BRET EASTON ELLIS has it in for millennials. This hardly makes him unique, of course: barely a day passes when some newspaper or magazine fails to run a story describing all the ways in which we children of the Internet age are deficient. Though in Easton Ellis’s case (I thought, watching him speak to Decca Aitkenhead at a recent Times+ event) his loathing of the iPhone generation might have something to do with Todd.
Judging by the way in which Easton Ellis talks about Todd, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that this person is a kind of Archibald Ormsby-Gore, the teddy-bear and lifelong companion of the poet John Betjeman. Or he could even be like Gussie, the imaginary llama who belonged to the journalist Matthew Parris and his partner, Julian, before she decapitated herself on some barbed wire.
But Todd — Todd Schultz, to be specific, a 32-year-old pop star — is unquestionably real. And he is a millennial — even a millennial stereotype, if Easton Ellis is to be believed. Easton Ellis describes Todd as a socialist and relates how the election of Trump nearly induced a nervous breakdown in him. It’s hard to know how much of this sort of thing is exaggeration. But the pair have lived together for over ten years. And if familiarity really does breed contempt (or at least makes our shortcomings more obvious to each other) then the author’s longstanding intimacy with an echo-boomer might just have a bit to do with his campaign against those born between the early ’80s and early 2000s. Perhaps we can expect a book from Todd on the flaws of Generation X?
What’s surprising (and amusing) about the responses to Easton Ellis’s latest denunciation of us, Generation Snowflake, is that they seem to confirm, if not endorse, his comments. Millennials are over-sensitive, Easton Ellis tells us — and a flurry of angry responses, written by millennials, promptly follow. But it’s a classic catch-22: if you defend your generation against charges of sensitivity you seem to confirm the criticism of it. If you do nothing, you simply allow others to define you and those views to proliferate.
You get the distinct impression that the author of Less Than Zero, American Psycho and a number of other very good works of transgressive fiction rather enjoys the effect his comments are having. (‘My ability to trigger millennials is insane,’ he told the Guardian.) But that doesn’t necessarily make him merely some sort of generational gadfly or literary wind-up merchant. Indeed if you read White or listen to his recent series of interviews, it’s clear he’s given all this at least some thought. He has the ghost of a point when he talks about, for instance, millennial reading habits; it’s true that millennials don’t read as much as previous generations did. But they have more options; it’s hardly surprising. And to say that this perceived disinterest in literature is to blame for our apparent culturelessness is demonstrably false. Millennial culture is dominant.
There have been some interesting reactions to this little crusade against ‘Generation Wuss’. The conservative writer Douglas Murray blames Easton Ellis for his unsparing fictional depictions of nihilism, writing that he ‘mistakenly failed to note that periods of extreme debauchery and free licence are inevitably followed by counter-movements of puritanism.’ Anna Leszkiewicz of the Guardian wonders how Easton Ellis can write that ‘Twitter encouraged the bad boy in me’ when he ‘likes to sit at home alone arguing with strangers online’.
Easton Ellis admits that all generations rebel against the ones that came before them, and I would add that all generations dismiss or deride the ones that come after it: sooner or later almost everyone develops a back-in-my-day mentality. But we, the chronically anxious and smartphone-obsessed, had the misfortune of being born in an age in which ideas travel like a plague. Thus the idea that millennials are somehow worse than any other generation is one that has travelled far and wide and become a commonplace. If millennials really do have poor mental health, then reading about the various ways in which they’re both deficient and doomed isn’t going to make matters any better.
But anyone with only the barest knowledge of Bret Easton Ellis and his work would know that he isn’t always to be taken at face value. There’s certainly a genuine irritation with millennials that shines through in his interviews and recent writing. But I suspect it’s overstated. What I can’t help thinking when reading Easton Ellis or indeed anyone else denouncing my generation is, If we really are so boring, why can’t anyone seem to stop talking about us?