised there is a hankering after the spiritual and self transcendent. Unfortunately many are seeking spiritual fulfilment in the wrong places some of which could do great spiritual and psychological damage. There are many doors to what some call the spiritual universe. They lead to spiritual cul de sacs or worse. The one and only door that will open up all the riches of spirituality and eternity is the one whose Resurrection we celebrate in a few weeks time.

lancelajeunesse2
lancelajeunesse2
3 years ago

I just got out a jail a couple of days ago and spent about half a year in their, and I really learned a lot about human interaction and socializing compared to how it is once you get out. I forgot how people obsess over their phones and how you can only go a few moments without turning the screen on again because of boredom or because we need another dose of entertainment. It feels like if I don’t turn on my phone to look at Facebook or some other app, I feel left out from the rest of the world and society itself. It’s crazy how much we have become dependent on our technology. In jail, it’s through newspapers and the t.v you get limited information but out here it’s as they say the world at your fingertips. I feel a lot more clearheaded compared to before I went to jail about myself and the technology we use. I feel a lot more less dependent on it knowing I went nearly six months without it. Now that I’m out I’m unsure of what to do with this free time..

io m
io m
3 years ago

Wishing you well.

Jethro Bodine
Jethro Bodine
3 years ago

I don’t know where to begin with this. I guess I’ll just voice my thoughts as they come.
There seem to be two ideas in this piece. Millennials and how the Internet has shaped their psychology and culture.
I’m 62. To put that in perspective, if I can, I’m a few months younger than Madonna and a little more than a year older than David Duchovny of X-Files fame. I was young when they were young. I’ve never had a strong generational consciousness. My generation has never defined me. It still doesn’t. That said, there is a natural inclination for one generation to “other” another. I try to resist this, because ultimately, it’s lazy thinking. How much Millennials are different and how much they’re alike is a very nebulous question. I’ve seen many, mostly on-line, and there’s quite a range in intelligence, character and personality. Some fit the worst stereotypes. A good minority, at least, don’t. I don’t like being stereotyped myself, even when it’s fawning and endearing, so I try to follow the golden rule.
I got on-line about age 42. I’ve learned many interesting things, re-discovered many lost treasures from my past—songs, movies, commercials and TV shows, books…… I’ve discovered some very interesting people, with interesting ideas, many of them millennials, male and female. Yet — the Internet has wiped out many good things from my past. It’s impossible to describe the difference in the over all “life vibe” between pre- and post-Internet. It’s been a razor sharp double-edged sword. I often contemplate getting off-line, totally, forever, but I wonder if that is even possible now. The Internet gives us NOW, NOW, NOW! FAST, FAST, FAST! MORE, MORE, MORE! Day in. Day out. . But in its dazzling, multi-colored, kaleidoscopic light, there is a sad, sad, inexplicable emptiness. Ultimately, I have to take responsibility for my own addiction to it.
I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me. But the whole world seems so permeated by the shallow emptiness of the Net today. I’ve tried joining Meetup groups focusing on philosophy, ideas and self-improvement. Nobody comes. I guess they’re all too busy on Facebook and Twitter to have a slow conversation with an old man.

Last edited 3 years ago by Jethro Bodine
Martin Price
Martin Price
3 years ago

Surely a symptom of having (and wanting) it all?

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago

they have grown up in a time of digital book burnings or school boards deciding that certain classic works are out of bounds because the author wrote in the language of the time. Moreover, how many in that cohort have actually read a book cover to cover? And I mean a book book, not an online article or a review of a book. It’s a strange phenomenon because I’ve encountered numerous Millennials who in no way resemble the stereotype.

Peter Shaw
Peter Shaw
3 years ago

I’m not sure I understand this. I’m pretty intelligent and I love reading. But the words seem to have been involved in some sort of collision and landed randomly into an article .

Sean Arthur Joyce
Sean Arthur Joyce
3 years ago

I find this article profoundly tragic in its implications. That an entire generation has been deluded into swallowing whole this 24/7 online culture can only be a tragedy, since it cuts them off from so much of what has defined us as human for thousands of years. It’s like they want it both ways, as Haynes writes, not realizing that life is about choices, which means to get something of genuine value, you often have to give up something else.
Obviously it’s not their fault, as they had the poor luck to be born into a time when technocracy was on the rise, promoting the “all technology is good” mentality, without ever questioning its social and spiritual costs. And capitalism had already reached its worst excesses, forcing them into a kind of couch-surfing existence now that home ownership is out of reach for most of them. They are also deep into the narcissist social programming agenda that promotes an ego-seeking mentality at the expense of spiritual values. Not to mention being at the tail end of the educational dumbing-down that has been consciously engineered since the 1960s. That older generations allowed this tragedy to be carried out is another tragic mistake, a kind of passive betrayal.
Still, for all the criticisms of the Baby Boomers, they at least had the innate sense to rebel against the system of oppression that cloaked itself in the memes of “progress” and “modernity.” Many of that generation gave up even their national identities to take a moral stand about an unjust war (Vietnam), leaving their homeland forever. Others simply wanted to get out from under mortgages and oppressive jobs, to simplify their lives and learn what a life close to nature might look like. That took great sacrifice. Now people expect to have it all, thanks to five or six decades of commercial propaganda. Meanwhile the social engineers have engineered the perfect coup using the classic bait-and-switch tactic, convincing Millennials to invest their social justice energy in pointless culture and identity wars rather than fighting against the root cause of oppression, the techno-capitalist system itself.
Hegemony is power from above and consent from below. We need to withdraw our consent and be prepared to make the necessary sacrifices to do so. Maybe the Sixties meme coined by Timothy Leary was right after all: “Turn on, tune in and drop out.”

