New York's Literary Brat Pack 30 Years On
In 1987, an article in the Village Voice—New York’s free, weekly, once-subversive newspaper—coined a term: The Literary Brat Pack. This was applied to Bret Easton Ellis, Tama Janowitz, Jay McInerney and other successful young fiction writers based in Manhattan. The nickname wasn’t necessarily a compliment but, like many artistic labels—impressionist, baroque, cubism—what began as an insult eventually became a neutral signifier.
Two years earlier New York magazine had dubbed Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, Molly Ringwald and other “hot young” actors the Brat Pack. The Voice just added the word “Literary.” And of course Brat Pack itself came from Rat Pack, a tight-knit group of entertainers in the 60’s, including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. Moreover, this was simply a regurgitation of the same phrase, Rat Pack, previously used to denote a swarm of actors centered around Humphrey Bogart in the 50’s. It’s ironic, but not surprising, that journalists would lambaste writers for bad writing by using a moniker that is itself an example of bad, lazy, recycled writing.
Brat Pack may have been an insult, but the writers were, for a moment, warmly embraced. They got rich, dated models, sold millions of books, and became instant celebrities whose faces smiled from glossy magazine covers and Entertainment Tonight. It started in 1984 when Jay McInerney, just on the right side of 30, published Bright Lights, Big City. His debut was poised, smart and well-written with allusions to nightclubs, cocaine and The New Yorker magazine. It was written in a spartan style that owed much to Hemingway, Didion, Carver and other forebears of minimalism. The novel’s tone was detached, clinical, sedated—a trick copped from Camus, Burroughs, Musil, Robbe-Grillet and other mid-century writers.
This was the blueprint for the Brat Pack. Works by Ellis (1985), Janowitz (1986), Jill Eisenstadt (1987) and Donna Tartt (1992) followed. They were all debut novels, except Janowitz’s Slaves of New York, which was her second book, a collection of stories. Their fresh young presentable faces were the new look of fiction, and people loved them. Unless those people were book critics.
1987 was the annus horribillis. Brat Packers, such as McInerney, received large advances for second novels that weren’t as successful, critically or commercially, as publishers would have hoped. New Brat Packers were quickly birthed by the media and midwifed by publishing house public-relators. This inevitably led to overexposure and backlash. New York was cool and affluent again, after bottoming out in the 70’s. Everyone seemed to be a stockbroker with a two-tone Gordon Gecko shirt and a new Beemer. Brat Packers and financiers were easy targets for abuse and condemnation. The Village Voice article was illustrated with a cartoon superimposing the writers’ faces on infant bodies.
It would be churlish to suggest that the critics were jealous, but perhaps they were tired of seeing young glamorous faces bathed in money and attention. After all, young writers were supposed to struggle and have faces like a sack of potatoes. They weren’t supposed to be cool and sexy. Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post argued that their “books were praised far out of proportion to their actual merits.” James Walcott savaged them in Vanity Fair as “too numb to feel, too cool to care.” Newsweek called them “divine decadents.”
Janowitz responded to bad reviews and counter-hype by embracing it. If people “scream[ed]” about her work, that was better than a polite, “boring” review. “’I don’t care what people say,’” she claimed. “’I just want them to buy the book.’” This could be interpreted as a healthy and refreshing response, but it also sounds like a crass cash-in straight out of a Brat Pack novel.
Of course, the reality diverged from the sound-bite. These writers were all different. McInerney’s Bright Lights is a slim, elegant novel constructed of impeccable prose. The story is told in the second person, which made it easy to identify the author as a generational spokesperson. From a technical standpoint, this point of view was ideal for capturing the anonymity and detachment of nightlife, cocaine, high finance and Cold War-Reaganomics-Dynasty America. Tartt’s The Secret History couldn’t be more different, a traditional doorstop of a novel set on a rural college campus. The main characters are gifted, peculiar, and rather esoteric Classics scholars. Eisenstadt’s From Rockaway is a conventional coming-of-age story about ordinary working-class teenagers. Janowitz, a walk-on in the Warhol crowd, explored sex, money and art. In Less Than Zero Ellis deadpanned and meandered around privileged, drugged-out teens who processed so much stimuli that they felt nothing at all.
“The night has already turned on that imperceptible pivot where two A.M. changes to six A.M. You know this moment has come and gone, but you are not yet willing to concede that you have crossed the line beyond which all is gratuitous damage and the palsy of unraveled nerve endings. Somewhere back there you could have cut your losses, but your rode past that moment on a comet trail of white powder and now you are trying to hang on to the rush.” Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City
The Brat Pack did have a lot in common, though. They were all young and wrote about youth, drinking, drugs, lives without direction. Most came from New York, where they flocked after college. We imagine the Brat Pack hanging out together in Manhattan nightclubs with big 80’s suits and big 80’s hair. Well, a Google image search confirms this stereotype. Some of them cultivated unpleasant drug habits. McInerney even crashed his Porsche while speeding through the countryside at Yaddo, the prestigious writer’s retreat. Maybe they were adopting the cartoon personas with which journalists had portrayed them—life imitating artifice. Ellis later appropriated and lampooned this media representation in the superb opening of Lunar Park (2005).
