There Is No Such Thing as a “Voice” of a Generation

With the debut of the new HBO series Girls, I’m hearing a lot of talk about how Lena Dunham is supposedly the “voice” of her gender or her generation (she even jokes about it ironically in the series).

It’s funny: I’ve been hearing this all my life, how this writer or that is the “voice” of his or her generation. Whenever a YA author is under the age of twenty-five, someone always called them just that.

But here’s the thing: I never ever intended to be a “voice” of anyone other than myself or my characters. The whole concept seems really, really stupid to me — the kind of thing that someone who most definitely isn’t a member of the generation in question would say.

Simply put, you can’t boil something as complicated as a “generation” down to one voice. Or even ten voices.

And really, that’s not even the point of writing. It’s, like, the exact opposite of the point!

When I set out to write the Russel Middlebrook series, I knew my core characters were quirky: Russel is a (hopefully) lovable neurotic, Min is an over-achieving brainiac, and Gunnar is just plain “off” (or is he?).

They’re all very, very loosely based on myself and a couple of my core friends. I suppose you could say my books are the “voice” of me and some of my close friends.

But my generation? Any generation? That’s insane!

On the contrary, I always felt that my friends and I didn’t really fit in with the rest of my generation at all. We were at odds with them in so many ways! In high school, I didn’t relate to my fellow students at all. Ditto for college. In my twenties, I thought most of my peers were nuts. Same for my thirties.

(Frankly, I’ve been surprised the Russel Middlebrook books ended up being as popular as they did. And, yes, I was also vaguely annoyed when they were called “representative” of gay teens, today or ever.)

But here’s a truth I’ve learned: fiction isn’t about the general. It’s about the very, very specific. Yes, good fiction reveals the truths that bind us all — but the truths that bind us all as human beings.

The specific fools us into believing that the story is “real,” at least long enough for us to care about the greater themes.

I do there think are occasionally books and other entertainment projects that are specific to a generation, or at least a specific place and time. To Kill a Mockingbird, with its mostly voiceless minority characters and white liberal main characters, perfectly captures the dawn of mainstream white racial awareness. S.E. Hinton arguably created the young adult genre with The Outsiders (and did give some kind of visibility to a previously ignored underclass, I guess). Less Than Zero is supposedly emblematic of the Reagan years.

Then there are all those projects that seem time-specific, because of fashion or slang, but that are mostly pretty timeless. If The Breakfast Club was really about 1985, or that particular generation, why would teenagers still be relating to it all these years later?

If the authors of all these works are anything like me, I bet even they bristle at their projects being thought of as representative of anything except themselves and their characters.

We’re just trying to create good stories! Don’t burden us with the ridiculous responsibility of having to speak for an entire generation, or any large group of people.

Good writers almost never say, “I’m the voice of my generation!” because they know they’re not. They also never try to be the voice of their generation, because they know they can’t be.

So who does say that? Mostly just critics and pundits who repeat trite, stupid cliches.

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8 Responses to “There Is No Such Thing as a “Voice” of a Generation”

  1. Liz L. 19 April 2012 at 8:49 pm #

    Of course you can't speak for a generation, it's a silly notion to expect any large group of people is like minded. My sister and I are 18 months apart in age and by definition, she's a Baby Boomer and I'm Generation X. It's laughable to think that we would have completely different values or work ethics simply because of a date on a calendar. And frankly, the more I think about it, the more I resent the idea that I can be assigned to a generational demographic and then be told that someone is our voice. I'll speak for myself, thank you very much. So in other words Brent, I completely agree with you.

    • Brent Hartinger 19 April 2012 at 9:44 pm #

      Thanks. That's funny about you and your sister: 18 months apart but TOTALLY different, right? Yeah, I don't think so. :-)

  2. GisellaF 23 April 2012 at 9:08 pm #

    Often what is said sheds more light on the person saying it than who gets to hear it, let alone what its meaning is supposed to be.
    I suspect that a statement like 'voice of a generation' reveals a heck of a lot about the person who went there. In the most general terms it is about envy, fear of not being with it: not having the ear or the feel or the insight about this vague thing: a whole generation. To me it says that the speaker is feeling less than the author he or she is talking about.
    That's the impression that flitted through my brain anyway.

    • Brent Hartinger 23 April 2012 at 9:19 pm #

      Interesting — and I think very astute. And I guess in critic-speak, it makes sense, trying to describe/make sense of the world and the latest newfangled "trend."

      But yeah, from an "art" point of view, it feels wrong…

  3. Gwen 24 April 2012 at 1:33 pm #

    I think a lot of the 'voice of their generation' stuff comes from old people trying to figure out the young 'uns. Somebody comes along, provides a piece of material that features a relatable character, and the old people jump on that.

    The Breakfast Club has survived because it's the voice of a generation, it survived because it's the voice of people who feel lost and lonely, which is something most viewers can relate to.

    I have my own voice. I don't need someone else to speak for me.

    • Brent Hartinger 29 April 2012 at 10:11 pm #

      I think you're spot on.

  4. Brieana 26 April 2012 at 12:04 am #

    That line did bother me in the Girls pilot, though I was able to look past that because she said something like "or at least a voice of a generation" and she was high during that scene anyway. I wonder if that line is why lots of people have been pointing out how the leads are all white, thin, beautiful, heterosexual, nothing we haven't seen on television before, etc.?
    I never liked it when others told me that some show related specifically to my generation. I remember maybe a decade ago when the Disney channel kept telling me that "Lizzie [McGuire's] family is just like your family!" (Uh, no Disney channel, I can tell you with total confidence that our families are completely different.) For me the worst offender was Skins. I kept hearing about how it was so much more realistic than anything else to ever grace the TV screen about teenagers. And I'll just say that there are plenty of shows that I related to more than I ever related to Skins.

    • Brent Hartinger 29 April 2012 at 10:14 pm #

      It's a pet peeve of mine too. I especially hate when books or shows about teenagers are only ever called "authentic" when they're incredibly gritty and depressing and amoral. There are plenty of teenagers who aren't anything like that. But I guess they're not "authentic"! :-)

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