Pete Pritchard
Pete Pritchard
3 years ago

I read this on a smart phone. I guffawed.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago

Surely there is a scope for a millennial equivalent of Vile Bodies (written when its author was 26 – he certainly wasn’t an older person targeting the young, but rather, a critic of his own generation).
Maybe they could call it “Vile Avatars”?

Last edited 3 years ago by Basil Chamberlain
mike otter
mike otter
3 years ago

The writer can probably remember the name of the journo who wrote “Amphetamine Logic” for Vice – i can’t. Pity cos her writing was great, prob a little bit too old for millenial but not by much. I expect there are similar good millenial wordsmiths out there and each has at least one great book in them. I rated Tolentina and co highly as Jezebel gave older men who propound feminism something to turn their daughters (and sons) onto that didn’t rely on men for copy (though they probably looked after the offices’ services and structure)

Last edited 3 years ago by mike otter
io m
io m
3 years ago
Reply to  mike otter

You’re referring to Cat Marnell. She was born in 1982, so an early Millennial, as far as those categories are meaningful. She is one of the most influential Millennial writers, no doubt about it, in particular for women. Young women who may not even be familiar with her work all follow her script. Someone needs to write about that. Amphetamine Logic on Vice was compelling writing but well-trodden ground, but it is her column as a health and beauty writer on XoJane, where she completely subverted fashion and beauty writing, whose influence is seen everywhere, including the women writers mentioned here. It’s a pity the vast majority lack her talent, or spark and undeniable intelligence beneath the sleaze and destructive lifestyle choices is more like how I would describe it.

Last edited 3 years ago by io m
Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
3 years ago
Reply to  io m

“A writer for women” i.e. a bad writer whose range is limited to the trash you used to read in gutter magazines by talentless hacks.

Last edited 3 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Philip Burrell
Philip Burrell
3 years ago

Probably early days to judge especially by the oldies that mostly frequent these pages. However as one of those, I would suggest this list has potential…
Sally Rooney – Normal People
Ocean Vuong – On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
Valeria Luiselli – Lost Children Archive
Tommy Orange – There There
Ling Ma – Severance
Give them all a try before you dismiss millennials.

io m
io m
3 years ago
Reply to  Philip Burrell

I strongly disagree with your list. I really liked Severence and want to read more from Ling Ma, but the others are all emblematic of the mediocrity of young, critically acclaimed novelists that this article hints at.
Part of this mediocrity is that professional editors and book critics are afraid to do their job well, likely out of concerns over political correctness – certainly the case for three of the books you list here. It reminds me of something Zadie Smith once admitted, that her early work was poorly edited and overpraised because of her racially-charged subject matter, as well as her own identity.
The “alt-left” cultural critic Anna Khachiyan points out that the most vital modern fiction – the kind that captures a generational moment that Gavin Hayes is searching for – is self-published. It is not afraid to be bold and truthful. (Now, if only were easier to sift through and discover…)

R Malarkey
R Malarkey
3 years ago

You can use the internet minus your real name you know. It’s actually kinda the norm.

io m
io m
3 years ago

She hasn’t written a novel, but you should check out Molly Beth Young’s writing if you’re interested in a strong Millennial Voice. I’m such a fan. Like Tolentino, she does all sorts of writing – book reviews, celebrity profiles, personal essays. Her writing is delightful and fun but not shallow, and she’s an incredibly sharp thinker without being snarky or jaded. She’s even unique on Twitter, a difficult feat. For an introduction to her work, I recommend starting with “Sweatpants in Paradise” from Believermag.com and most recently “What Should We Wear Now” from The Cut.

Perdu En France
Perdu En France
3 years ago

“William Gibson cyber-surfer neural-network blather:” it might be. But Gibson still anticipated Hirst’s Forever Now in Idoru, published in ’96.
So plagiarising rather than prescient?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago

Sad to think Mr Haynes that tomorrow the interesting dialogue you have started will be forgotten, thanks to UnHerd’s pathetic comments system.

ladyscarface1986
ladyscarface1986
3 years ago

Written by a true boomer simp. Imagine being this ignorant and narcissistic at the same time. Pick a struggle pleb.

Last edited 3 years ago by ladyscarface1986
ladyscarface1986
ladyscarface1986
3 years ago

Out of touch with reality

D3 SH
D3 SH
3 years ago

And I find it amusing how you as non-Millenial see fit to pass judgement on the lived experience of those who are Millenials. Very funny.

But really, all this talk about aimless, well educated young people with no real aim – this is all old hat. It’s old as far back as the great Russian masters – Turgenev, Lermontov, Goncharov, etc – and their tales of superfluous men in the mid-19th century.

All of which got a healthy modern update in Palahniuk’s Fight Club. “We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War is a spiritual war,” anyone?

Walter Brigham
Walter Brigham
3 years ago

I have a great comment but having read the article I’m disinclined to post it.