They became media darlings in a way that writers had once been but no longer are. It was a small, incestuous group. They went to Bennington together (Ellis, Eisenstadt, Tartt). They enrolled in the same writing workshops (Ellis, Tartt). They dated each other (Tartt and Ellis). They moved in a small, intimate pack—a specialized and highly trained military unit.
The group was as inbred on the page as in real life. Both The Secret History and The Rules of Attraction (Ellis’s second novel) are set on a fictional campus called Hampden/Camden. Ellis’s book makes reference to characters from Tartt’s, and Tartt’s book alludes to characters from Ellis’s. Eisenstadt’s first novel also features a loosely-veiled Bennington called Camden College. So does The Fortress of Solitude (2003) by Jonathan Lethem, who attended Bennington with the others and later became a third-wave Brat Packer. From Rockaway is referenced in The Rules of Attraction. Both The Secret History and From Rockaway feature a working-class scholarship student at Camden/Hampden.
To a large extent the Brat Pack shared a writing style. Short, simple descriptive sentences.Objectivity and physicality rather than abstract analysis. Creative Writing workshops are to blame—they worshipped minimalism and encouraged sharing. Manuscripts weren’t always composed by individual authors so much as assembled by committee. The rough edges and individuality were often stripped away. Hemingway was their god. Ann Beattie was the Virgin Mary. Raymond Carver was the reigning Pope—McInerney even studied under him at Syracuse.
Some of the ostensible Brat Pack traits don’t apply to all the writers. In fact, when people mention the group they’re often derisive and, whether intentionally or not, they’re primarily thinking of Ellis. Their work, in the popular-critical imagination, is characterized by crass consumerism, designer drugs, glamour, finance, disembodied sexual encounters, gratuitous violence, an endless litany of brand names. MTV for the book world. EmptyV. Characters who’ve died but keep walking around as if they were still alive, preternaturally blasé, anaesthetized as much by medication as by their own apathy. Some critics found the novels pointless and poorly written. Plots as cheap and rickety as side tables from Ikea. These are apt descriptions of Ellis’s novels, especially the groundbreaking, infamous and brilliant American Psycho (1991). Critics were disturbed by the tone of Ellis’s work, which seemed to glamorize the hedonistic, vacuous, uncaring lifestyle of the characters. Of course, what many failed to see was that this was intentional and from an aesthetic standpoint fully warranted—symmetry among theme, plot, narrative tone, and the internal lives of the characters.
So what happened after the confetti of hype and hostility had fallen to the ground? Advances for second books grew bigger. Egos, in some cases, became inflated. Ellis defined an editor as “someone who can correct my grammar,” but not as a collaborator. This may explain his lapses in taste and quality. His last novel, Imperial Bedrooms (2010), is almost impressively weak and embarrassing—lethargic, scrawny, underfed, pointless, poorly written and recycled. Janowitz has said that the publicist, not the editor, is a writer’s most important ally. The Brat Packers did fashion spreads, appeared in gossip columns, attended all the big parties. Janowitz made an MTV video, went on the talk show circuit, became a spokesperson for commercial products, and in her own words, flogged herself “’like a brand of toothpaste.’”
What became of the Brat Pack? McInerney continues to write excellent novels, despite a few pratfalls. Eisenstadt wrote a second novel, which no one read, and hasn’t been heard from since. Ellis is still the most newsworthy Brat, both for his personal life and his “controversial” books. Janowitz writes, but no one seems to notice. Donna Tartt puts out a novel every ten years, like sluggish clockwork. Each one is a major success, with both readers and critics.
Historically, writers have had a much easier time getting published, and finding success, if they’re part of a movement. This was true of the Romantics, the Lost Generation, the Beats, even the Hartford Wits back in the 18th century. It was also quite true of the Brat Pack. After McInerney and Ellis accelerated onto the bestseller list, publishers came a-callin’ with deep pockets and a battalion of hair & make-up engineers, eager to cash-in on the spirit of the age. The same dynamic occurs in every industry, though we expect slightly more from the serious literary market.
When this happens, the results are inevitably mixed. For every stunning Brightness Falls (McInerney) or The Goldfinch (Tartt), we get an unnecessary Slaves of New York or Story of My Life (McInerney). Eisenstadt complained about the attention she received as part of a literary group: “I’ve gotten a lot of vicious reviews and I of course hate it...[Y]ou end up being criticized for what is collectively wrong with the books. [T]hey’re not looking at the individual book.” While her gripe is probably legitimate it’s also problematic. Eisenstadt’s two books are unexceptional. Slightly appealing, anonymous, inoffensive, forgettable. There’s the rub. She might not like being lumped in with her colleagues but, if she hadn’t been, her books might not have been published in the first place and, if they had, they certainly wouldn’t have sold as well.
In the end, being a Brat Packer—like being a 60’s crooner or an 80’s actor—is a mixed blessing. In this case, however, the blessing is mostly positive. Most of the Pack has had long and fairly successful, if not always distinguished, careers.